Symphony, a game by indie developer Empty Clip Studios, attempts to modernize the retro gameplay of Galaga by adding a few gimmicks. Does this help make a classic gameplay style come to life in a new generation?
Symphony is the story of a demon who has trapped the souls of composers of music on your computer and is trying to use them to escape from captivity. He plans to take magical sheet music called “The Symphony of Souls” to transfer the composers’ souls into a spell that will release him from his bonds. Your goal is to free the music from the demons grasp, eventually rescuing the trapped musicians as well. This is achieved by flying a ship through levels, destroying enemies for the length of a song that you choose. After roughly five songs there is a boss fight; defeating this boss unlocks a portion of a page of the Symphony of Souls. Complete the page, and you get a new difficulty to play on. There are about five boss fights per page and five pages total, so doing the math that means at the minimum you will be playing about 25 songs to get to the final boss.
You will be spoon-fed small bits of story before and after boss fights. Other than an intro video, all you get is a tinted screen with a pair of eyes that gives you a couple sentences of exposition at a time. It isn’t a very detailed story, so don’t expect a long narrative or even fleshed-out segments. What you do get is an odd tale with a very unique subtext: that we as a society don’t appreciate the value and power that music has. While Symphony takes a heavy-handed approach in sharing this, it is this type of deeper topic that we don’t often see, so it is refreshing to see someone take a stab at it. Though it would have been nice if Symphony had story more than just brief bits around its boss battles.
The music files on your computer will be the basis for the levels you will be going through. You can select any song from a playlist and blast through a Galaga-inspired shooter. As enemies are defeated, they drop musical notes called Inspiration that act as both score and money. Enemies will drop a combo multiplier to help you reach the two Inspiration goals that each song has. Meeting the goals earns you “Kudos” at the end of the song, another of the game’s monetary measurements. After shooting through all the enemies, there is a score screen. Initially, it will just add up the score and tell where you rank on the leaderboards, along with one unlockable new item. The more progress through the playlist is made, the more weapons are unlocked for the ship using Inspiration.
You can upgrade the ship’s firepower with a combination of Kudos and Inspiration, but it comes at a cost. An increase in power means a decrease in the multiplier that distributes the Kudos at the end of every song, so be wary when making that badass ship. There are about six weapons available for the ship that can be placed in one of four positions. Each weapon has a few upgrades that make them more powerful and usually change the color of the projectile they shoot.
The combat in Symphony is very basic, consisting of holding down the left mouse button while swinging it back and forth to avoid waves of oncoming bad guys. Once you have purchased better weapons and upgraded them, the first few difficulties become almost pointless to play, as the enemies just dissolve under the ship’s guns. The harder difficulties provide an actual challenge, as your ship’s health is nerfed, and the enemies become far stronger. The point where the combat gets annoying is when the ship randomly jumps to one of the outside edges of the screen during battle, causing you to have to reset your mouse position, and often causing death when surrounded by a horde of enemies. This is particularly troublesome in the boss fights, where there is a giant head flying around that takes up a good chunk of the playing area.
Bosses take on larger forms of various enemies found in the game, only with a giant classical composer’s head. While they offer a bit of change to the strategy the player will need to employ, it is brief and often a surprise when they will occur. The bosses appear at random after a song has started to play, and if you fail to beat one in the time limit, you are forced to replay the song over and over on the various difficulties trying to find where it is. There was a game-breaking glitch with one of the boss battles, though: after losing on the hardest difficulty I had unlocked (5 of 6), the boss never showed up again, thus ending the progress I was able to make into the story. I had played every difficulty no less than seven times on this track, and it just never reappeared. That’s a pretty big letdown for a game that only has a story mode.
Visually, Symphony is a retro-styled space shooter played on Guitar Hero’s sliding fret board with an equalizer in the background. Add in some trippy color-changing graphics a la the Bit. Trip. series, and that is the game’s look in a nutshell. Unfortunately, that is all it is. It doesn’t change, at all, with different songs or boss fights; it is always the same thing. Coupled with that is the fact that there are only a few enemy types, and the only way to increase them is to unlock the harder difficulties. Even then there are only a couple new enemies that act pretty much the same as the rest. This makes the game get extremely monotonous after a while, as you end up playing the exact same level over and over with just a different soundtrack. It also gets frustrating when, due to the way some of the enemies break down, it is hard to distinguish whether they have become Inspiration or not, often leading to death or damage to the ship.
Symphony has a huge variety of options for file types that are available when transferring music to the game, including your iTunes folder. At first, this seemed like a great feature, but what could have been a real positive for the game turned into some of Symphony‘s biggest setbacks. First, if you aren’t careful, they can end up grabbing tons of smaller sound clips from other programs just by where the game is set to look for music by default. This is easy to do, because the window where the defaults are selected is small and doesn’t give you the best view of what it has selected. If you do manage to grab smaller files, then you are pretty much screwed. There is a track size limit of 1:30-10:00 that you don’t find out about until it is too late. On top of that, there is no way to clean up the file list once you have added them, so there are just a bunch of unusable songs cluttering the playlist.
The other main drawback in the file management system is how the leaderboards track the songs. Symphony registers the songs by the file name and not the track name, so you could have the exact same song from three different sources, and it can’t tell that it is the same song. This leads to a lot of empty leaderboards, as the potential for sources in the age of being able to pirate music is limitless. The only real way to find people would be if the music were purchased from iTunes and is on their top 100 list, thus making this feature almost completely useless. Granted, this isn’t a game- breaking problem, but when it shows off the leaderboard on every song you play and has you ranked in 1st and 1/1, you start to feel that the tasks you are completing are meaningless.
What started as a promising game full of ambitious ideas quickly turned into a mountain of frustration and monotony. While Empty Clip chose to go all-out, the game doesn’t seem to be a fully thought-out and polished music system, and what was the big selling point turned into one of Symphony’s biggest failures. Add in a glitch that prevented me from seeing it through to the end, and you have a real disappointment. For $10, Symphony is overpriced and too buggy to suggest buying. Wait for Steam to have it on sale and get it then, if at all.
*A copy of symphony was provided by Empty Clip Studios.