Rhythm-action dungeon-crawler Soundfall takes the stage on Xbox today for a surprise show. We’ve been jamming with it for a little while already, and it’s a blast when everything comes together…
Soundfall has no right to work as well as it does. Sure, it’s not exactly perfect, but nobody in their right mind should expect perfection from a game that is effectively a mashup of the action-RPG combat of games like Diablo or Torchlight and rhythm-action elements that demand everything be done in time with the eclectic soundtrack. Nor from a studio’s first gig, for that matter. Impressively, this beat-matching beatdown is the debut game for the Epic alumni of small indie dev Drastic Games, but the game’s sense of style and general polish are pretty telling of the team’s previous experience. Soundfall is a game that makes its crazy ideas come to life, makes the resources it has really work for it, and one which, above all else, serves as a refreshing fusion of existing game styles that results in something that feels completely new.
Soundfall Xbox trailer
Feel the Beat. Use the Beat. Defend the Beat.
The premise of Soundfall is pretty straightforward, telling the tale of aspiring young musician Melody who gets mysteriously whisked away to the magical realm of Symphonia, birthplace of all music for the world. So yeah, I guess Soundfall is an isekai. Melody’s simple quest to return home gets her embroiled in defending the very music itself from the Discordians that would ruin it and prevent it reaching the wider world, with several familiar faces popping up along the way to form an unlikely supergroup tasked with saving music as we know it. Sure, it’s pretty corny, but it works, and even serves as an ingenious explanation for why the soundtrack is loaded with artists and tunes you’ve most likely never heard of before — the 150-odd songs in the game are thematically newborns being heard for the very first time by Melody and friends, so it makes sense. Also, it serves as a brilliant way to discover some awesome new music, which is one of the low-key highlights of any rhythm game, and I’ve lost track of how many amazing bands I’ve discovered over the years thanks to the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Soundfall has that same empowering effect of introducing players to new talent, and sure enough, a good few new names have entered my listening rotation since I started playing the game.
Continuing that thematic success, Soundfall is also extremely smart about how it handles its tunes. The story is broken down into a journey through ten distinct regions across Symphonia, and each has its own clear visual and sonic identity. The lava-drenched Volcano region, for instance, is where you’ll find the chugging guitars and growling vocals of the game’s rock and metal tracks, the neon metropolis is powered by energetic electronica, while the beautiful rolling fields and plains are accompanied by swooping orchestral pieces and folky acoustic vibes. Even better, the team cleverly mixes up each ten-track jaunt through a chapter by offering a few bonus missions that let you dive into other areas (and by extension other musical genres) to keep the soundtrack from getting stale. And it doesn’t stop there either, with music style dictating the kinds of enemies and hazards that will populate the level, as well as what types of loot will be available. Finally, you can go off-menu at any time to play any song you like, with the full soundtrack playable from the off via a quick play menu.
Each stage is generally quite short, and you’re encouraged to get it done before the song ends with a four-tier grade system. Just beating a level gets you bronze, finishing before the track loops nets you silver, while either keeping your combo alive for the full level (and not getting hit) gold not missing a single beat is worth gold. Platinum requires you to do both of those things, so effectively a perfect run, but since the end-of-level chest rewards improve with your rank, quick, clean runs are the best way to earn powerful gear. This comes in the usual Rarity Rainbow of white (common) through gold (Legendary), with weapons and armor shared across all characters while each of the five playable heroes needs to find their own unique special items and mods to buff their personal powers. Rarer gear is a serious game-changer, too — better armor gives you more health, additional dashes, and better sets can even ignore a few instances of damage, which will be a literal lifesaver on harder difficulties. Rarer weapons, meanwhile, can add elemental attributes (each cutely named after a musical term, but with familiar effects such as damage over time or debuffs), additional projectiles, and more, while character-specific items can go so far as to change up how their special abilities work once you get into the good ones. Levels often hide bonus chests off the beaten path, but these only tend to be worth going for if you know you’re ahead of pace to clear the stage before it loops for better rewards, although a clear tracker at the top of the screen shows when you have time to look for some extra goodies.
The action itself is pretty simple, and needs to be to prevent the combination of dungeoneering and following the rhythm from being overwhelming. All characters can shoot and dash, with each having their own special ability (typically a unique melee attack or combo) and an ultimate ability that varies between them… the basics are just that, allowing you to plan out how you deal with packs of foes (and other hazards such as traps) to the beat nice and clearly. Unless you’re going for a platinum, dropping a beat isn’t the end of the world — off-beat actions are simply less effective than timely ones. Scuffed shots are noticeably weaker and dodgy dashes lose their valuable invulnerability window, so it does pay to try and keep time, although some gear can roll with perks that mitigate these penalties (or further emphasize rhythmic play with additional bonuses). There’s an elemental effectiveness wheel in play, too, although each area throwing up themed enemies lets you use this to your advantage, equipping armor that’s strong against those specific types while grabbing guns that exploit their elemental weakness. That’s going to be crucial later in the game, as later difficulties — which unlock as you level up — introduce more and more special enemy variants with bigger health pools, so downing them quickly is vital to avoid being overwhelmed.
