It’s easy to fall in love with the idea of Soundfall. Its action role-playing gameplay marries the concepts of dual-stick shooters and rhythm games, challenging you to keep up with the times as you attack enemies while dodging their blows. It’s a conceit that’s been experimented with in several other games, sometimes to great effect. But those other hits manage to enhance the mechanic beyond its initial charm, something Soundfall never quite replicates in its extensive campaign.
Everything in Soundfall moves to the beat of the song playing in the background. All of your actions require you to time them in time to be effective, whether it’s your standard ranged attacks, close-range melee strikes, or damage-evading dashes. Enemies are also bound to the same constraints. Their attack patterns don’t change with the beat, but their speed does. The build-up time associated with shooting a sniper will be faster or slower depending on the song being played, for example, while the speed of environmental hazards is similarly affected.
Playing along to Soundfall’s music is exhilarating at first. It doesn’t take long to get used to the new beat introduced by a new song, but it’s always satisfying to settle in and unleash hundreds of perfectly timed attacks and execute precise dodges. Enemy variety is sparse at first, but there are a decent number of combos that keep most skirmishes engaging enough and certainly challenging enough to encourage you to keep landing well-timed attacks to do the most damage possible. It’s enough of a hook to make the otherwise routine isometric action fun, but also what quickly becomes monotonous as Soundfall fails to do anything new with it beyond the initial rush.
Probably the biggest problem with Soundfall’s progression is that it doesn’t feel like it’s progressing at all. The way you approach the game’s combat in the first hour is the same as you will in its tenth – keep pace, kill enemies, collect loot. There are few weapon variants to shake that up, with different types simply dictating whether you’ll have to attack with every beat for semi-automatic weapons or find your groove after a flurry of autofire. The five unlockable characters offer some variety in their special attacks, many of which are all variations of different types of satisfying melee swipes, but that’s not enough to detract from the fact that your objective and how you achieve it are so rigid.
The loot is also disappointing for a game that requires you to change your gear so regularly. The weapon variety soon begins to introduce various music-themed status effects into your attacks, but enemies rarely offer the kind of challenge where you really have to think about what you’re doing next. For the most part I just got by by making sure I had a weapon that did the most damage possible, with armor that absorbed as much damage as possible, and found that to be all thinking necessary. The loot also doesn’t change your selected character’s appearance outside of the weapon they have equipped, so there’s no conceited reason to hunt down an extremely rare piece of loot either. While completing stages with higher ratings or on higher difficulties rewards you with better loot, it’s hard to care beyond pride when the choices on offer are less than appealing.
Soundfall’s large music library is logically meant to make up for its shortcomings with its loot-driven progression, offering a variety of different music types and signatures to keep gameplay dynamic. While there are instances where it works, like rare times when time signatures change in the middle of a level, you usually only learn a beat in the first few seconds of a level and then continue with it. the same routine. Each of the game’s 10 worlds also tries to stick to a certain genre of music, which only makes this issue more prevalent. Working through several stages of speed metal reveals how little variation Soundfall’s mechanics require of you as you go from 140 bpm to 160 bpm, the subtle difference not being significant enough to evoke a change in your approach. Even switching from one blazingly fast song to one that’s immediately slower, the change doesn’t do enough to eliminate the feeling of repetitiveness from the proceedings.
Some of Soundfall’s music, which features a mix of original and licensed tracks, also seems ill-suited for a game of this ilk. Where Soundfall takes off is with songs that have a distinctive bass beat that runs through the mix, letting your ears inform your hands of your actions. This is not the case for many songs, however. Classic songs are notoriously bad at this, at least in the context of how they’re mixed in Soundfall. I regularly checked the visual metronome at the bottom of the screen to even figure out what rhythm Soundfall had performed for a handful of these tracks, given the lack of anything discernable in the music alone. This severely interrupts the game, immediately causing you to miss actions on a regular basis or taking your sights away from the action to regain your momentum. It’s mostly frustrating because it’s easy to tell the difference between these good and bad songs as soon as a stage begins, making the already overly long campaign bump into several annoying speed bumps.
The limited selection of rooms that the game’s procedural generation seems to be able to choose from when forming a level exacerbates the annoyances of the campaign. Although each of the songs in each level is unique, the structure is anything but. It only takes a few hours for the same chokepoints and slightly open parts of a scene to all look familiar, despite the different aesthetics they’re dressed in to go along with the theme of the world you’re currently in. While the visual variety between a vibrant green forest world and that of a shocked neon audio highway, the mundane nature of how you navigate through them still manages to come to the surface.
Gluing each of these worlds together is a wireless story about several real-world musicians who are inexplicably teleported to a land that lives and breathes music. All of the text dialogue is laced with every musical pun you can think of, which is so intrusive that it ends up sounding more boring than charming. Aside from providing context for the action of the game, however, the story is nothing more than something you need to check from time to time as you click through the menus to start the next level. The mix of Saturday morning cartoon cutscenes is also at odds with the style of the in-game character portraits which, while not awkward, just look out of place.
Despite all these shortcomings, Soundfall manages to produce some memorable moments from time to time, mostly at the climax of each world. Despite lacking what seems like the right place for a traditional boss battle, most of the final stages are tough combat trials where far more enemies than normal are thrown at you in a small arena. This briefly turns Soundfall into a rather satisfying hell shooter, where firing shots is as important as dodging the hundreds of projectiles hurtling towards you. These short skirmishes bring together the best parts of all of Soundfall’s ideas, but also serve to highlight the routine of the previous nine stages up to this point. The few boss fights also don’t hit the heights of those little arena duels, so I wanted more of them most of the time.
It is these moments of happiness that ultimately make Soundfall so disappointing, because it is clear that there are good ideas there. The beat-based combo action is one that’s already been better executed in a handful of other games, and Soundfall’s take fails to progress past its initial hook in its opening hours. This further exposes the uninteresting loot progression and variety of stages, making its extended campaign far too long, even when tackled in short bursts. The underlying concept of Soundfall is one that deserves an adventure that better capitalizes on its strengths, but that’s sadly not what’s here right now.