Again I find myself reviewing an indie music/rhythm game and again I’m appreciative, but ultimately disappointed. The recently released inSynch, debut title from Them Games, is all show and no substance. It’s essentially an artist’s rendering of what a music game should be. I mean that both figuratively and literally because the game was actually made by three artists who had little to no experience with game development but really wanted to create an interactive way to present their talents in music and art. On one hand I must say that I very much respect such a project because it shows true determination and commitment to a very common, but often failed goal for many people. But at the same time this is sadly just another game that I have to put into the indie music game reject pile.
InSynch is about art not gaming. Honestly it’s a simple, yet beautiful looking, game that you can’t help but appreciate graphically speaking. The entire game, menus included, was done with real materials and stop motion animation. We’re talking origami paper, wood, cement, resin, and a short list of other materials. Playing this game reminds me of when I was a kid watching movies like Chicken Run and The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s elegant, gorgeous, and a whole list of other fancy adjectives that I don’t care to name. What I like most about the graphics is that even though the interactive elements are limited to just four basic shapes, they truly come to life on the screen. It’s absolutely wonderful. The menus too are hard ink printed on construction paper and it looks fabulous. Even the “HUD,” if it can be called that, is just paper glued to the side of the level base. The only thing in the game that’s digital is your score board and it’s done in a very simple style to go along with the rest of the game. Honestly the few pictures featured in this review sum up the totality of the graphics better than words ever could. The only visual flaw is that you must play in full screen mode with no resolution options.
The gameplay lives up to the visuals in scope but not quality. It’s a simple game to play, but not a great one. I can’t even say that I really had fun playing it even though I absolutely loved looking at it. You have four buttons which must be on keyboard and cannot be changed. You will play this game with EDLP. A very odd selection outside of the realm of this game and even in this game it’s not an ideal layout. The level, which is the same every time as far as layout, is a big three dimensional X with a hole in the middle and a different shape coming from each of the four corners. As each shape reaches a little circle near the end of each of the four rails, you press the corresponding button to launch the shape into the hole. If you’re too early or too late you fail to get the shape into the hole. Every certain number of successful hits of a specific shape adds one shape to the side of that portion of the X. Missing a certain number causes you to lose one. All four shapes operate independently of each other and always stick to their same rail. Pretty simple, yet not done well.
First of all the game has some minor lag issues, which aren’t game breaking but they do affect the overall experience because they happen fairly often. This comes from the fact that this game pummels you with shapes in rapid succession. Often you have to launch three or truthfully four at the same time. One of the issues though is that the game intentionally limits you to only three buttons at a time. At the highest level of skill I assume this is manageable, but it’s by no means practical. The other main issue is that the margin for error/bad timing is extremely unforgiving. This wouldn’t be such a huge problem if not for the lag. But it’s also greatly affected by some of the very hard to time movement animations used by the objects. They do all kinds of crazy stuff like flatten out and multiply. It looks awesome but it doesn’t create a very balanced gameplay scenario.
I will say that this game is one of the first music games I’ve seen in a very long time that gets modes correct. It only has two and both are the only two that a music game really needs and both are done near perfectly. Explore mode lets you play to the end of a song and then counts your total score. Score is unqualified though. This means that unlike the traditional close, perfect, miss system made standard by Dance Dance Revolution, you only have hit or miss and your score only actually tells you your number hit successfully. What’s key here is that you get to play the levels to the end regardless of how you do and once you finish a level you automatically unlock the next one regardless of your score. The only thing I don’t like is the fact that your score actually has nothing to do with the stage. It’s once you reach the end of the stage/song that you are given an extra amount of time where a large number of shapes are tossed at you and whatever you land counts towards your score. The rest of the stage really is just to explore. You can’t die and you can pause at any time.
The Exploit mode is a survival mode. You must complete the Explore level to unlock its corresponding Exploit counterpart. It’s the same level but now you have a limited number of lives and you score is the amount of time you can survive. Each miss costs you a life and once they’re all gone your round is over. The only real problem with this mode that’s not directly tied to the lag and ridiculous amount of shapes to deal with is the fact that the game doesn’t actually tell you how many lives you have. You just play and eventually, by which I mean very quickly, die.
Overall inSynch’s gameplay is conceptually sound but it just wasn’t executed well. There’s not even any real organization to it. There are four stages but they’re not increasing in difficulty. Really the later stages are just longer making them seem harder because getting through them takes that much more effort. By the end of the fourth stage I was pretty burned out. It always comes back to the fact that the game is more focused on the art involved in its production as opposed to actually making good and properly functioning gameplay.
The sound is surprisingly misused in this game. It claims to be a music game and it is in the fact that there’s music and the gameplay is sort of related to it, but honestly it’s not integrally linked the way it should be in a music game. First of all, the shapes do not correspond with the beat of the music. Or at least not to any degree that a normal person will notice. I won’t say that there isn’t possibly some correlation that I couldn’t spot, but it’s not done in the way that a gamer would expect. Only in part of the last stage did it feel like there was some minor correlation between some of the shapes and the music. But it should be very telling that the levels don’t feel like they start at the same place in the songs every time like traditional music games do. This is due to the style of music used. The only reason this system even sort of works is because in Explorer mode you aren’t even scored until the end or in any danger of getting a gameover. Headphones are recommended in the loading screen and I completely agree. It’s not a loud game by any means. The gameplay sound effects are just little clicks for the buttons and they add literally nothing to the game. My biggest issue with the sound though was the fact that the tracks, which are basically all loops, do not feel appropriate for a video game. It’s all too soft. Lots of buildup but no climax. You’re constantly waiting for a bass drop that never comes. It sounds more like something you’d hear at a café than in a game. Sadly I was not impressed by the sound.
Other than the tutorial and menus there isn’t any writing in this game, which is to be expected from a music game even when it’s not indie.
How much replay value can a game with only four stages and a tutorial really have? You have the two modes and 14 achievements, but I highly doubt you take the survival mode seriously so there’s not much to this game. You can experience everything it has to offer in one sitting of less than an hour. And since the gameplay is so lacking I wouldn’t recommend trying to 100% this game anyway. That being said, I don’t feel comfortable saying this game is overpriced at $5 which is extremely rare for me to say for a game that’s worth at most 3 hours of your time.
After graphics the rest of inSynch kind of just falls apart. It’s more a game to be experienced then taken seriously for play. I wouldn’t recommend buying it, yet at the same time I’m very happy that I got to play it. It’s a very surreal and original experience but it’s not a great game. Maybe a YouTube session is a bit more appropriate for this particular work of art, because that’s what it actually is. Something to be seen and heard not played.
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