If you’ve ever had the desire to stand before a baying crowd on the sun-kissed beaches of Ayia Napa and spin them into a state of unimaginable euphoria through the power of your DJ skills, Hexagroove: Tactical DJ from Swedish-based developers Ichigoichie might just be exactly what you’re looking for.

The key word in the title is ‘Tactical’. Whilst music maker games of yesteryear have focused primarily on the rhythm mechanics that we’ve become so accustomed to, Hexagroove challenges that premise by combining strategic elements, forcing you to think quickly on your feet whilst keeping your rhythm and ensuring the beat is king. It’s a thinking man’s rhythm experience that eschews traditional genre traits and instead sidelines them into action-based minigames that work to serve the overall performance.

The primary goal in each performance is to keep the crowd moving and impressed with your skills. In each 'song', the main screen is a circle that features musical loops within it, each based on a different instrument. The crowd – little more than 3D blocks bouncing up and down to your silky smooth transitions – will make it clear which instrument they desire to be introduced into the music, and it’s up to you to place said instrument seamlessly, without missing a beat. If timed correctly, your overall score will increase and a cheer from the crowd signifies you’re keeping up with their demands. You can keep track of the beat via the outline of the main circle which is split into four sections, keeping time with the overall track. As the outline hits the top centre, that’s where you want to be throwing in new loops for maximum impact.

Each instrument has four loop options that you can choose between throughout the song. These are selected through your A, B, X and Y buttons, and it’s really up to you what you want to hear. So long as the track is moving at a steady pace and you’re keeping up with the timing, you’re free to choose whichever loop you like the most. The feeling of artistic expression is front and centre in Hexagroove, and the 420 included instrumental loops suggest you’re welcome to perform as creatively as you wish.

There’s a genuine feeling of excitement that rushes over you as you find a loop within each instrument that connects not only with the crowd, but with you as a player. The further you progress, you’ll begin to unlock various sound effects and audio filters to tinker with the loops, allowing you to mix and create at will. The game's core mechanic encourages you to find that collective sound which gives the crowd that amazing feeling of hearing when their favourite song begins playing in a nightclub; when everything clicks, it’s joyous.

Of course, you can just as easily disappoint the crowd, so it’s important to keep an eye on the colours. Available instruments that aren’t currently being utilised are greyed out, so timing them into the overall track is key. The primary colour you’re aiming for is blue for each instrument icon. If the crowd is becoming restless with a particular loop, you’ll see an icon turn green and you'll have a small window of time to switch over to a fresh sound which will automatically be timed into the track. If the track is working like it’s supposed to, you’ll notice a ball enter the crowd which you’ll need to control to the rhythm of the beat by bouncing it between crowd members – a fun distraction which adds another layer of keeping the crowd entertained. If you miss a bounce on the beat, the combo is over and you’ll have to return focus to switching your loops around.

Your score can rack up exponentially if you’re keeping all of your plates spinning at once, and the quick-fire minigames are just as frenetic and important as your primary gameplay screen. Upon finding a solid base which the crowd is responding to positively, you’ll need to throw in some fill-ins to transition the leap between one loop and another. This is where the more traditional rhythm game mechanics come into play with a Guitar Hero-esque progressive drum roll sequence, though seemingly for time purposes it’s scaled down to two buttons which you have to hit in corresponding order. These segments will last no longer than five seconds and are individually ranked, so if you’ve done particularly badly it’ll cut out your entire song and you’ll have to start over again. It's here the calibration at times felt a bit off-centre, as missing certain button presses by milliseconds affects your overall score dramatically. It's rare, but certainly frustrating.

The other ‘action’ aspect is the wavelength, which tasks you with keeping your track – represented here as a hexagonal outline – on a fast-moving road as it twists and turns to the rhythm of your track. This mode, as you might expect, is rather straightforward to begin with before the difficulty spikes. Your movement is highly sensitive, with the crowd's ‘Euphoria’ represented in the lower part of the screen. If you move off course it can have a drastic effect on the crowd's enjoyment, though you’re not punished all that severely if you veer off course just once or twice. Similar to the drum roll sequence, it’s fast and frenetic and over before you know it. It’s not terribly difficult to follow the track as it’s laid out before you; it’s the speed that may catch you unawares. This segment is also used to close out your tracks, and you can decide whether to fade out the song or offer up an explosive ending. Either choice directs you to a new wavelength which adds notes you need to hit as you progress to finish with a flourish.

Away from the primary loop screen, the most important feature is the Queue Mode, where you select loops to play in the next section following the minigame fill-ins. It’s here you’ll decide what instruments to tinker with and what to leave out. As ever, you’re against the clock so you’ll need to choose quickly the ones you want to use. At first, it doesn’t really feel like your choices are making all that much difference to the overall track, but it’s here you can easily make or break the crowd's enjoyment. In the top left of the screen is a slider; certain combinations will produce higher slider positions which will result in better scores, while adding too many loops will negatively affect the score. You’re encouraged to only select a couple of loops to ensure the slider stays above halfway, allowing a more seamless transition back into the track once you’ve cracked the drum roll and the wavelength.

Taking your skills on the road is the crux of the all-too-brief Hexagroove campaign. You’ll begin at a pool party entertaining students before moving into nightclubs and private parties. Each venue has a specific music style or two that fits the crowd's taste. House, techno, trance, synthwave, psytrance, electro, chill-out and more unlocked as you progress, so you've always got the chance to explore the game's vast loop selection and it's enjoyable to have to pick and choose what works best for the crowds in each venue. You’re able to practice with each genre before you jump into the showcase proper, which can prove invaluable when you’re wanting to figure out your loops before you begin. It’s never particularly easy, but pulling off a high rank once your gig is done and dusted is immensely satisfying, and makes the practice runs absolutely worth it. They’re entirely optional, but definitely encouraged.

Away from the campaign, there’s the ‘Freestyle’ mode which will allow you to simply play with every genre of music in the game to your heart's content. There’s very little in gaming at the moment that creates the state of absolute zen quite like freestyling the ‘chill-out’ genre and bouncing a ball around a crowd in an infinite loop.

Then there’s the multiplayer, where up to four players can join locally and either DJ together or split off as ‘Superfans’, which amounts to little more than shooting off some fancy effects with the SR button. The co-op DJ-ing is certainly beneficial though, allowing one person to focus on the loops and the beat whilst another takes on the 'Bounce' and the minigames. It’s up to you and your team how you divide the jobs before the show begins, and this mode certainly has its merits – but it doesn’t really feel particularly essential to the overall package.

Conclusion

Chalk down Hexagroove: Tactical DJ as one of the year's biggest surprises. A wholly unique take on the rhythm genre, it’s challenging and enormously rewarding. The feeling of creating your own music for a virtual crowd to respond to is addicting, and while the multiplayer ultimately offers very little to the package, the single-player and the seemingly endless Freestyle mode will have you coming back to best those scores again and again. This is definitely one for headphones or a very loudspeaker system, and a must for rhythm action fans.