The game starts. The camera slowly pulls back, revealing a silhouette – Deemo – gently playing the piano. He looks up into the beam of light that is illuminating him. There is, somehow, a window on the roof. Light is cascading through it as the window doors are thrown open. A little girl slowly falls through the hole, her arms and legs trailing upwards. The camera pans down softly and we see that Deemo is already standing, arms outstretched, ready to catch the little girl.
He gently sits her on his piano and holds his hand out. She looks at him – a character of pure blackness, outlined only by the lines of his tuxedo, his bowtie and his two white pupils.
“Who are you?” She asks before taking his hand.
“Deemo Reborn”, the game replies as the title flashes up on the screen.
This is the start of the most beautiful, melancholy rhythm puzzle game I have ever played, and a ground-up remake of the 2013 mobile game for the PlayStation VR. Back then, there was far less plot, the cutscenes were glorified pencil sketches and the gameplay wasn’t exactly pretty. I called it things like ‘Guitar Hero-like’ and ‘Piano Hero’ in order to convey how it plays, but that doesn’t really do the game justice. Yes, you play the piano and you tap notes as they hit a line on the bottom of the screen, but this actually has a compelling plot, and the quality of the unlicensed, original music is beyond compare. Like the rest of the games, it’s all voiced in Japanese, and the songs are a mix of English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese language. Deemo has since been released on a host of other consoles, but none of these hold a candle to this remake.
But who is Deemo? Why doesn’t he talk? Why are you in his castle and how do you get out?
The last question is answered first, and the first answered last. A little ‘elf’ (it’s basically a fairy but it’s called an elf) points out that there’s a magical shoot behind the piano that grows as it hears music. The little girl comes to the astute conclusion that if you grow the shoot tall enough that it becomes a massive tree, she’ll be able to climb back out of the window and head home. This sets you off on an adventure to collect as much sheet as you can, since the tree grows faster as it hears something new. You explore the castle and solving puzzles along the way. Some of these puzzles are easier than others and solved simply by looking around or pausing for thought. Others demand a keen ear, testing your knowledge of music and asking whether you can tell the difference between one and two violins playing at the same time.
Fortunately, there is a lot of music in the game to collect. With more than 60 songs across multiple difficulty levels, Deemo has no shortage of ditties to bash out. You quickly get accustomed to Deemo — the girl doesn’t play the piano, so when you’re doing the rhythm parts of the game, you do so looking out of Deemo’s beady eyes — if you play in VR, you do so with Deemo’s slender hands, further reinforcing your bond with the character. Deemo isn’t supposed to be creepy. He’s more of a memory you can’t quite place, but the art style certainly doesn’t do him many favours in that regard. He’s basically Billy Joel and Slenderman’s love child — there’s no nice way of putting it.
The tree grows as you play through the jaunty tunes that the little girl picks up. As it does so, more parts of the castle are unlocked, revealing further puzzles and our third and final character – the Masked Lady. The antithesis of Deemo, the Masked Lady wears all white, hiding her face behind her porcelain mask. Though she can talk, she doesn’t have much to say to the little girl; she seems rather annoyed by her attempts to grow the tree and leave the castle, becoming the primary antagonist in your attempt to escape.
Beyond this, there isn’t anything else I can say about the premise without giving the plot away. It isn’t until around a minute before the end credits that you find out who Deemo and the Masked Lady are, what they and the castle all represent, and even what the little girl’s name is.
And when you find it feels like you’ve been punched in the throat.
Deemo Reborn is a triumphant return to the Deemo franchise, allowing you to see through the get a reel feel for the castle for the first time. The rhythm sections have beautiful, dynamic backgrounds instead of a simple grey gradient. The beauty is only offset by the melancholy as you come to terms with what the game is about. Beautiful music can only do so much to sooth the torment as you come to terms with what the game is about.
Unfortunately, a lot of the beauty is lost when you take off the VR headset. With it on, you play the piano with the PlayStation Move controllers, seeing Deemo’s hands in front of you. With it off, you play the piano using the standard PS4 controller. Looking back to Guitar Hero, yes you could play it without the guitar, but what would be the point? The same goes for Deemo — I played a song that I have known for more than half a decade on Hard with a standard controller and again with a Move controller, and got a 36.62% difference in my score. At that point, are you even playing the same game? Mark my words: if you play Deemo without the full VR experience you are wasting your time.
The only advantage to playing the game without a headset is that you get an additional difficulty level – Normal. VR mode forgoes this, presumably because you don’t need it; being able to move your hands towards the notes is as easy and intuitive as it comes. If you have any semblance of eye–hand coordination, you’re not going to struggle on Hard with VR.
Unfortunately, Easy mode is just as important as Hard mode, which is my second biggest bugbear with this game. Because the game registers new modes as new songs, you need to play each level on Easy and Hard if you want to have any chance of finishing it. This repetition is a major drawback that can start to make you look at playing beautiful music as a chore. The quality of the music helps, but only so much.
My biggest annoyance with the game is that my favourite song, Wings of Piano, isn’t in it. I can only hope that it released as part of some upcoming DLC.