Symphony on the PC turns your music library into a Tron-like game grid
In Empty Clip Studios’ PC shooter Symphony, you’re on a mission to liberate your music library. The game takes existing tracks from your computer, analyzes them, and spits them out as neon death arenas where you blast apart Geometry Wars-style enemies, collecting Inspiration and Kudos. The experience is both psychedelic and satisfying… when it works.
A variable experience
You control your musical starship with your mouse, and fly around an arena bordered at the bottom by your computer screen, the top by a visualizer of the selected song, and the sides by fences that spit out enemies. The background may give the visual impression of speed, but you’re always playing a top-down shooter in the same square, floating around, dispensing music-based justice.
Your goal is to save your music library from being corrupted by an otherworldly force by slaying its minions. There are also larger, strong enemies called “demons,” which serve as the closest thing Symphony has to boss fights. Slaying these frees a piece of the Symphony of Souls. None of this is really explained, but your aim might be a little off if you bought the game for its story.
Blowing up enemies causes them to leave behind Inpiration. By earning both Inspiration and Kudos – reaching level goals of Inspiration points grants you Kudos points – you can unlock and upgrade weapons and items. There are plenty of things to unlock, and upgrading them can be as addictive in Symphony as it is in an old-school RPG.
These weapons and items are also primarily music-based. Sticking the Subwoofer to your ship will make it fire enormous musical notes that piledrive through enemies whenever a heavy bass note comes along in the chosen song. The bigger the wub-wub, the bigger the blast.
The Subwoofer was effective because of all the weapons and items I unlocked, it was able to demonstrate the satisfaction of merging a top-down shooter with my own music library. A weapon firing in time with bass booms that would normally inspire me to nod my head in rhythm is a neat trick, and the Subwoofer also fired reliably on cue, which is an accomplishment in this genre.
The problem with games like Symphony and Audiosurf – another game that utilizes your existing music tracks to generate levels – is that, advanced though the technology may be, sometimes it just doesn’t feel like software can recognize the difference between a bass drum and a bass guitar. In Audiosurf, instruments and beats created a racer-puzzle hybrid, with obstacles and jumps. It was simple, but you could tell where Audiosurf had turned the song into a game. Symphony struggles with that concept.
Enemy arrivals match the beat of the music, but the rapid-fire lasers your ship uses to obliterate them do not. The sound effects of ship crashes and explosions likewise don’t fit the track unless you try to force it into doing so by timing your shots, and there’s no advantage to doing that. Higher levels of difficulty throw an absurd number of enemies at you, and the overabundance of neon colors can be confusing. I guarantee you will be destroyed at least once by a laser dot you simply didn’t see because of the virtual firework display that masked its approach.
The problem grows when the level changes from blue to red the more intense a song gets, increasing the speed and aggression of the enemies and their blasts, which are also red. The twitchy, fast-paced reactions demanded of shooters is still here and it’s an adequate experience, but the elegance of rhythm games where the level designs match the music perfectly is missing. It’s a trade-off with being able to use your own music, but it may not be worth it.
Search for the best songs
It’s unfortunate that so many songs turn out to be unremarkable, because when you find songs you enjoy outside the game and they translate well – for me, those songs were “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” by Cage the Elephant, “99 Problems” by Hugo, and pretty much anything by Pearl Jam – the game delivers. Some songs turn downright muddy however, so I’d suggest staying away from anything live or intricately produced. The simpler, the better.
If you want to mess with yourself, play the slowest love ballad or your favorite comedian. The disconnect between trying to frantically destroy enemies while your brain tries to relax with these sorts of audio can be more entertaining than you think; the only song I couldn’t meet score goals on was “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz.
Symphony is impressive for its vision and the deep, hypnotic experience you can find in the right songs. The game is a gamble at best; the larger your collection, the more likely you are to find those hidden gems.