It seems like a good long time since rhythm and music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band topped the charts and fueled pop-stardom fantasies. When those games really clicked, they made the player feel like rock and roll royalty. For anyone with fond memories of chasing the leaderboards in Guitar Hero — and, more importantly, the owner of a PlayStation VR rig — we now have Beat Saber, which puts the player in the role of light saber-wielding musical Jedi samurai, slicing and dicing through colored blocks cued to the pulse of the music.
Beat Saber has a core concept that is simplicity itself. Using dual PlayStation Move controllers, the player simply cuts through flying colored cubes, slicing in the direction indicated by an arrow on each block. The highest-point goal is a good, clean cut right down the center. That’s all there is to it.
Well, sort of. At all but the easiest setting, the blocks come thick and fast and the cutting patterns — especially at the hard and expert levels — can be diabolically complex, though always logically and intuitively linked to the music and rhythm. It is very easy to enter a real flow state playing Beat Saber, because the game is so physical and rewards a very focused and clear-headed state of mind, not to mention cardiac fitness. In fact, Beat Saber is at the heart of a “VR Fitness” movement, which uses the game and a few others like Creed: Rise to Glory as the legit core of an exercise regimen. Playing Beat Saber burns around 8 calories a minute, or the equivalent of playing real-world tennis.
Playing Beat Saber is an addictive and rewarding experience mechanically, but music games live or die by the quality of the songs, and this is perhaps the one area in which the game falls incrementally short. Although modders have figured out how to add to the playlist for Oculus Rift and Vive versions of the game, PSVR users are stuck — for now —with the game’s 16 track, non-licensed original collection. To be sure, many of the songs are winners, like K/DA’s “Pop/Stars,” but there are a handful of generic dance instrumentals or guitar-riff laden rockers that aren’t incredibly memorable, no matter how well-tuned they are to the game. Here’s hoping that add-on packs of songs are just around the corner as promised.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of content. Beat Saber offers a long a challenging campaign as well as free-play and party modes. But the game also includes a long list of learning tools, like the ability to slow the songs down or turn on a no-fail modifier. For those ready for a challenge over and above the Expert mode, there are extra-point modifiers that reduce the tolerance for errors to basically zero.
Watching expert players on YouTube paints a pretty good picture of the graceful and focused movement that is a unique quality of Beat Saber. Thanks to VR, it is simply impossible to play the game without feeling like one is inside the music, an extra level of immersion that rhythm and music games like Rock Band could never quite reach. Of course, Beat Saber is also a very individual experience as well. Being inside the VR helmet does not lend itself to the shared party vibe of a music game like Just Dance.
Beat Saber comes at the end of a really important year for the PSVR, with games like Tetris Effect, Moss, and Astro Bot Rescue Mission giving renewed life to the two-year old device. These games — but especially Beat Saber — are the best evidence for VR being more than a promising but ultimately niche technology. It has mass appeal and gameplay that just about anyone can enjoy.