45: Sequence

We all have our little quirks, you know, something foul and repellent to most normal, right-minded people that for whatever reason we find curiously, insatiably compelling. Something we’re forced to enjoy in secret and with undue haste lest it be discovered by a world unready to know the pure high it generates. That’s right, I love rhythm action games. I dabbled in Dance Dance Revolution when my sister bought a mat for it, way back, but my big thing was Frets on Fire, a free knockoff version of Guitar Hero. You used a wireless keyboard instead of a little plastic guitar, thus finding the only way you could look more ridiculous while strumming along to your favourite songs. I played the shit out of that game. I love the way it is purely a test of skill and reflexes (okay, and memory), there’s no random elements that can change, you just have to get better in clearly measurable ways.

Eventually the genre became saturated, it couldn’t innovate beyond adding on more content, more plastic peripherals, more themed novelty games, whatever. Pressing keys in time to music just wasn’t as fresh or interesting as it had been, the bottom fell out of the market and everyone moved on from button-slapping to motion-tracking as the next genre of choice. I don’t like motion tracking, on the whole, Kinect is a fine piece of kit but it’s so unrefined, so imprecise compared to the cool, crisp feeling of fingers on buttons and the nagging feeling that if you play any more your tendons are going to burn their way out of your arms and start their own body. All this is leading towards why I bought Sequence – it was promising a twist on the classic rhythm-action formula, for a couple of quid. And boy did it deliver.

It’s a game about battling rather than miming. Your character, Ky, awakens in some darkened, godforsaken tower full of abominations who are just itching for a fight, so fight them you must! The music kicks in and arrows begin to stream down. When they reach the play line, you hit the corresponding cursor key (you can use a gamepad but I’m not about to stop being a PC snob any time soon). So far, so samey. Then you realise that there’s three of those fields full of tumbling arrows in different colours and you can’t possibly hit them all. Panic!

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This is its selling point, this is what makes Sequence a joy to play, you’re not just following one set of instructions, you’re alternating between three of them, each with different purposes. The red one represents your opponent’s attacks – hitting those arrows will mean you don’t take damage, missing them will mean you do, plus extra if you miss a double arrow or a coloured one. The blue one represents your mana – hitting those arrows will regenerate magic points for you, which you’re going to need in the third field. The green field is spells, which you choose to cast manually. Hit the right sequence when it comes down and it’ll be successfully cast.

You can’t just stick in one field, you can’t even just stick in two, your whole game is a constant cycle between the three, trying to pump out enough pain while not taking it yourself and keeping your mana topped up. The spells do a number of things, from causing damage immediately or over time, to blocking enemy attacks, buffing your next attack, healing and siphoning. The music has been picked to be complex, those arrows will be corresponding to a number of internal rhythms yet the beat is strong enough that you can follow them intuitively enough. At its best, this game is a glorious medley of plate-spinning, you feel engaged with the music, you’re plotting and planning and scheming and twitching in a whirlwind of activity. It’s a shame, then, that it’s not always at its best.

So the core gameplay is very strong but the metagame, the glue holding it together, is weak. There’s seven levels (plus a few bonuses) and each level follows the same structure – beat the low-grade baddies a bunch of times then progress to the boss for that level, the guardian. That’s a nice, simple structure but it is complicated by the stalling systems built in to make sure you don’t do this too fast.

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Firstly, there’s synthing. To advance upstairs, you are required to synth a key, using ingredients that are dropped by the low-grade baddies. These have a percentage chance to drop every time you beat them, and that chance can be as low as 20%, so you’re going to be fighting the same guy, to the same song, a lot. Of course, it’s not just keys you can synth, there’s spells and weapons and armour and all kinds of buffs that just make your life so much easier. What this creates is a grind, it’s not enough to show that you can beat a guy, you have to beat him, probably in the exact same way, a whole bunch of times.

