Taiwanese developer Rayark may best be known for its music games on mobile platforms, but it was also responsible for one of the best surprises in the Switch’s launch lineup with VOEZ. Brought to the Switch by publisher Flyhigh Works, this colourful title showed how well once-free-to-play rhythm games could work on Nintendo’s handheld wonder, and now Flyhigh Works is back to bring another well-respected Rayark rhythm game to the eShop: DEEMO. Stylish and fun, with a wonderful soundtrack and compelling narrative, Deemo is every bit the hit that VOEZ was — and this Switch port is the best version yet.

Our story begins with a young girl named Alice who falls, Wonderland-like, through a trapdoor in the sky, and down into the castle home of a mysterious pianist named Deemo. With an indistinct face and long, slender limbs, Deemo seems like something out of a hazy dream, and he may well be — everything’s delightfully surreal this side of the rabbit hole, including the large tree stump on which his piano rests. As Deemo plays, the tree suddenly springs to life and begins to grow around the piano, higher and higher, and towards Alice’s entry point in the sky. So the two set to making music, in the hopes of growing her a way to get back home.

It’s a lovely, melancholy tale, and to help them on their way and watch it unfold all you have to do is pick a song and get playing. Deemo opens with only a few tracks to choose from, but as the tree shoots up — encouraged ever upward as you play —you’ll quickly unlock many, many more. Songs are organized into different ‘packs’, and you’ll earn new ones by nudging the tree to certain meter milestones or by clearing specific songs — there are even a few to be found by searching point-and-click-style in Deemo’s ethereal treehouse.

There are over 200 tracks in all, and if music is the heart of a rhythm game, Deemo has a great, big, wonderful heart. The selection is fantastic, and leans heavily on indie composers and producers from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong; this isn’t the kind of rhythm game where you’ll know the songs ahead of time, but you’ll absolutely find plenty to fall in love with along the way. 

Deemo’s instrument of choice means there’s a strong focus on piano in the instrumentation, but the genres go well beyond what you might expect. There’s instrumental and vocal J-pop, rock, and dance; cabaret, lounge, and light jazz; classical, Asian folk, and dubstep; bossa nova, ragtime, and club bangers. The variety is wonderful, and aside from a tiny number of exceptions — there’s a bit of generic-sounding electronica — it’s top quality, memorable music.

It’s also a blast to play along to. Deemo’s touchscreen-only rhythm gameplay is simple and straightforward: notes fall from the top of the screen, and when they reach the horizontal line stretched along the bottom, you’ll tap where they hit. There aren’t any predefined ‘lanes’ in Deemo; rather, notes of varying widths trickle down from the top at angles, and you’ll move your fingers to meet them wherever they may fall on the line. Aside from the basic black ‘tap notes’, there are also yellow ‘slide notes’, which come in rhythmically-tight-knit groups; you can either treat these as taps or — as is pretty much essential in faster songs — slide a finger across the line to catch them all in quick succession.

For both types of notes the closer you are to perfect in your timing the better grade (and visual feedback) you’ll get for the hit, from “Charming” (orange) down to “Non-Charming” (green) and a “Miss” (blue). You’ll earn a percentage score at the end for how well you did, with higher scores sending the tree skyward faster.

Each song can be played in Easy, Normal, or Hard difficulties (with individual 1-10 challenge ratings for each song), and the charts themselves are well thought out and fun to learn. The piano basis for most songs means you won’t see many crazy kinetics or screen-hopping acrobatics à la VOEZ — Deemo charts actually mirror real-life piano fingerings quite closely, so if you’ve ever played a keyboard instrument the chord rolls, parallel thirds, and hand-over-hands you practiced will come in handy here — but it does really feel like you’re playing the song, and there are plenty of intricate passages to master.

