Sunday, December 2, 2018

Yes, The OLDNERD KNows About Beat Saber

Up down left right I’m gonna slash some cubes tonight
It started months ago. Before I even had a Playstation VR. Before it was even ANNOUNCED for Playstation VR. People would ask me if I’d heard of Beat Saber. In person, from halfway across the country. To Cathy on Facebook since I’m not on Facebook. “Has Bryan seen Beat Saber?”

They were, of course, right to alert me. A virtual reality rhythm game where you swing lightsabers around to chop the notes? I’m not sure it’s possible to come up with a game concept that’s more of a Bryan Instant Buy unless you managed to somehow work in the slimes from Dragon Quest and some kind of endless RPG grinding aspect.

THe point is, it’s out now for Playstation VR. I’ve had it for a week, and played it slightly less due to a very busy week last week, many of the details of which will be appearing here shortly. As an aficionado of rhythm games over the years, let’s do some quick comparisons.

Beat Saber borrows a LOT from Dance Dance Revolution. It’s not just slashing cubes to the beat. In most cases, there’s a directional element. Eight directions, in fact. Like the eight directions in DDR.

Plus, the music is very much in the vein of DDR - original tracks, mostly electronic stuff, occasional influences from other genres. It’s Western rather than Japanese, but the underlying similarities are strong. And it includes the most important element you can find in any music game - multiple tracks with mediocre lyrics that are about playing Beat Saber. Every music game should have at least one track about playing the game.

Combine original music and directional gameplay, and you end up with a choreographic element that Beat Saber and DDR both have. The note tracks are designed to make you move in certain ways, not just press buttons in a sequence. Which is an element a lot of non-DDR rhythm games lack, even Samba De Amigo.

Which, of course, is another game Beat Saber has a lot in common with, because, well, you’re holding two sticks with balls on the end and shaking them in specific ways indicated on screen. It doesn’t get much more Samba than that. The movement possibilities are more elaborate than Samba and the precision is much higher, thanks to the nearly two decades we’ve advanced since an infrared bar tracked a dongle hanging off a plastic maraca.

Meanwhile, the scoring system, with its emphasis on combo-based increasing multipliers, is a heavy lift from Guitar Hero / Rock Band. Which makes perfect sense here, mind you. And there aren’t a lot of options to choose from. Plus, there’s a unique wrinkle to Beat Saber’s scoring which makes the whole thing even more interesting. Because Beat Saber is the first analog rhythm game.

You see, Beat Saber measures the movement and arcs of your swings and uses that to judge your performance. The bigger the swing, the more accurate the cut, the higher the score. Which is a bit odd for a rhythm game where it’s usually about timing, but because of the game “physics”, timing comes into whether you hit the blocks at all. The game rewards you for something new while giving you the usual metrics of a rhythm game, so it’s a nicely additive experience.

What’s Beat Saber missing? honestly, it’s the kind of quality of life features most rhythm games have developed over the years. I’d like more ways to sort songs than alphabetically. I’d like track difficulty ratings to go along with the four (in most cases) difficulty levels. I’d like to see my grades for each song on the song list and not have to click on each one to see whether or not I’ve played it and how well I did.

There’s also a Campaign MOde, but the difficulty there is insane. About seven levels in, not counting side branches, it introduces a mod where the arrows disappear as the blocks get closer to you, which means you have to see and remember what direction to slice them in in a very short amount of time, or memorize the tracks. This, to be frank, is some bullshit and stopped me cold. I don’t know if it’s geared toward veterans coming to the game from other consoles or what, but the difficulty curve rapidly goes asymptotic.

Still, for a game like this, what matters is the feel. And playing Beat Saber just feels good. Nailing a sequence gives you that rush you get from any good rhythm game, and that’s all that really matters.

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