I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never been great at any type of rhythm game. Not to say I haven’t enjoyed playing them because I certainly have: Guitar Hero came out my Senior year of high school and Dance Dance Revolution arrived in the arcade at my local mall even before that. I’ve played both sober as well as in various states of inebriation and, while I certainly had a great and sometimes enthusiastically silly time playing each of them and their various knockoffs and elaborations, no rhythm game has ever really clicked with me or sucked me in in such a way that I just had to keep playing it. At least until I spent the past few hours with Melody’s Escape.
Melody’s Escape is basically a combination of a standard rhythm game and a runner, taking each genre and stripping them down to their basic components. The graphics are pleasant, the visibility factor is good, and the difficulty levels are well balanced out (though with my lack of skill I couldn’t really do well past the second one). There’s nothing really game changing in terms of gameplay or graphical achievement here. At face value it’s actually a pretty well crafted yet generic mashup of styles that might make you wonder “what’s the big deal? What’s with all the hype?” But then you start playing along to your own music, your mind gets blown, and you find yourself falling down a highly enjoyable rabbit hole. Well, if you’re anything like me that’s what happens.
The real brilliance at play is the algorithm developer Icetesy SPRL has cooked up for Melody’s Escape. You can choose any musical file from your iTunes (or other) music library and have the game build a custom level all around it by analyzing the songs tempo, melody, dynamics, syncopation, and probably a few other factors to boot. Don’t ask me how they got this to work so well, I’m pretty ignorant of programming myself, but whatever work they did yields damn fine results. Pop and dance tunes in 4/4 time definitely work the best (really anything with a drum machine on it) but even more rhythmically complex songs are handled with aplomb. No matter how complex the input from your chosen song, the levels always feel very organically paced and the timing of your keystrokes never ends up being awkward or off-putting.
It’s hard to put into words how singularly delightful it is to play through a rhythm game featuring my very own oddball playlist. I tried to get a pretty broad mix of songs loaded up to really try and put the game through the ringer. Like I said earlier, this thing just eats up dance tunes like nobodies business but I was pleasantly surprised by how well some highly random songs performed within Melody Escape’s algorithm.
“Games Without Frontiers” by Peter Gabriel and “Permafrost” by Magazine brought on the post punk creepiness and their cranky drum machine beats fit in very nicely, but then some Bach violin pieces held up just as well and benefited greatly in their complexity. What really brought a goofy grin to my face was how well the algorithm system matched with pretty much every Primus tune I could throw at it, as well as the more oom-pah-pah sounding Tom Waits songs that I enjoy so much. Hearing “Fisticuffs” blaring while rhythmically playing along on a shiny modern rhythm game is nothing short of surreal. Traditional rock and pop songs work pretty well, too, but if a developer wants to give me the opportunity to get weird with it, then that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Another great thing about being able to pick your own music is the awe inspiring replay factor this feature brings. I spent the first hour of gameplay just trying out different wacky songs to see what the game would do in response. Once I came up with my kind of standardized playlist I dug in to replaying through my song choices, trying to really nail my timing of the on-screen cues and beat my own high scores for each song. Again, rhythm games are not my forte but Melody’s Escape didn’t prove to be frustratingly difficult for me to get my head around, at least not until the third difficulty setting when it got pretty crazy. I expected to putter around with the game for maybe an hour but ended up playing for more than two before I could finally drag myself away.
Maybe the best recommendation I can give for Melody’s Escape is that, in writing this review, I’ve just been thinking of more and more songs I’d like to plug into the game and play through. It’s almost like the music player visualizers I had so much fun with back in my high school and college days, except interactive and actually engaging instead of just kind of trippy. Add in all the cool user generated skins you can download from the Steam Workshop and we’re looking at a game with high replay and customization options going for it. I’d highly recommend this game to anyone looking for a funky new spin on an old classic, but I would particularly recommend Melody’s Escape to anyone who really enjoys listening to and engaging with music. It’s certainly a new kind of experience that I, for one, found engrossing.