The difficulty scales well too; easy charts generally pick out the most salient anchor points of a melody to follow, and should be accessible for rhythm newcomers while still providing a sense of accomplishment. Normal charts are tough-but-fun runs with chords and arpeggios, and Hard is a good challenge for rhythm aficionados, with plenty of parallel movement and every syncopation, trill, and grace note intact. The only issue we had was with the Hard mode charts for certain solo piano pieces; the more expressive of these can involve lots of micro-variations in tempo, all of which are reflected in the note patterns, and it seems unreasonable to ask players to essentially sightread the rubato.

No matter the tempo of the piece, however, you can also control the speed at which the notes fall independently of the difficulty, and this makes a huge difference. Speeding up the charts can make otherwise dense patterns easier to read on harder songs, and also means more tolerant timing — if you’re finding things harder than you’d expect, we recommend revving the speed up a few notches.

One of the reasons Deemo is so much fun to play on Switch is that it’s such a great fit for the system, and we mean that literally. Having spent time with the mobile and PlayStation Vita versions as well, the Switch’s touchscreen feels like the best way to play — the screen is perfectly sized to comfortably accommodate two hands side-by-side, letting you put two or three fingers from each one in charge of a different side of the chart. In comparison to the sometimes cramped finger-athletics on other devices, playing Deemo like this on Switch feels effortless and smooth, and more like playing an instrument than plunking away at a screen. Our preferred way to play is with the Switch lying flat on a table, but we also found it comfortable in tablet mode in the lap; button play is planned in a future update, but for now, this in an exclusively undocked experience.

The screen size isn’t the only improvement Deemo’s Switch port can boast over its brethren; this version also has our favourite progression system of the bunch. The mobile and Vita versions are both quite grindy, doling out new songs at a slow enough drip that you’ll find yourself replaying the same tracks several times on different difficulties to make progress on the tree. While replaying songs is certainly part of the fun of rhythm games, it’s less fun to have to flounder your way through Hard Mode charts before you’re ready just to progress, and happily the Switch version drops these free-to-play gatings in favour of a much more generous model. New songs and packs are unlocked faster than you can play through them, and we reached the end credits — though far from the end of the adventure! — without playing a single song twice. This also means you’ll be able to see the story through to the end even if you can’t hack Hard mode, which is a nice improvement over VOEZ. 

Comparison with VOEZ also brings up one of Deemo’s few shortcomings to the forefront, however: the presentation in the music game itself is quite drab. That’s not to say that Deemo’s a dull game; on the contrary, the backdrops to the point-and-click adventure portion are gorgeous, and the key art that accompanies each song in the selection menu is fun and fantastically varied — we loved seeing Deemo and Alice in all different sorts of art styles and adventures. The problem is that once you get into the actual rhythm gameplay, that personality disappears, replaced by a sepia-tone score with the song title written out matter-of-factly in between the staves. There are admittedly some nice touches within that frame — like the second piano part accompanying your own floating out from the rhythm line in small shadowy notes — but when you play more than a few charts in a row, the lack of colour and visual variety becomes readily apparent.

Other than that, however, we don’t have any real complaints with Deemo. While this Switch port lacks the animated cutscenes and extra epilogue of the Vita version, for us, the hundred-odd extra tracks and much-improved progression system here easily eclipse the omissions. Audio quality is excellent, and there are ample options to calibrate input timing and adjust response sound volume — we found turning it off entirely made solo piano pieces much more pleasant. We’d love the ability to mark songs as favourites and sort by difficulty, but that’s a minor nitpick, and the current pack-based arrangement is much better for thematic browsing than a single massive tracklist.

Conclusion

Flyhigh Works’ second Switch symphony hits all the same highs as the first; Deemo is a fantastic rhythm game, with an incredible soundtrack, fun mechanics, and a surprisingly touching tale to tell. Its lovely art and piano focus give it a unique feel — without at all restricting its musical horizons — and excellent pacing and difficulty options make it accessible and fun for a wide range of skill levels. Music fans shouldn’t miss this — Deemo is a hit.