When Soundfall finds its flow, it’s tremendously satisfying, a lot like BPM but much more colorful and not nearly so twitchy. The very first full song in the story, Fly Fly Fly, is not only a certified pop banger but also a perfect introduction to how the music and gameplay can harmonize gorgeously — landing two big kills to the verse’s staccato ‘tick tock’ refrain never fails to raise a smile, and after a few runs, you’ll find yourself using your abilities to drop accents into the lulls in the track, effectively making your own personal mix as you blast through the level. With almost 150 songs on offer, not all of them are quite as adept as this early favorite in their implementation, and a few really don’t feel like they fit the game all that well. Long passages without a solid beat to follow, awkward arrhythmic sections, and songs tracking at double the correct tempo (which leads to enemies screaming around way faster than they should and makes select tracks feel overly intense) all crop up at some point, particularly in the final world of the story. Here, it feels like a lot of the tracks that are weaker fits for the game’s mechanics present a late-game difficulty spike, compounded by having to deal with ice physics for movement on top of everything else. Music games usually ramp up the challenge by the end, but here it feels a little artificial, and I found myself relying on the optional in-game metronome and pulsing landscape just to be able to follow some of these tricky tunes while keeping enemies at bay .
“But Luke,” you croon in that beautiful baritone of yours, “If you’ve finished the game, how come this is a first impressions piece and not a proper review?” A good question, well sung. Truth be told, even 20 hours in, I don’t feel nearly ready to slap a score on Soundfall. In fact, having not even unlocked the hardest difficulties yet (I’m still only level 27), I feel like I’m still scratching the surface. I wouldn’t review a game like Diablo III after beating the campaign on Normal or Hard — it’s barely even getting going at that point, with Torment tiers, new loot types, Rifts, ladders, and all that good stuff all important to the full experience. Why should Soundfall be handled any differently? It too is all about working and gearing your way through the difficulty levels sequentially before heading into the endgame with both experience and some lovely big numbers (and handy perks) on your equipment. I’m getting there, and will definitely keep up the grind as I’m still really enjoying it, but I think it would be unfair to score the game after seeing only a slice of it in the grand scheme of things. There’s another factor, too, and that’s the PC version — if you have access to a half-decent computer, it’s hard to recommend the console version of Soundfall over the PC one. Why? Two words: custom music. Only the PC version allows you to import your own tunes for the game to craft unique levels around, effectively leading to unlimited replayability and reducing the grind by keeping things fresh forever, rather than hoping you don’t get bored of your favorites from the default sound track.
For our again, let’s take a look at the Soundfall achievements, as things get a little bit silly here. Generally speaking, it’s a fun and varied list that rewards story completion, feats of skill, and specific actions. A couple of achievements go against the grain, however — Multiplatinum and serious. The former, which demands perfect platinum runs of every song on the hardest difficulty, at least is skill-based, but potentially overly so. I’ve yet to unlock Lethal difficulty so can’t yet say just how much the game will allow you to overgear to compensate for the challenge of late-game settings, but the very idea of going for platinum on some of those awkward ice levels I mentioned earlier gives me The Fear. I’m absolutely gonna go for it, though, so I just hope it isn’t too grueling. There are a few other nasty ones along the way too, but they’re all really just stepping stones on the long road to Multiplatinum, so I’ll definitely be able to get to at least 43/45 eventually. Not anytime soon, though, thanks to Serioso, which is a cover version of Gears’ Seriously… achievement that requires 100,000 kills. To put that lofty target into context, after beating the 100-song story and playing a bunch of bonus tracks and replays in my 20 hours with the game, I haven’t even reached 8,000 kills yet. Sure, that number will climb as you blast through the later Dangerous and Extreme difficulties before tackling and mastering Lethal, but I doubt even playing every single tune in the game on all three would even be enough to get me close to the halfway point. It’s just an odious grind.
Still, those few rude achievements aside, I’m really enjoying Soundfall, and looking forward to seeing how its endgame evolves and builds upon what is a pretty darn solid foundation considering the challenging task of getting two such disparate gameplay types to sync up. If you’re an action-RPG fan looking for a new kind of challenge or a music game lover after something more than following notes on a stave — or, better yet, both — then you really ought to give Soundfall a spin. It’s colorful and creative, with an entertainingly written if fairly basic story (even if it does lay it on a little thick with the musical references at times) and an eclectic soundtrack packed with great new tunes and artists to discover… oh, and it features Command & Conquer composer Frank Klepacki laying down a bunch of monstrous metal tracks, which is always a bonus. I have a lot of time for this great little game, which is just as well, as I’m apparently going to need it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 92,219 enemies to kill…