If there’s a lesson to be learned from Soundodger+ it’s that music is made of evil. Every note spawns a wave of pointy death and the only defense is to try not to get hit, even when the screen is crowded to bursting. No matter how relaxing a song may sound, it’s packed full of bullet patterns waiting to tear through you. Thankfully you’ve got infinite lives, but the shame of failure is hard to ignore.
Soundodger+ is the full version of the web game Soundodger, which came out in June to a good amount of acclaim. The basics are the same, and there’s no visual upgrades seeing as none were needed, but the song count has almost doubled to 23 tracks by 15 musicians, many of whom are familiar and several more who deserve to be. Austin Wintory (Journey, Monaco), Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac), Disasterpeace (Fez), and a many more provide the music to keep the bullet patterns flowing.
Like the best music games, the songs are central to the experience. Simply dodging waves of bullets is somewhat entertaining in a mechanical way, but set the patterns to music and you’re basically dancing against the song. You’re a little circle in the middle of a large circular arena, and circles rotating around the arena’s edge fire three types of bullets at you. The common triangle carries the bulk of the offense, and while they always travel in a straight line it can get crowded very quickly when multiple swarms start converging from different directions. The second most common bullets are the squares, which home in on you just long enough to make sure you have to keep moving, until they run out of juice and impact on the arena’s wall. The final enemy is the sphere, which doesn’t do much other than take up a lot of space. You might be able to sneak through a small gap in a pattern of triangles, but when the spheres swarm out it’s like an impenetrable wall. Soundodger+ isn’t shy about throwing ridiculous amounts of firepower around the screen, and its unique arena with the circles rotating around its edge makes for some truly lovely curving patterns.
Fortunately, it also starts off easy. The initial songs provide a great warmup, and it’s easy to get a good percentage score. Move with the mouse, activate slowdown with a button if you don’t mind taking the scoring penalty, and that’s all the controls there are. As the bullets fly a colored circle (there’s a lot of circles in this game) starts growing slowly in the center of the screen, and when it reaches the arena’s edge the song is complete. The problem is that the colored part is the bit you didn’t screw up on. Take a hit and, while the ring keeps growing, the color shrinks a bit as the song speeds up and all bullets on screen fly to the edge, leaving you with a cleared area and brief invulnerability while you get back into the song. At the end of the level your percentage score is the amount of the arena that’s colored in, and this is what unlocks harder levels.
While this should technically mean you need to work to earn the later songs, if you just keep playing one at a time there should be no problem unlocking everything but the bonus tracks. On the plus side, it’s nice to be able to advance, but it’s also very easy to get in over your head. You can brute-force your way to the last track, but taking a hit every ten seconds on the final songs isn’t exactly fun. A harsher restriction on accessing the later levels would make advancing a bit more frustrating, but would also mean you’ve had the practice to survive with a bit of grace.
The bonus levels, on the other hand, are a lot harder to access. So hard that I have yet to see even one of them, in fact. Once you get halfway through the level list Soundodger+ starts being a little bit forgiving by throwing out a single heart per level. Grab the heart and it absorbs a hit with no penalty, but if you clear the level without taking any damage it goes towards unlocking one of five bonus levels. They’re probably really nice, but it takes nerves of steel and the precise iron control of a surgeon to see one.
While there’s a ton of content in the main game, with most of the songs having multiple versions of varying difficulty, there’s still more to explore. Auto-gen Mode has the game generate patterns for any music you might have hanging around the hard drive, and while the patterns are nowhere near as intricate as the hand-choreographed regular levels it’s still fun to toss the occasional song at it to see what falls out. If you want something that provides a proper challenge, though, you’ll need to poke into the Editor, where you can create your own deadly bullet swarms with a bit of effort.
Soundodger+ is a lovely and brutal exercise in pure arcade music gaming. The goal is simple, the controls basic, and yet there’s still more than enough happening to keep your attention riveted on survival while any parts of your brain left over enjoy the interplay of the bullets and music. The soundtrack is excellent, the visuals clean and clear, and the challenge level an utter bastard. Even the hardest levels make you want to try for perfection, though, and pull you back in for one last attempt even when you know it’s not going to happen. That’s how arcade games are supposed to work, and Soundodger+ nails it with style.