Symphony is the face of addiction

I am a nested loop of habits and addictions. I have a serious caffiene problem in permanent relapse. Like most self-identifying writers, I have a suggestively named oral fixation: I’ve been chewing on a straw for the past hour and a half. I don’t drink alcohol, because if I did I know I wouldn’t stop. Video games are bad for me, too: after nursing an Everquest addiction in my teenage years, I fell into plenty of other massive time sinks—Persona 3 and 4, Final Fantasy, RPGs in general—and conquered them in record times.

But the closest I came to failing out of college was when music game Audiosurf was in beta. I’d play for six, seven, eight hours in a day. I’d miss meals. When I was done playing, I’d feel drained, incapable of accomplishing anything else. It’s combination of my foremost hobby—music—with a simple F-Zero style experience kept me playing for hours on end.

So here comes Symphony, a “powered by your music” arena shooter, wresting its potentially ruinious tendrils through my life.

Symphony shares DNA with Audiosurf, so much so that it’s the obvious point of reference, but it also does with flashy arenas like Geometry Wars and ludicrous deviations like Space Giraffe. Symphony reminds me most of playing the latter, a frantic game about zooming across the bottom of the screen, blasting enemies that charge you from the back of the level. Maybe Symphony reminds me of Space Giraffe because it shares some of that titles’ patent absurdity: Symphony’s “plot” involves saving your music collection from a corrupting, digital effects-infused voice attached to two big eyes, who likes to pontificate about how humans haven’t evolved beyond the need for physical life.

He’s the kind of guy you invite to parties.

Here’s how a game of Symphony goes: you pick a song from your collection (which it meticulously combs through before you can play the game, so expect to wait ten or twenty minutes if you have a music collection of any girth), and the game generates a random collection of enemies from it. You’ll fly your customizable ship around the level, blasting geometric shapes out of the sky and collecting the points they drop. Sometimes you’ll explode. Other times, a boss will show up, talk over your song, and you’ll have to fight an enormous set piece.

Where Symphony becomes dangerous is when you beat the levels. When you do, you’ll unlock an item, as well as a lot of currency. Every song in your collection is given an item: either a generic powerup (say, spread fire) or a rare version of that sort of thing. Each of these can be leveled up, and four can be attached to your ship, turning your humble ship into a whirring, bullet-spitting machine.

So, in effect, Symphony is an arena shooter with leveling mechanics. This is an incredibly dangerouns combination, like chocolate and peanut butter or Nicolas Cage and bad action movie scripts. The fact that I sat down to play it for thirty minutes and ended up standing, glassy eyed and limp armed, two hours later makes sense. Symphony is dangerous in its combination of shooter, music, and gradual improvement.

It’s hardly a perfect game, though, a fact I am actually thankful for. Your ship, mouse controlled, feels much too light. You move at the speed of thought. This makes for a reactive, hair-trigger experience, but it’s too fast for me. It’s too light to even feel like ballet: it feels like a speck of dust floating around in a hurricane. And when you die—and you will die—it will feel arbitrary. Generally, your ship merely takes damage, with what seems to be five hardpoints on your vessel. The four guns you’ve selected constitute one each, as well as a middle cockpit area. Now, you’re going to get hit a lot of times on the wings of your ship until you realize every opposing ship, every opposing missile, has a hit box a little bit too large to navigate. But the real problem comes when you get nailed in the middle by a bright red missile you missed in your own bright red bullet barrage. It will feel random, and arbitrary, and you’ll swear to the heavens about how unfair Symphony treats you, how you’re going to go back to Audiosurf.

Symphony doesn’t dethrone Audiosurf from its status as best active music experience, but I don’t think that’s its goal. Symphony wants to be an RPG/Arena Shooter mashup featuring your music. Unlike Audiosurf, where the procedural take on your songs was the hook, here the hook seems to be upgrading the Geometry Wars experience with something everyone goes nuts over—RPG elements—while letting you play your own music. It succeeds, in part because RPG elements are the chocolate of game design and in part because I always thought Geometry Wars would be more fun with Japandroids than with electronic music. Then again, the music choice barely matters: the syncing is less accurate than Audiosurf, really on varying the speeds of enemies with the song’s tempo. Every song has to have slow, medium, and fast sections, so playing a relatively slow song will result in fast enemies at ludicrous points, and punk rock results in enemies varying wildly.

Symphony also, blissfully, promises an end: complete the five symphonies, protect your music forever, and ride off into the sunset. Maybe the game keeps going after that—I definitely intend to find out—but the promise of an end makes Symphony seem almost manageable. Instead of an overwhelming, permanent addiction, it could be a temporary thing. Rather than a bottomless hole I could never pull myself out of, it’s just another wonderful road to walk down.