This is particularly annoying to me because the difficulty curve is actually pretty well judged – the first time you fight anything, it will be a struggle. Maybe you’ll win, maybe you’ll have to go back and change what spells you cast or in what order, or tighten up your defence, but either way it’ll be by the skin of your teeth. It’ll be a brutal, breathless affair. And then it becomes mundane as you repeat your new-found strategy dozens of times to get the ingredients you’re going to need to do your synthing for that level. There’s also an element of gambling in the synth itself – they have a % chance to succeed that’s proportional to the amount of XP you sink into the act of creation. Fail and you lose the XP and gain nowt. The reason I don’t like this gambling element of gathering ingredients and making stuff is that it contrasts so markedly with what makes the game excellent – the precise tapping of buttons exactly in time. The game is about precision and timing, why add in all this extra time-wasting fluff?

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Secondly, there’s the law of large numbers. As I’ve been mentioning XP and new weapons and armour, you may have guessed that this is a “with RPG elements” type of game. Each fight nets you XP which can advance your level, and each level advance buffs up your attack/defence/magic points/etc. The reason this is here is to enable that difficulty curve I mentioned – the game is balanced so you stay at a level where each fight is more or less a challenge, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that if a fight is too hard for you, you can just grind up a few levels at which point it’ll become more straightforward. It’s not a substitute for lack of skill exactly, but it is a fairly generous plaster for it. Again, it feels like this is a bit of a lazy solution to maintaining difficulty and my own preference would be that you merely had to become more proficient at the core skills of the game while the spells available to you, and the combinations they could be used in, gradually increased. Alas.

What about the enemies you fight? Every new fight is a joy, a puzzle to unlock, and that’s the carrot the game uses to push you onwards. You’re a teenager at a carney show, testing your strength against this…slightly recoloured version of a previous baddy. The art is a bit basic but does the job but good lord it repeats. It’s also the case that songs are also repeated but I’m not exactly fussed about this – the difficulty is being ramped up so even though you’re playing the same song, it’s a completely new experience. I actually really like the tracks they picked, thumping electric sounds with lots of complicated counter-rhythms going on leave a lot of scope for entertaining button-mashing and they’re very well synced.

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One more step back, why are we fighting things in the first place? The game is set in “The Tower”, and of course that’s the sort of name whose utterance should be bookended with thunder and lightning, but we’re in print here so I doubt that’ll happen. You’re told to fight and, pleasingly, Ky reacts like a human would, questioning and angry and worried. It’s not got a bad sense of humour on it at the start, either, and this is enhanced by the fact that the dialogue in this game was pretty superbly acted for what it is. Conversations feel like conversations, mostly, and I felt like I’d stumbled upon a promising webcomic. You are told the tower has seven floors and at the top is freedom and a natural rhythm strikes up, fighting the low-level baddies then progressing to the guardian of the floor, the big boss fight, while cracking wise with your operator.

However, like that hypothetical webcomic, it couldn’t stay burrowed in that niche of subdued humour and semi-realistic interaction, and in came the drama and the meta-commentary and the desire to put more twists in than Escher’s spiral staircase. In the end it collapses in a heap of virtual reality and love and conspiracy and for some reason Eugenics and I couldn’t really believe in the characters any more as they were becoming snarkier and more mary-sueish with each passing second. Still, it started well, and the voicing deserves a commendation for its quality.

Thing is, despite all those flaws, I played this obsessively, for hours at a time. I grinded when I needed to, I was forced to come up with different spell strategies for seemingly unbeatable foes, I made every synthing recipe, I learnt all but two spells, I beat the final boss, the extra boss and the secret bonus boss. This was a game that just gripped me utterly because that core gameplay, that idea of battling in your own way in that rhythm action style, that idea is tremendous and beautifully executed. With a bigger budget, with more scope and songs and less repetition, this game could be one of my favourites. As it is, I just really really enjoyed it.

4 stars, 16 hours played (campaign beat on hard)

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