Sonar Beat delivers the core rhythm-game experience with a twist. But it keeps it simple — no big story, side games or collectibles. So, if plain and good ‘beat smashing’ is what you are after, and electronic music is appealing to you, should Sonar Beat be on your radar?
My first rhythm game was Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Picking up the plastic guitar for the first time, even using only three of the five buttons on its neck was a challenge. But it was manageable, and soon I could get through most songs and finish my first career on easy mode.
At that time, I was already hooked. I played through medium and hard, getting better gradually until I found my match with Muse’ Knights of Cydonia on expert. I kept on trying but at some point, I had to accept that I wouldn’t make it through that last part. I didn’t really mind though, as I’ve already spent months with the game.
Sonar Beat is not like Guitar Hero. It didn’t grant me that gradual long-time challenge. At the beginning it stands out with a unique gameplay mechanic. Instead of notes going across the screen in one way or another, your beats appear on a sonar. A line goes around in circles and marks the spot when you are supposed to hit a beat or enemy as Sonar Beat calls it, sticking to the submarine theme. There are three types of notes you encounter which you master by tapping a button, holding it for the right amount of time or tapping two buttons at the same time.
The twist in this mechanic is that if you miss a beat then it doesn’t only cost you precious points as it breaks up your combo. No, the note will also move closer to the centre and you must try to hit it again the next time around. Meanwhile, the normal track continues on the outermost ring, throwing extra enemies at you. This means that the game automatically becomes more difficult the more enemies you miss. If one of them reaches the centre, it knocks down one of your shields. As you only have a single shield to start with, the second time it is game over and you have to start the song again.
The problem with the enemies coming back is that their position doesn’t fit with the song anymore. It’s still on beat but it usually doesn’t flow with the melody as well as the outer ring does. At first you don’t mind that much, but it quickly becomes worse when the songs get faster. On the fifth song (out of a total twelve) I hit a wall for a long time. At some point during the track I sort of switched modes. From trying to be in sync with the song to full space invader, just trying to hit the enemies on the innermost ring. Usually this works for a while, and if the current part of the song doesn’t add that many new enemies, you might button mash your way back to the outer ring. However, most of the time I ended up overwhelmed as I tried to hit enemies at exactly the right time while listening to what seemed to be an unrelated song.
I saw myself getting better, but it felt like learning a real musical instrument instead of being a fun game. It is so much sweeter when you eventually do master a song, but you have to realize that it is quite a commitment getting there. When I finally did manage to finish the song, my struggles just started all over with the next one and I gave up for good.
All this is not helped by the awkward controls that I had to wrap my head around first. I was going back and forth between the game and the tutorial too many times. On iOS and Android, it is a bit easier, because you can tap the screen anywhere and it doesn’t distinguish between two different buttons. This is a behaviour I would have liked to see on PC as well. Otherwise the game is very similar on PC and mobile. There are no swiping actions on touch screens, which could have made gameplay a bit more diverse. All the versions feed into the same high score tables though, so it makes sense that the rules cannot diverge too much.
Along with the sonar mechanic come the somewhat submarine-based visuals. It sticks to simple animated lines and graphs, which is good as it doesn’t distract from the main focus point. While that is fine for the visuals, I would have loved to see more variety in the songs. They all sound very computer-made, like old MIDI tracks with a mellow vibe throughout. They are okay but for a game essentially about music, I would have expected a bit more.
Sonar Beat is a solid rhythm game with an interesting mechanic. But it is too hard, and I just wish it would throw a few more life lines along the way. Let me start out with a few more shields instead of just one or let me get new ones quicker instead of having to score an impossible 100-enemy streak. Give me an easier mode that lets me get to know the whole song. Once I’m hooked, I could still take it up a notch and try all the songs again to chase the high scores. Maybe we will see additions like these in the future, but right now, the Knights of Cydonia moment happens so soon into the game, that it will only appeal to the most hardcore of rhythm game players.