There's a reason Gaijin Games, as young as it is as a developer, already has a strong and devoted following, having taken addictively throbbing beats and married them to some of the most intense gameplay we've ever seen. It takes periodic trips to a sunnier, much simpler era of gaming, and redefines the experience as a plunge into dangerous and unnerving darkness, undercutting high-concept, passively philosophical musings with cheap puns and physical comedy (or should that be the other way around?) To put it flatly, Gaijin works to push the entire experience of being a gamer forward, reminding us of why we got into video games in the first place.
And it's done all of this (and certainly more) with BIT.TRIP: a manic series of genre-hopping, thumb-crunching, sleep-stealing rhythm games. As the series has grown and progressed, fans have attempted to anticipate (nearly always inaccurately) the experience that each new installment would bring. Now that the series is drawing to a close, however, another question arises: what will Gaijin Games bring us next?
Their early answer to that question is lilt line, a game recently released for the iPhone, and even more recently for WiiWare.
It's apparent from the moment the game begins that lilt line will share more than just a publisher with BIT.TRIP; it shares its rhythm-based gameplay experience, its infectious grooves and its effective (sometimes haunting) minimalist visual approach. All of this just begs to be compared to its more popular sister series, and that would be a serious problem if lilt line was a disappointing release. As it stands, however, the comparison is well-deserved, even if lilt line doesn't quite manage to fill those big shoes.
The game is controlled by holding the Wii Remote NES-style, twisting it toward and away from the screen in order to move the line up and down (again, the BIT.TRIP comparisons – here to BEAT in particular – are not out of line.) The screen autoscrolls to the right, often at downright sadistic speeds, and it's your job to prevent the line from colliding with walls and corners, which seem to be deliberately arranged in such a way to keep you from ever blinking again.
The line will periodically pass through a thick vertical rectangle (often with a visible buffer for error), and, when it does, you must hit a button (you have several choices of which to use, depending upon what feels most comfortable for your grip) on the beat to see the background visual dynamics, and to keep the song fully layered. At this point, it's almost insulting to keep pointing out the BIT.TRIP similarities, but you get the picture.
Each level begins with the highest score possible, and counts down from there every time you hit a wall or skip a beat. If your score falls to zero, the level ends. If you manage to make it through a level without hitting anything or missing your marks, you'll get a "perfect" notification on the high score list, but this is easier said than done. Often you will be lucky just to scrape through a level with a measly hundred points or so. But, hey, nobody said it was going to be easy!
As this is a Gaijin Games release, the expectation of brutal difficulty would be a fair one and in that respect lilt line pretty much delivers. There are only 15 levels, but don't expect to pass many of them your first time through: they are designed to require several attempts, and sometimes need ten or more tries. Oddly, however, the difficulty curve feels more like a difficulty wave. Some levels are relentless, requiring trial after trial just to finally make it through with an embarrassingly low score, only to be followed up by a level (or two) that can be zipped through without any problem whatsoever.
This unsteady increase in difficulty would not be a problem if it wasn't for the fact that levels only unlock once you successfully complete the previous level. This means that certain players may find themselves trapped behind the challenge of a particularly malicious early level, preventing them from experiencing the easier ones that surface later, which they might well be able to handle and enjoy.
There's also the problem of level length, which seems to want to achieve two different goals at once. The levels are too short for the player to really feel at one with the (often great) songs that shape them. Just as you're getting into the groove the level ends, sometimes leaving you with a feeling of mild dissatisfaction. And yet, despite their abbreviated length, they sometimes feel unfairly long, thanks to their intense and relentless challenge.
When you're twisting and turning your Wii Remote the levels feel interminably long until you conquer them, at which point you'll wish they were at least long enough for you to appreciate their music. Perhaps longer levels, stretched out by the inclusion of somewhat calmer, breath-catching segments, could have addressed both of our concerns at once, but as it stands, the levels are tough enough to feel too long, and dissatisfying enough to feel too short.
But as far as complaints go that's really all we can say, and without question there are gamers who will feel perfectly at home with lilt line's length and approach.
This game very often feels like it should be called BIT.TRIP: LITE, but that's not such a bad thing. Its controls are almost suspiciously tight and its music – though all too brief – is phenomenal.
The fact that the score works by deducting points from a maximum (rather than building up from zero) does seem to redefine the score readout as a sort of numeric health bar rather than anything to get excited over, thereby limiting replayability, but for many players BIT.TRIP was more about the experience than the score.
If you were one of those players, lilt line just might serve as a brief, wispy reminder of how Gaijin Games managed to cement such a strong reputation so quickly.
For any fan of the BIT.TRIP series, lilt line is a necessary purchase. Whether or not you will end up enjoying it as much as those releases is up for debate, but it hews closely enough to those games that you're bound to be at least somewhat satisfied. Apart from some mind-boggling decisions in terms of difficulty, lilt line is a pretty smart buy. Just don't expect to return to it as frequently as you do the adventures of Commander Video.