Reviewed on Sony PS Vita
It’s rare to find a game that tries to break free of the cloying genre distinctions that dominate modern gaming. For every game that tries to be even a little experimental there is a team of suits sitting around a table ready with their dissatisfied faces and 3D exploded pie charts to prove why you should remove the motion dance controls from your space trading game and instead just make a shooter. With multiplayer. And day one DLC. It’s tough to ignore what the suits say – after all, they have access to advanced graphing on Excel, but every now and then someone comes into the office with the vague whiff of Falling Down about them and everyone gets the hell out of their way. Orgarhythm might not be a dance controlled space trading game but in pure descriptive terms it sounds no less crazy. At the very least then chalk one up for the creatives.
It’s probably best to begin with a discussion on the story as that, at least, follows some fairly generic gaming conventions. There were once two brothers who both just happened to be gods. After deciding to settle on a planet, the elder took control of the underworld while the younger lived on the surface. This God of Light and his minions nurtured the surface world while, unsurprisingly, the God of Dark and his followers only existed to consume, to spread. Shockingly they quickly reached a point where the resources of the underground world had been diminished, leaving nothing to eat for the many evil followers. Apparently beset by hunger the Dark troops headed away from their world towards the surface and all its bounty.
Playing as the God of Light then Orgarhythm sees you marshalling your forces and marching them directly into the encroaching Dark troops in an attempt to save the surface world. However, there are a few catches. Instead of actually controlling where the God of Light moves you follow him as he struts in a funky walk along a predetermined path through each level. Additionally, it seems as though the God isn’t actually all that much use in a direct sense because he can’t actually roll up his sleeves and start smiting the Dark minions himself. But this is where the catch of Orgarhythm comes in as your God has followers which you can control in a manner reminiscent to Patapon, but here you are instead tap-tap-tapping the touchscreen instead of the buttons.
Starting by tapping the God of Light in the centre of your screen you bring up a submenu; from here you can tap to select a troop element and after that you can choose the troop type to deploy, finally dragging your finger across the screen to indicate where you want your troops to run. Alternatively, killing the enemy or having your own troops die builds up a support meter, and by choosing the support icon instead of a troop element while tapping you can unleash various boosts to your soldiers. All of this tapping is performed to some fantastic music, the beat thumping away and indicating when you should be tapping the various icons. The whole system of tapping three times is known as a ‘tri-tap’ and is really the central concept of the whole game. Chain together a tri-tap and your level will increase (making your troops more effective), the number of available troops of that elemental type will go up by one and another layer of thumping soundtrack will be added to the mix. Keep chaining together the tri-taps and you’ll have a sizable army and a cracking tune in no time and it’s a spectacular feeling when you let yourself go and manage to keep the combos coming in. Miss a beat however and your world can come crashing down, your level reduced and your soundtrack diminished.
Strategic concerns begin to come into play when considering which troop type to deploy, with the elements existing in a rock-paper-scissors triangular relationship. In this case, Earth beats Water which beats Fire which beats Earth and so on. If you deploy the correct troops then they will take minimal damage and devastate the enemy, while the reverse is also true if you send troops to fight those against whom they are weakest. Initially you can deploy warriors and archers, unlocking the stronger catapult early in the single player levels. These troop types operate as expected, albeit with the archers only able to fire upon enemies at the same level as them. Catapults fill this void, combining four of your soldiers into one larger entity that, well, catapults giant stones either on the flat or up to elevated enemies. Troop choice aside however there is a much stronger emphasis on getting the elemental choice correct rather than forming ranks of melee and ranged. Half way through the single player campaign you’ll unlock the sacrifice troop type, a ‘suicidal bomber’ if you will who will explode dealing mega damage to the enemy. These are best used sparingly but are evidently handy in some tight spots.
And yet, as you progress through most of the levels, the strategic elements never really pick up to form anything vaguely taxing. In fact, most of the time your best option is to simply rush the on screen enemy with whatever elemental troop type works best against them. Later on in the game you may find situations where, say, a group of Dark Water troops sees you send over some Light Earth warriors only to have them ambushed by some spawning Dark Fire chaps but even here you can simply rush your way out of trouble before any real danger is done. Each level has a boss fight attached to it and these arguably have more strategic concerns with some boss encounters proving themselves to be quite tough. Even then however you can simply rush many bosses with your massed troops, and the ones you can’t see you wanting to fling your Vita across the room in rage as you realise you have to play the whole level again and again just to get one more chance to figure out exactly what tactic the game is expecting you to use.
Conceptually then it may all make sense, bum-shimmying God that you may be, but the implementation of these concepts just feels messy. This extends into the physical controls too - hitting some of the beats isn’t particularly easy, especially for someone who hasn’t really experienced a rhythm action game before, and you can frequently fall into a cycle of missing a beat in most tri-taps. The difficulty levels don’t really address this for new players and so they face a learning cliff of rhythmic proportions, forced to step to the beat or lose the level over and over again. In a game full of infuriating experiences there is nothing quite as bad as failing the first tap in your tri-tap, leaving you sitting there full in the knowledge that however you perform over the next two taps and your troop deployment you still can’t save the next ten seconds of gameplay. If you play for a couple of hours and grind out some experience then you’ll unlock a skill that adds to the generosity of the tap windows, but by then it’s likely that many people would have already moonwalked away from the game.
Other frustrations abound; tapping the rear touchscreen recalls your troops and sets your level to zero, meaning that you have to hold the Vita in a claw like grip with your non-dominant hand to ensure that you don’t accidentally reset everything. The AI of your troops is truly dreadful, with melee troops quite happily jogging into walls non-stop instead of turning around to smack the enemy behind them or simply negotiating the terrain in the worst way possible. Formations don’t tend to stay around for very long either, with both catapults and archer lines comically disbanding and running back to the God of Light while their targets are left with a sliver of health, pinging away at the rest of your troops. Add to this the fact that some of the boss fights are made head smashingly frustrating by the inabilities of your troops and it’s actually a bit of a shock that anyone makes it into the later stages.
The music, at least, is fantastic. Orgarhythm really is a game that you play with your ears and a finger rather than eyes and hands and there is a grim satisfaction in battling against the control framework and achieving a complete music track throughout the entirety of a level. For those attracted to this however there are only twelve single player levels, and while the ranking system and difficulty levels would have you repeating them ad infinitum as you grind everything out there is simply too much repetition of the same content for you to be happy with. There are ad hoc Co-op and Versus modes available but good luck finding anyone else vaguely nearby who has both a Vita and Orgarhythm. While wireless network lag may have made an online multiplayer mode untenable it still feels like a kick in the teeth to be effectively locked out of what could have been the most fun part of the game.
So then. Tap tap tap drag. Tap tap tap drag. Tap tap tap drag. Tap MISTAP DAMMIT tap drag. That, in a nutshell, is Orgarhythm. On one hand it’s a wonderful conceptual take on rhythm action, blending in elements of RTS and score attack along with a thumping soundtrack. Its problem is that on the other hand it’s a flawed delivery, a game where the overriding artistic concept and desire to produce something different has resulted in a game that far too often isn’t actually fun to play. In a world crying out for dance controlled space trading games it is such a disappointment that Orgarhythm fails to deliver on so many accounts. So, there we are. I’m not angry (even with all the bloody mistaps), I’m just disappointed.