A great deal has changed for the rhythm genre over the past decade. After experiencing a period of outrageous boom, things have been moving rather decidedly in the opposite direction for the past few years. A precipitous drop-off occurred in 2009, when the market reached the point of saturation, things have plodded along since but few releases have managed to capture community’s imagination, much less steal Guitar Hero‘s crown.
From that seemingly exhausted soil, however, emerges a PlayStation Network exclusive that is certain to provide a breath of fresh air for a genre that has become a tad stagnant. So, dust off those plastic guitars and read on to find out more Retro/Grade, a game that blurs the lines between music games and shmups to provide one of the standout PSN releases of the summer.
Oddly enough, Retro/Grade opens with the game’s final boss and just moments after beginning the campaign the end credits begin to roll. The screen goes black and all of a sudden the clock starts ticking in reverse. The protagonist, Rick Rocket, and his space-fighter fly backwards. Once defeated enemy ships reappear. Expended munitions fly from off-screen back toward the guns which once fired them. And herein lies what Retro/Grade is truly about.
Though it may resemble a shooter, Retro/Grade is in fact a rhythm game in the same vein as Guitar Hero or Rock Band. In order to protect space-time continuum players are given the task of completing the battle in reverse, meaning you’ll need to collect all the shots Rick once fired as they manifest from the hulls of enemy ships. Acting much in the same way that individual notes or drumbeats do in Harmonix’ games, laser-fire flies in from right to left on multiple tracks, the number of which will depend on the chosen level of difficulty. Achieving a low-score (everything is backwards) is dependent on the timing of a button-press on the DualShock or the strum of your plastic guitar along with the beat of a song.
What separates Retro/Grade from Guitar Hero, aside from being backwards and taking place on a horizontal plane, is that players have to contend with enemy fire as well. It’s this aspect, in addition to the game’s aesthetic, that makes the title something of a fusion of the rhythm and shooter genres. Retro/Grade draws one’s gaze on a single point, transfixing the player into a near-subconscious state as the body reacts to visual stimuli seemingly with little input from the mind. This is one of my favorite aspects of both genres and 24 Caret Games has nailed the feeling — you know, the one where it almost seems like you’re waking up when a level draws to a close.
A huge part of that is owed to the Retro/Grade‘s music, which has a certain ’80s Synthpop meets retro videogame charm to it and is paired wonderfully with the visual aesthetics — which, by the way, are pretty impressive in their own right. Each track has its own distinct personality which helps to keep things fresh over the course of the game’s 10 levels. Unfortunately, due to the short duration of the campaign and the score attack nature of game, I can see players easily tiring of the soundtrack after listening to the same song for the umpteenth time.
Something that doesn’t help matters is that the tracks are recycled in Retro/Grade‘s challenge mode, a bonus campaign that helps extend the game’s length for players concerned with the ever important issue of replay value. The challenge stages are an interesting diversion, especially if you’re interested in unlocking certain bonus content like a Minecraft-inspired ship design, but they seem more like an afterthought than anything.
My only knock against the game, aside from the aforementioned scarcity of content, would be the highest level of difficulty. It’s frustrating and it just isn’t fun. Replacing any semblance of rhythmic challenge with one that constantly demands the player to switch tracks in order to stay alive, Extreme difficulty pretty much flies in the face of what makes the rest of the game so enjoyable. It really ruins that zen vibe that the rest of the difficulty modes have going for them and is the only noticeable blemish on an otherwise good, if brief, experience.
A great deal of what Retro/Grade so enjoyable to play is how inventive it is. By turning concepts on their head that have long been at a standstill and mashing them up with one another 24 Caret Games have made something that while derivative in some aspects, also feels like something that is entirely its own.
Whether you’re a fan of shooters, rhythm games or are just looking for a breath of fresh air, PlayStation 3 owners would do well to take Retro/Grade for a spin around space and time.
This review is based on a digital copy of Retro/Grade for the PlayStation 3.