A rhythm action title from Harmonix, the makers of Rock Band, A City Sleeps is meant to be the devs’ fresh take on a genre that was once flooded with lots of the same – with a plethora of plastic peripherals to boot. But, in many ways, their new PC-only title has much more in common with the franchise that made them famous than you would expect. It has a steep difficulty curve, it’s addictive, takes a lot of practice to get good at and, most importantly, it has a killer soundtrack. These are not bad things and they are actually the precursors for a very good music game. But does it shrug off the problems of the rhythm games that came before it or does it carry them within its bloodline? Read our A City Sleeps review to find out.
Female-fronted, the game features Poe who is a member of The Silk, an ancient line of dream exorcists. As the citizens of SanLo succumb to a terrible set of demons who are keeping them trapped in their nightmares, it’s up to Poe to save the city or else they’ll be trapped forever. For a plot in which ‘saving defenceless citizens’ is the main priority, A City Sleeps doesn’t half make it difficult for you, though. The game really does put the ‘hell’ into ‘bullet-hell’ with players not even being able to control the tempo of their shots.
To explain, A City Sleeps is driven entirely by its soundtrack. Want to fire your weapon? You control the direction but the beat of the music dictates how rapid your firing and Koto-sword swings are. Looking not to get splattered by the pink-tinged stings of your enemies’ bullets? Well then look out for a dubstep drop or an increase in the beat because you’ll be deader than a dead thing that’s just been thrown into the crematorium for safe-keeping before you know it.
Yes, A City Sleeps is mercilessly difficult. It does not let up and unless you do your bit to master the curve, you really will lose out. Like in Rock Band, Guitar Hero and the other rhythm wotsits that clutter up the genre, practice makes perfect and just having a good sense of rhythm or speedy reactions will not do (but they’ll help you in a big way). What will actually be the driving factor of your A City Sleeps‘ success is replaying the same bit of level and getting a feel for the music. Just like hitting a bum note due to an oddly placed finger or committing a whole entire solo to memory, mastering your timings in this way will aid you.
Unlike most games in which your character’s entire body is a squishy, mortal thing with which to introduce you to a ‘GAME OVER’ screen, Poe’s hitbox is green and slap bang in the middle of her chest. The unfamiliarity of it is problematic at first, as you get to grips with steering that through tricky sections of enemy bullets, rather than Poe’s entire body. It’s also one of the reasons why that aforementioned learning curve is so steep. Failure isn’t so bad though as that soundtrack is a force to be marvelled with.
As A City Sleeps‘ everything depends upon its soundtrack, obviously, this had to be stellar but Harmonix have outdone themselves with this one. I found myself firing shots off in clear screens just to recapture the beat and letting enemies live a little longer than I should because I liked the melodies produced when they…tried to murder me. That sounds silly, I realise, but it really is stonking good listen. There are slight classical twinges, to (light) dubstep beats and heavy electronic influences all peppered throughout. Granted, with no sugar-coated lyrics or a high profile rap feature it’s not going to make it onto the Top 40, but after listening to every track over and over again and none of them getting annoying, I think I can safely determine that Harmonix have done a good job.
What is a shame is that there’s not a lot of soundtrack. Well, there’s not a lot of A City Sleeps at all really and that’s its biggest downfall. There are just thee levels on offer here which is absolutely ludicrous.
There are several difficulty levels – Reverie, Lucid, Nightmare (with ‘Cursed’ variants of Lucid and Nightmare) – and they turn three levels into 15. Those 15 levels are all just variations of the three with tougher enemies who spit out more bullets and seem harder to kill but as they all go through stages, concluding with a final, tricky boss fight, playing through the game a handful of times will leave you with no surprises.
On paper the few levels seems like a gripe that can be fixed with those varying difficulty levels but considering that in order to unlock those extra difficulty levels and extra bits of the story (there are notes to read to fill you in on what’s going on – but you can’t read them until you unlock the level) you have to complete the ones before it, failing to complete the easier levels means that you miss out on a hefty chunk of A City Sleeps. The game is already quite hard at its most basic of levels so the idea that you’ll have to toughen up just to access the rest of a game that you’ve paid full whack for is something that many will (understandably) find a bit offensive.
If you are good enough to get over that sizeable road bump (or can at least overlook it) then the levels that you do manage to unlock offer a certain amount of replayability. There are points to be awarded for clearing out enemies and also not dying (each death takes off 10% of your score) to catapult yourself onto the A City Sleeps leaderboard whilst you can test out new gameplay strategies with Poe’s ghost familiars.
Initially there are two of the little helpers, Anger and Mercy (offensive power and health buffs, respectively) with more being unlockable. You can place them into idols – a fast and a slow one – each helping you in different ways. For example, Anger’s fast aid fires bullets at the closest enemy while its slow has a damaging pulse and Mercy’s fast aid spits out health pills while its slow has a healing pulse.
Admittedly, for me, Poe’s familiars didn’t feel like a reason to replay and hone my strategy but rather, new means with which not to die. Are those basically the same thing in A City Sleeps? A little bit, yes, but changing up your play style in this way doesn’t seem to offer the replayability that it should.
Overall, I do recommend A City Sleeps but on the condition that you’ve played rhythm or bullet hell games before and think that you can handle yourself reasonably. Those who aren’t much good at them (or don’t have quick reaction times in games in general) should probably give it a miss.
A City Sleeps is a wonderful and solid experience but the difficulty really may prove insurmountable for some.
A City Sleeps is available from Steam now.