After a long stint with the Dance Central games, Harmonix returns to a sense of experimentation with A City Sleeps, a twin stick shooter in the same spirit as Ikaruga and Sine Mora. Players take the role of Poe, is a dream exorcist. She enters into people's nightmares and does battle with the demons (Kami) before they take full possession of the host. She's armed with a sword that fires energy at enemies, or get in good close to strike with a melee attack. Slicing them up close with the sword cuts off demon energy, which is used to power up your super weapon.
Poe isn't exactly fighting alone, either. Accompanying her are up to three ghosts, which are familiars with different support abilities. However, they need to be inserted into totems, which are objects pulled from the host's memories like clocks and cars, before their powers work. She starts with two ghosts, Anger and Mercy, which do damage and healing respectively. There are two types of totems: slow beat totems have square shaped slots, and fast beat totems are triangles. Putting a ghost into these either types of slots impacts how their abilities manifest. In the case of Anger and Mercy, the two translates into a small bursts (slow square) or firing pellets (fast triangle).
Sense the Rhythm
As expected from a Harmonix game, A City Sleeps puts a good deal of emphasis on music. Much of the gameplay is linked to the game's thumping soundtrack. Poe's firing rate, ghost power recharge rate, when enemies materialize, and when they fire can all be predicted by listening to the musical beats. In the Poe's sword is an instrument that only plays while she is firing.
The bad news is, predicting when enemies will fire is, at best, only a slight advantage. Players need only worry about a small green dot on Poe's torso (her core) being hit, but it might as well be a gigantic target when the screen fills up with enemy pellets. Enemies don't always have a fixed firing pattern. Some creatures will chase or aim straight for you, no matter where you are. This makes it extremely difficult to adapt to enemy fire and find open spots to get to.
Although the game has the ability to slow time, you can't move or fire while it is in slow-motion. Usually, you'll have just enough time to select the ghost you want and place it into a totem. Even then, it's remarkably easy to accidentally put a ghost into the wrong totem. Maybe you'll be able to spot pattern among the incoming pellets and plot an escape strategy, but the screen often has so much going on that even doing that can be a major task. The Mercy ghost's healing ability might get you out of some jams, but the amount of healing it provides is minimal compared to the amount of damage each enemy pellet does. Directly hitting enemies with the sword is the only way to charge your super move, which is a large spectral sword that swipes across the entire screen, but melee doesn't seem to do significantly more damage than shooting from range. It also takes a lot of demon energy to charge up the ability, and time doesn't slow down when you activate it. Therefore, not only is using the super move more than once per level pretty unlikely, it doesn't offer much of a benefit in boss fights, where you're likely to want it most. Losing a boss fight sets you back to the start of the third level stage, which isn't too bad, but sometimes you want to get straight back to the fighting to boss.
There are a total of three levels, each with five stages of difficulty. Completing a difficulty level on the one level unlocks the next. Unlockable bonuses include songs from the amazing soundtrack for the jukebox, additional ghosts, and Relics that amplify your ghosts' abilities. However, the game has a very uneven difficulty system that makes it very easy for players to get stuck. Even the easy levels present a strong challenge, and the second tier difficulty can be frustratingly hard. If you get stuck on a first stage difficulty, you can't skip to a different level for a change of scenery, and a possiblely a beneficial unlock, then return to it. Not only that, but there's little incentive for going back to replay older levels unless you're interested in ranking the leaderboard. There are no additional unlocks or rewards for beating an old stage again.
Never Ending Encores
A City Sleeps' high difficulty level is bound to limit the game's appeal to hardcore players. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say that the game is unbeatable, but there were times when I felt hopelessly stuck, and it's probably one of the longest "short" games I've ever played. But I didn't find myself becoming too frustrated despite having more deaths than I can count. This has to do in large part to the game's fantastic soundtrack, which features an experimental electro hip hop score by M-Cue. Even when the game started to feel practically unbeatable, the music kept me coming back for more. The graphics, though minimal, are also great to look at and has a lot of personality to it. Overall, the game is one that can be hard to play and hard to return to, but it's also hard to put down once you do.
This review is based on a PC Steam code provided by the developer. A City Sleeps is available now on Steam for PC and Mac for $14.99.
A City Sleeps
- Fantastic music score.
- Unique style, with gameplay tied to music
- Very high challenge.
- Uneven difficulty progression limits its appeal.
- Too easy to accidentally put a ghost in the wrong totem.
- Little reason to replay old levels