Tomohisa Kuramitsu‘s bloopy, minimalistic beats were the literal driving force behind PixelJunk Eden’s rhythmic gameplay – his Baiyon stage persona lending a certain weight to an otherwise difficult to pin down platform-puzzler. Not that the PixelJunk label has really been that easy to pigeonhole, of course, drifting from racer to tower defence to side scrolling shoot ’em up during the PS3’s life span, but Eden was always a tricky sell – and a pulsing, pounding soundtrack is a checkbox that’s easy to connect with.
The producer’s second collaboration with Dylan Cuthbert’s indie, esoteric development studio is, ironically, even tougher to describe. With 4am (nee Lifelike, curiously) Baiyon has again provided the music (and no doubt considerable input into the visuals) and, alongside lead designer Rowan Parker, created something rather unique on the platform that a) doesn’t look or feel like a PixelJunk game and b) needs something of an open mind to fully get the most out of.
In as many ways as you can think.
That’s not a criticism, of course – regular readers will know that I’m more than happy to champion innovation and forward thinking in this industry, and when everybody else is churning out me-too shooters and six-monthly football games on a seemingly endless, perpetual cycle, it’s the smaller developers that really tick the right boxes for me. Naturally, Sony deserve some credit themselves for pushing this kind of ‘game’, the PSN a popular hotbed for the off-kilter experiences that this generation has readily left behind elsewhere.
As you’ll see, though, when the downloadable title lands in the middle of May, 4am is much more than the sum of its parts. Broken down into raw numbers and stats it’s clear that this isn’t going to offer up a full production studio or otherwise allow you to create your own music – that’s not the point – rather you’re playing with elements of existing tracks and morphing, melding them into something else. Like a live remix, if you will, and it’s all done with a Move controller and an Eye, so dust off the tech.
I’ll admit, at first I didn’t really connect with the way 4am expects you to visualise its invisible borders, the tutorial presenting a virtual box in which your actions and gestures interact with the music. Without so much as a pointer on screen, it’s left to your arm’s physical location and some eager vibration from the Move to signify what you’re doing, which is a leap of faith that’s a little tricky to grasp for a good few minutes. Thankfully the tutorial’s relaxed enough to let you figure things out at your own pace, but be prepared to invest some time.
Once you’re in, though, you’re good. Each ‘event’ – a pairing of audio and visuals – consists of four tracks (drums, bass, synth and a rhythm track) and they can be muted (or run solo) via the four main PlayStation face buttons. Holding down the Move button lets you change the sound of the tracks as you move and twist the controller, and the trigger acts as a mouse drag to pull in alternative loops from the corners and also overdub one shot hits (which you perform by tapping the external borders of the space) which can be recording along with your effects.
With the ability to listen to other 4am users over PSN there’s a neat social aspect to the game (you select where you’re playing from, too) and of course 4am can act as a visualiser for your own music. You can even link up two controllers if you have friends round. So whilst it’s true that it’s more about playing with existing sounds, at least in the version I’ve tried which apparently only scratches the surface, there’s a fair amount of flexibility to be found with the various effects and some subtle actions (like slowly releasing the trigger when dropping in a new loop to fade between them) means that experimentation pays off.