Fancy On The Outside, Rotten At The Core – A Sequence Review
Sequence is a very special game, as it combines the rhythm and RPG genres, much like Puzzle Quest combined the seemingly utterly unrelated genres puzzle and RPG. However, Puzzle Quest was actually rather good, whereas Sequence examines the two genres, but has no idea how to put them together. All the pieces of the puzzles lie ready on the table, but unfortunately Sequence is incapable of assembling them correctly. The end result is not a genuinely innovative and unique game that pushes the limits of the genres it involves, but that both elements feel watered-down.
For some inexplicable reason, the young graduate student Ky has wound up on the first floor of an elegantly adorned tower. He wakes up to the voice of Naia, his “sheppard” in the tower. She is to guide him through his many fights and trials in the tower, and hopefully get him through it alive, a feat no one has accomplished before him. Amazingly calm, considering he has just been torn out of his everyday life and dumped inside a mysterious tower, being told that if he fails he dies, he engages in first fight.
As with many JRPGs, the combat takes place in a location seperate from where the main game. A battle screen, if you will. However, instead of choosing various forms of defensive and offensive moves, the player is instead thrown into a rhythm game with three screens, which the player alters between during combat. They each monitor the player’s defense, spellcasting and mana. Failing to hit a note in the defense screen or spellcasting screen are far more dangerous than losing one in the mana screen, as they result in either the player taking hits from his opponents or the spell he’s casting failing. These notes are struck using either WASD or the arrow keys, or with a gamepad as the game was originally developed for XBLA. Apart from occasional delays – or lack of response – the controls worked well, particularly when there are a ton of notes on the screen at the same time, causing nearly spasmatic button-clicking.
The combat system is a breath of fresh air–at an idea-level. I’ve previously lambasted others for not grasping the importance of original ideas in games, but originality alone cannot carry a poorly executed game. Personally, I’ve never been able to enjoy classic JRPGs for a simple reason: I’ve always found their combat systems to be dull, detracting from my enjoyment of the lore and setting. I’ve never been able to feel any connection between what I’m doing, and what’s happening in the battle. It’s as if I’m simply yelling orders to the characters, desperately hoping they will listen to me. In addition, there’s often no connection between the environments and the combat screen. In other words, the players can’t use anything in the environments to their advantage, but must make do with what arbitrary skills and spells they’ve learned. Having rhythm-based combat evades this problem as it at least inserts an action-element, without needing a hyper-realistic physics engine in the visceral fights. I may be the only one, but after having played Sequence I’m quite curious how Batman: Arkham Asylum would have turned out had they used rhythm-based combat like they originally intended. While it was still rhythm-like in nature, to the player it “merely” seemed like a very fluent combat system.
Sadly, Sequence’s combat could have been enjoyable if not for one crucial flaw: The endless repetition. As the player ascends the stairs, seeking the top floor of the tower, he must defeat each floor’s guardian in turn. To do this, he must first forge a key leading to the next flight of stairs – and ideally some heavy weaponry too. To get the necessary ingredients, he must first fight a near endless number of identical enemies, which he choose before going into the breach. Meaning there’s no actual exploration of the tower, just mindless pressing of buttons until you’ve beaten the monsters a sufficient amount of times. It’s not that grinding in itself is the spawn of the devil, but the developers could have done more to hide it from the player. Give the player a bit of freedom, a bit of air. Make it seem like you can make your own choices.
Even worse, every time you craft a new item, the game snatches a certain amount of XP from you, regardless of whether or not you succeed in crafting it. This is an extraordinarily cheap way of extending the life of the game – which the developers claim is “12+ hour” long!” – a practice I’ve spoken out against as well. That’s a damn shame, because the story – my sole motivator during the experience – is actually competently written. Particularly the eccentric guardians with their distinct quirks are a joy, and the game is littered with hipster jokes. While it waits for far too long to begin answering some of the big questions, it certainly delivers an intriguing proposition: a massive tower full of secrets to explore. However, the way it’s presented in the game is very unappealing. It makes the classic flaw of separating story and gameplay completely. After each monotonous floor of the tower conquered, the player can move upwards to the next bit of story. By the time I’d reached the 7th and final floor, Ky made a remark – which I sadly didn’t record – that went something along the lines of this “This is it. Finally.” I felt as if a cruel joke had been played on me. Were the prior floors never intended to be engaging at all? Was I supposed to feel the same as Ky? Delight that the journey would soon be over? Unfortunately, I doubt that’s the intent the developers had with it. Iridium Studios, the developer, could have taken the path of creating a narrative-driven game that happened to feature rhythm combat, which would have created far more unique encounters. The combat would be part of the road that lead through the game, not a section that had to be finished and then moved past.
As this is a rhythm game, there naturally needs to be an array of great music available. The “great” part is certainly true, especially Ronald Jenkees’ tunes. They’ve smeared his name all over the marketing for this game, and for good measure. Jenkees is one of those musicians, artists in general really, whose abilities go beyond that of the genre he works in. Anyone can enjoy his music, whether or not they typically enjoy electronic music. However, the “array” part is untrue. Besides some of Jenkees’ best songs – and contributions from other talented musicians – the same few songs are repeated again and again and again. However enjoyable “Stay Crunchy” is, it becomes extremely tiresome once you’ve heard it for the hundredth time. It’s possible that a more varied soundtrack – maybe even the option to use your own music – would have made the combat more enjoyable, even if just for the novelty factor of listening to some new music.
To me, rhythm games have always been about large gatherings of drunk people, because by then you’ve reached the point where flailing your arms about madly isn’t considered “weird”. By that time it’s perfectly normal, even cheered on by the hollow-eyed crowds. I can hardly think of a genre of video games more escapist than rhythm games. What greater manifestation of it than someone dancing around with a plastic guitar, thinking that he’s a rock star? Unfortunately, Sequence fails as rhythm game in that doesn’t have the social aspect, nor any particular variety – which makes a game like Audiosurf survive even without that aspect. Plus, it’s simply a not particularly involving rhythm game. There’s nothing in that aspect of it that hasn’t been done better in other, similar games. One could hope that the RPG crossover could help it, but sadly that’s not the case. I think the main reason is that they’ve tried to merge two different forms of play that simply don’t work together. One is meant to be played in short bursts – your hands can’t take it for any longer than that – while the other is meant to be played for hours and hours of grinding.
That being said, I don’t think it’s impossible for rhythm aspects to be applied to other genres. I just think it needs to done more gracefully than what Sequence offers. Instead of burning time on this game, I recommend you take a look over Jenkees’ fine music. Your hands will love you for it.