Music games are an odd genre because today music is such an important part of so many games. When I think of true music games, titles like Dance Dance Revolution and Bust-A-Groove come to mind. But it would be ridiculous to not also include a game like Space Channel 5. The reason behind that introduction is to make the point that it’s extremely difficult to fairly judge a game that claims to be a music game because the standards of comparison are all over the place. It’s with that mindset that I went into the soon to be released on Steam Hacker’s Beat by the small Japanese development studio, Team Tands Plus.
Hacker’s Beat is essentially a typing based 3D version of DDR with a hacker theme thrown in. While I appreciate what was attempted here with the graphics I have to say that it’s a bit too campy for me. The graphics aren’t bad. They’re very simple, but they work. Every stage is an infinite tunnel of wire frames and electronica inspired backgrounds in a myriad of colors that looks like a wannabe Tron experience. As you fly through the curving tunnels you encounter stationary “notes” to be played or “hacked”. I think it’s important to note that the player is the one moving and not the notes because of how the difficulty works in this game but more on actual gameplay later.
The notes are beyond simple. You have green cubes strung together with white lines, blue continuous lines with white ends, and big red enter signs. All of this is under a simple yet kind of unnecessarily in the way HUD. You have multiple screens surrounding a main screen with an opaque keyboard in the middle of it. The keyboard is probably the only thing that actually needs to be in the way to effectively play this game. The rest of it could have been done in much simpler ways. Don’t get me wrong. The HUD works fine and won’t make the game any harder. But it’s still a lot more in the way than it really should be.
Other than the HUD and tunnels the only graphics you have are the 2D menus, loading screen, and score card which kind of look like they were pulled directly from DDR and then painted black because that’s just the color that hackers prefer I guess. At the end of each level you also get a fancy sequence of an obscure shape being unlocked and telling you access granted. It reminded me a lot of the film Swordfish (2001) when Hugh Jackman is trying to build the hydra worm. I think the graphics are acceptable, but the hacker theme doesn’t add anything to the game. It might even have been better if it was a more in your face colorful theme; because the term hacker oversells the difficulty of the gameplay . . . as in it’s not that hard.
The gameplay is very effective. Actually I’ll go as far as saying that as far as core mechanics are concerned it’s probably the best typing based music game I’ve ever played. A keyboard is required. Or more specifically the alphanumeric keys and an enter key are required. Basically as you fly past the notes you have to hit keys to match the timing, which does kind of go with the beat of the song being played. But what’s nice is that other than the ENTER key which has its own note, you can press any buttons you want. As long as the button matches the timing and is in the correct general part of the keyboard where the note is you are credited with a successful hit. That’s also the reason the keyboard is shown on the HUD. It helps guide your fingers.
There are only two types of notes in the game as far as actual play is concerned. Single press buttons which again are any key in the general vicinity of the note on-screen and ENTERs which require you to tap the enter key. The second type of note is the string which is essentially a line that requires you to button mash for its duration. The lines move across the screen and thus your fingers must move left or right across the keyboard to account for it. Very simple to play and an extremely detailed and effective optional tutorial is available.
The way the game works is the same as DDR. You have a life bar which grows as you hit notes and shrinks as you miss them. If the bar hits 0 before you reach the end of the song you lose. I really liked that the bar has a percentage number to accompany it in order to let you know where you really stand. But overall the gameplay is very easy. It has the appearance of being challenging because you do have a lot of notes and you probably won’t hit them all. But at the same time the game is very forgiving. Unlike in most games, your life can go up as easily as it can go down. This means that when you screw up you can easily rescue yourself from your errors. At first I really appreciated this because having grown up playing games like DDR there were always those songs that I just couldn’t finish. In fact this is the first music only game I’ve ever played where I could beat all the levels and even play them on the hardest difficulty.
This sounds great at first because it’s a game that makes it so everyone can enjoy everything it has to offer. But at the same time the challenging aspect which you expect from a hacker themed game is gone. You can manually adjust the speed of each track, but it doesn’t really make the levels harder. The number of notes or the order never changes. The only difference is the speed at which you pass them. This means that you can play any stage on the lowest difficulty at half times normal speed until you master the patterns. Then speed it up to the max of four times the normal speed and know exactly what’s coming. It’s kind of that feeling you get from playing Tetris. It doesn’t get any harder. It just gets faster. But in this case it’s also completely predictable. I beat every level and my lowest completion was 18% life remaining. But I also ended multiple stages with 100% remaining and you start every stage at 50%. And honestly button mashing works miracles in this game so I never really worried about actually failing since the levels aren’t very long anyway.
While the game is very easy to complete, the ranking system is very unforgiving. That is the only real challenge the game provides. It’s just like any music game where at the end of each stage you see your number of hits and misses and a letter based rank. I believe the highest possible rank is A, which I was able to acquire on some stages. But what is extremely disappointing is the fact that the rank for each stage crosses all difficulties. That means that if you get a high score at the lowest difficulty the only way for your highest difficulty score to show is if it beats your lowest difficulty one. I like the gameplay at its core but it’s just not challenging enough to hold my interest past beating all the stages once. I beat one stage on all difficulties just to run a comparison test which ended with me getting an A at default and plus one difficulty and a B at plus two and three difficulties.
Since this is a music game the sound is going to be the most important aspect for most players and it’s not bad. I actually liked the mixture of upbeat tracks composed for this game. But I won’t say I loved them. First of all the stages are all pretty short. Maybe three and a half minutes a stage. It seemed like a big part of the game was making sure it wasn’t too hard for players to complete. Some of the music has lyrics but for the most part it’s focused on beat as the title would suggest. The music is good enough, but the sound effects hurt the game. Again this hacker theme is more trouble than it needs to be. There are clicking sounds included for when you press notes. As you can imagine this is very authentic to hacking but I can already hear the clicking of my keyboard. So basically I have to hear two sets of clicking over the music. Team Tands Plus should have at least had the option to turn the effects off.
There’s no writing other than the tutorial, but the loading screen does have a bunch of hacker related words on it which does create some level of atmosphere I guess, but it’s nothing special to the game overall.
Replay value is highly debatable in Hacker’s Beat. Because I played a DRM free version I can’t actually say anything about achievements other than the Steam page claims the game will have them once it’s officially released. But I can say that the game only has 15 tracks which you can easily clear in under two hours and get all A ranks not too long after if that’s your thing. I guess hardcore players will shoot for all A’s on the hardest difficulty. So we’re talking maybe 5 hours without accounting for the achievements which I’m sure won’t be too hard compared to that goal. There’s also the fact that you can purchase the game now from Playism, which includes a Steam key but if you choose to play the non-Steam version then there are no achievements. I think $10 is too high for this game. If it had a lot more tracks I could live with that price, but for only 15 short songs you’re not getting more than a $5 endorsement out of me. There is a level editor in development that will be included in an update but I don’t know how intricate that will be. It could let you add your own songs or it might only let you customize the keys for the ones included. Either would make a big difference in value for me though.
Ultimately I think Hacker’s Beat is ok. I wouldn’t even put it in my top 10 music games and most of the ones I like are from at least 2 console generations ago so that should tell you something about where it lies on the greatness scale. The hacker theme actually hurts it overall because it really doesn’t live up to the term as far as quality or difficulty. If anything it should be called “Entry Level Coder’s Beat”.
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