The lights are on
Harmonix announced yesterday its latest game, a surprising departure from their current work on Dance Central and Fantasia that instead embraces the excitement of classic shoot-em-ups. A City Sleeps draws on the musical heritage of the development studio, but also integrates twitch shooting and strategic combat choices. I got a chance to see an extensive demo of the game in action, and came away excited about the game’s unusual premise.
As revealed yesterday, A City Sleeps focuses on the tale of a young woman named Poe, who awakens in her home city of SanLo to find its residents in a curse-induced slumber. Luckily, she happens to be a dream exorcist, and she sets out to free her city by confronting each person’s nightmarish dreamscape.
Gameplay unfolds as a classic side-scrolling shoot-em-up. Poe fires off attacks and slashes nearby enemies with her koto sword, even as a bullet-hell-like spray of attacks steers her way. A hit box on Poe’s torso can take several shots before a loss state, so there’s some flexibility on taking some hits, unlike some shooters that involve a one-hit kill.
Music plays an integral role in the unfolding battles. Each object onscreen, from Poe to her enemies, each add their own sounds to the musical soundscape, and the whole stage seems to pulse within that musical framework. For instance, Poe’s attack shots are timed with the beat of the music, and that beat is different on each track – from a thumping machine gun style to a slow, irregular firing pattern. Each stage of A City Sleeps has its own audio and visual aesthetic, such that the backdrops, enemies, and overall feel of any given level is completely different from the last.
Strategy is layered on through the inclusion of ghosts and idols. Kill enemies, and you fuel up one of three styles of ghost. In turn, those ghosts can be sent to possess and inhabit one of a couple different types of idols. Where you place each ghost changes the kind of help you’ll get. The angry ghost can enter one idol to become a helpful machine gun, or a different idol to transform into area effect blast. The mercy ghost can provide a gun of healing pellets, or an area effect blast of healing every few seconds. And the complicated master ghost can be either a rail gun or an enemy-damaging tripwire that connects Poe and the idol. With multiple idols active, and lots of enemies flying around, the onscreen visual and audio is intense and chaotic.
For hardcore shoot-em-up players, Harmonix is planning a number of ways to adjust and tweak the challenge. Five difficulty settings are planned, but even within one of those settings, you can further adjust the experience, by adding curses that layer in effects that make things harder, or talismans that make things easier. Score multipliers contribute that sense of shooting for an ever higher score by stringing together enemy kills in quick succession.
The small internal team at Harmonix is crafting A City Sleeps using Unity, and the game is targeting an October release on Steam. A City Sleeps represents a new direction for Harmonix. I’m thoroughly fascinated after witnessing several levels in action, and eager to see how the final experience stacks up against more traditional shoot-em-ups.
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