When playing an instrument, it can be thrilling to finally nail that song that you’ve been trying to master for some time. Rhythm games are built on this concept, challenging you to replay levels as many times as needed until you get it perfect. Sometimes rhythm mechanics even work well in other genres — just look at how Runner3 manages to pull off a rhythmic platformer. But what if we tried making a twin-stick shooter with rhythm elements? You’d probably get something a lot like Soundfall, the inaugural release from Drastic Games, a studio formed from Epic Games alumni. Though Soundfall doesn’t quite have the pipes to hit the high notes, it nonetheless provides an enjoyable action experience that’s quite unlike anything else on Switch eShop right now.
Soundfall places you in the role of Melody, a down-on-her-luck barista with incredible musical ability that largely goes unrealized. Before leaving for work one day, Melody sits down to listen to some music and finds herself transported away to a magical musical world called Symphonia. This is the place from which all music comes, but Melody’s arrival is not necessarily a good sign. There’s a rising power of evil monsters called Discordians that threaten the creation of music, and it’s up to Melody and friends to rise to their role as Guardians of Harmony and thwart the discordant threat.
The narrative here is hardly one that could be called ‘deep’, but it's the kind of feel-good story that fits well with the generally upbeat vibe Soundfall is going for. Positive themes and corny jokes abound, making for a story that generally stays out of the way while still providing some lightly emotional moments here and there. Plus, some important plot beats are punctuated by brief cartoon animations, and these help to imbue Soundfall with some fun character.
Meanwhile, those of you who aren’t as interested in the story will be pleased to know that there’s a free play mode as well, stripping out the story elements and just getting right to the point. Here, you can access levels at any time in any order, making it much simpler to replay your favorite songs and to keep retrying the ones giving you trouble.
That gameplay rests somewhere between a twin-stick shooter and a rhythm game, as you travel through each section of Symphonia to cleanse it of Discordians. Each level has a unique song playing in the background and your goal is generally to make it to the end of the stage before the song ends. If it does, the song simply loops and you receive a lower rank when you do make it to the goal. Along the way, you’re tasked with clearing out arenas of foes—sometimes with a few waves per arena—and picking up any treasure chests you may find on brief alternate routes.
The main gimmick here is that your proficiency in battle is directly tied to the music for that stage. If, say, you fire your gun ‘on beat’, you’ll do extra damage. If you do so off beat, your bullets won’t travel as far or do as much damage, and the gun will quickly overheat. If you’re having trouble finding the beat by ear alone, there are metronomes displayed both on the bottom of the screen and in front of your character, and the controller is continuously vibrating to the rhythm. At its best, this focus on linking the soundtrack and gameplay makes for a combat system that feels extra satisfying when you get in the zone and can consistently time actions on beat; at its worst, these rhythm elements feel like an annoying distraction to an otherwise solid twin-stick shooter.
The main problem that we observed is that the mechanics of a shooter and rhythm game don’t always mix well here. Rhythm games work because you are usually engaging in rigidly scripted and predictable sequences that test both reflexes and memory. Here, the enemy encounters are anything but scripted, as you zip around an arena and battle foes that act independently of the music. Your focus is on staying alive, and the needs of your survival don’t always align perfectly with the beat. A button press that was on time for dodging an attack may not have been on time with the music, meaning that there are constantly moments where there are clashes between what you have to do and what the music wants you to do.
In easier encounters, the rhythmic elements of gameplay enhance things because you have the time and space to wait the extra second or so for the next beat before you fire or dash. But in the more intense encounters, you don’t always have that luxury. This can lead to frustrating moments where you tap the fire button to light up a foe bearing down on you, only for you to get hit anyway because your attack was off beat. Imagine playing Super Mario Bros., but you could only make Mario jump when the music hit certain notes while Goombas and other enemies carried on advancing.
The point being, it feels like there are two different games here asking you to play them of both at the same time; one wants you to dodge and shoot through waves of foes, the other wants you to press buttons in tune with the music. Sometimes the challenges of both these games do align and you can play them both at once, but you’re very often forced in the moment to pick which one you’re going to play, and you’re punished regardless of which you choose.
In many ways, then, Soundfall can feel needlessly irritating, though it is supported by a well-implemented loot system that helps to keep gameplay interesting. You can use a variety of close and long-range weapons (all cutely themed after instruments), and each weapon will have unique stats and modifiers to set it apart. The loot follows the tried and true Borderlands-style color progression—blue items are better than green, purple items are better than blue, etc.—with rarer items having more modifiers to really lock in specific playstyles. Though you only get a couple new loot pieces per run of a level, it can be quite satisfying to gear up and retry earlier stages that gave you trouble in another attempt at a better rank.
As you progress the narrative, you also slowly unlock more characters with slightly different playstyles. One early unlock, for example, is a rocker friend of Melody’s named Jaxon. He uses an axe instead of a sword for melee, and his ultimate ability is an area-of-effect attack that looks like he’s diving into a crowd. Having these little differences between characters helps create even more depth for the equipment system, as you can explore different builds that emphasize each character's strength. More importantly, it also makes it easier to tell who’s who when you’re playing in co-op.
You can have up to four players in a party at once, and you can play either locally or through online invites. Though it does feel like Soundfall was designed more as a single player experience than one for multiplayer, it can still be nice to have a friend or two to help grind loot and get through the tougher enemy encounters. Plus, the gameplay is simple enough to grasp that nearly anyone can pick it up and get into it relatively quickly.
A game as heavily focused on music as this one lives or dies by its soundtrack, and this is fortunately one element where Soundfall doesn’t disappoint. Metal, Salsa, Jazz, Pop Punk, and EDM are just a few genres represented here; it’s a soundtrack that really has something for everyone. And while not every single track is a banger, there are plenty of high-quality tracks regardless of genre. Some songs are voiced, others are all instrumental, and it’s remarkable how all of them feel somehow consistent and complimentary with each other—like they all actually belong in the same soundtrack.
The visuals are a little less impressive than the music, but they do a good job of presenting you with this strange world to explore. Every stage will have things like dancing trees that move to the beat, and little touches like treasure chests resembling boom boxes provide some creative links to the music motif. Still, we were rather let down by the rather generic designs of the enemies you face and the fact that it doesn’t take too long before Soundfall starts pulling out palette swaps of foes. When you’re caught up in all the dancing environments and colorful explosions, it’s hard to be too disappointed, then, but it’s the kind of game that looks less appealing the more you slow down to take everything in.
Soundfall is interesting and original, but stumbles in its execution. The marriage of rhythm gameplay with a twin-stick shooter is a rocky one, and it’s hard not to think this would be a stronger game overall if it were focused solely on either the shooting or the rhythm elements. It can work harmoniously, but also causes frustration when its two halves pull you in different directions. Yet despite its clumsy moments, we’d still give Soundfall a solid recommendation, as its diverse and catchy soundtrack, RPG-esque character progression, and high replayability make this one easy to love. It maybe could’ve used more practice, but Soundfall overall delivers a strong performance.