Between retail full-lengths like Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX, Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, and Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure, and eShop singles like HarmoKnight and Dedede's Drum Dash Deluxe, the 3DS has put on quite a show for rhythm gamers. Now, thanks to Korean studio Vinyl Lab and prolific publisher Arc System Works, we can add another piece to the setlist: Radiohammer. An action-packed music game with a funky, fresh style, it's definitely worth a spin for rhythm game fans.
Within the world of Radiohammer, the eponymous pirate radio station exists for one reason alone: to keep the streets safe through the power of groove. Radiohammer FM's mission is to lay down the law and bring the (literal) hammer of justice down upon any offending parties threatening the town. For each of the four playable DJs — unlocked sequentially — that means combatting a different evil; July Ann keeps the parks safe from flash-happy perverts, MC Wayne repels an alien invasion, Simply Lita sends the undead shuffling back to their graves, and Celia — dropping in from Arc System's Chaos Code — punishes evildoers with her parasol.
No matter which DJ you're playing as, Radiohammer's gameplay remains the same: perverts, zombies, and/or aliens will run towards your stationary character from the right side of the screen, and you'll have to smash them in time with the beat to dispatch them as they arrive. There are two 'tracks' for enemies to advance on, one above your character and one below, and two corresponding buttons to hit: 'X' or up on the D-Pad will take out enemies in the top row, while 'A' or D-Pad down will smack down the bottom lane. Occasionally you'll see presents or bombs pop out from the left side of the screen, and hitting 'Y' or left on the D-Pad (on the beat, as always) will pick them up and either grant bonuses or trigger small explosions. Tap controls are also an option throughout, and though they work fine we found the buttons much more intuitive.
Depending on how well you time your taps or button presses, you'll be rewarded with a rating of 'Perfect', 'Great', 'Good' or 'Bad' for each enemy. 'Perfect's give the most points, as you'd expect, and each 'Bad' will also chip away at your DJ's HP meter at the top of the screen — get KO'd and it's straight back to the song select screen. Better ratings also fill up your 'Fever' gauge faster, and when this bar is maxed out you'll go into a limited-time frenzy where every hit is counted as 'Perfect', no matter how sloppy your timing.
So far, this is fairly standard rhythm game fare, but the details are where it counts, and Radiohammer really nails it. Most importantly, the controls are responsive and intuitive, and the fact that you can use both the D-Pad and the face buttons is a huge plus — it allows for 'dual-wielding' setups that let you dedicate a thumb to each enemy track, or hammer out quick patterns on a single track by alternating between buttons and the D-Pad. The timing window here is on the stricter side, as well, which makes for a sweet spot of a challenge; getting 'Good' is almost always easy, but 'Perfect's require real precision.
There's also excellent audio feedback — the hollow thuds of 'Great's stand out amongst the satisfying whooshes of a string of 'Perfect's — and subtle but consistent visual cues that help you figure out the beat, with different enemy designs within each theme for quarter notes and groups of either duple or triple eighth notes. And though it took us some time to warm up to the idea, the presents that come in from the left side of the screen ended up being one of our favourite mechanics. They introduce an element of quick-fire decision making into the mix, and offer an optional challenge for skilled players without complicating things for beginners; like the scratch rings in Persona 4: Dancing All Night or rainbow spins in Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX, missing them won't kill your combo, and they can be safely ignored if you're feeling overwhelmed, but you'll definitely want to go for each and every one eventually.
Of course, tight controls and mechanics can only take a music game so far. Soundtrack and personality make up the rest of the package, and Radiohammer has these covered as well. From the opening act in which July Ann breaks up a pervert convention with an oversized mallet, you can tell this is something different, and that funky style stays with the game throughout. It's especially noticeable in the music, which runs a real gamut of genres, all tied together by a breezy outlook and shimmering style. There's pop rock, reggae riddims, funk cuts, bossa nova, disco, samba, and chiptunes counted among the 50+ songs in Radiohammer, and while there are very few specifically standout tracks, the overall effect is lovely. It may not be as catchy as the PaRappas of the world, but Radiohammer's soundtrack draws heavily on the easy eclecticism of PSOne-era music games with wonderful results — were very happy to keep tapping along to tune after tune.
That eclectic sense of style bleeds over into the gloriously groovy visuals as well. The art in Radiohammer is bright, colourful, and varied: July Ann's stages have a flower-power pop aesthetic, MC Wayne's levels draw on hip hop iconography, and Simply Lita's are Sex Pistols by way of Sesame Street. It's an immediately appealing world, but unfortunately the technical side of the graphics doesn't hold up as well. There's noticeable pixelation in stage backgrounds, for instance, attack animations are the same whether your DJ is swinging up or down — it looks comically out of place for one of the two directions — and there's no stereoscopic 3D support whatsoever. That last issue is particularly disappointing, both because it seems like a mark of laziness in an otherwise exemplary port job (Radiohammer started out as an Android/iOS game) and because the 3D effect could actually help further distinguish the two enemy tracks above and below your character.
Aside from these presentational hiccups, Radiohammer's biggest potential issue is a sense of déjà vu. Each main DJ has three 'Episodes' of five tracks apiece to play through, and aside from a boss battle waiting at the end — fun finales which have you literally turning the beat around by volleying projectiles back at the boss in time — every one of a character's 15 stages look and behave more or less identically. July Ann's levels look nothing like MC Wayne's, of course, but since you'll have to play through all of hers sequentially in order to unlock his, there's no escaping the lack of intra-character variation. This is much less of a problem if you play a few levels at a time, and since the short track lengths lend themselves to quick sessions, that seems preferable anyway; just know that marathoning the Story mode will make Radiohammer lose a bit of its lustre.
Fortunately, there's actually quite a lot to do in Radiohammer besides hammering headfirst through the Story. For starters, each stage has three stars to tick off by fulfilling different conditions; these usually start with a star for simply clearing the level, but the second two are more skill-based, and could be awarded for grabbing a certain number of 'Great's or 'Perfect's, keeping up a lengthy combo, or grabbing every single present, for example. There are also different hammers to unlock (complete with new sound effects!), a jukebox to fill up, and a random play mode for one-and-done rhythm fixes on the go.
Finally, finishing up a stage will unlock the 'Another Mode' version of the same level, which ramps up the tempo substantially but cuts the gameplay down to a single track for enemies to approach on. It's a fantastic extra, and a welcome alternative to a simple 'Hard' mode — rather than locking more content behind a skill wall not everyone will be able to enjoy, Another Mode makes one part of the gameplay more difficult (faster notes) while dialing down another (fewer enemy tracks) for an excellent compromise that really does feel like 'another' way to play.
Wonderfully weird, colourfully cool, and just plain fun, Radiohammer is an excellent addition to the 3DS' impressive rhythm game lineup. It sports solid mechanics, great music, and a confidently quirky style that won us over right away. Some presentation problems and the potential for repetitiveness can wear down the groove, but rhythm fans should absolutely tune in — for quick blasts of musical action, Radiohammer hits the nail on the head.