A City Sleeps Review
Harmonix made its name with music-focused games like Rock Band, Dance Central, and Amplitude. That theme returns in A City Sleeps, though not in the way you'd expect. Don’t expect a gem highway or onscreen dancers; it's all hardcore bullet hell action all the time, and it's played (ideally) with a standard controller.
Protagonist Poe is a member of The Silk, a long line of dream exorcists. Each of the stages represents a different client's nightmare infected by a dark force called Kami. She battles with a blade that shoots energy from afar and automatically toggles to a melee hit when close to targets.
The importance of sound is apparent right from the start, as beats play with every projectile you fire, meaning shot frequency and pattern changes alongside the music. Enemies bring their own sounds too, with a large wasp emitting a techno blast with its circle of shots or a thorny plant that starts up an acoustic guitar riff. The core mechanics are rock solid, and the music gimmick pulls you into the game (playing on mute is an entirely different experience).
The standout feature, however, are the ghosts. Totems appear at scripted points throughout the stages, and you select which partner ghost to put in them on the fly. Each of the six ghosts has two different powers depending on whether you place them in a fast or slow totem. Powers include health emitter, projectile turrets, chain lightning, a deadly tether that you can drag over enemies, and more. Poe can only bring three ghosts at a time, so choosing the right loadout for the situation before the level is important and adds a satisfying layer of strategy and planning not seen in your average shoot ‘em up.
You're encouraged to experiment to see which cocktail of powers works best in any given wave of enemies. It's a constant tradeoff of offense and defense. Should you have health pickups for backup, or should you go all in on offense and hope the faster kills mean fewer bullets to dodge in the long run? The soundtrack also controls how often these powers activate, further emphasizing the importance of learning the songs and enemy wave patterns. It makes you feel badass when you can fly around the screen lighting up enemies and consistently swing back in time to catch the healing wave on the bass beat, or pull swarms of homing enemies into an area of effect attack and snuff them out all at once.
These tactics also apply to the boss battles. Totems aren't always available in every section, but they're around for the most part and are extremely helpful surviving the varied, creative, and soul crushing level closers.
The main drawback of A City Sleeps is the lack of content. The three stages in the game are great the first time through, but the primary gameplay loop is to churn through them over and over again on progressively harder difficulties (five total per stage). By the time you come around to a stage again, it feels like you just played it. Each version features new enemy placements, loads more bullets to dodge, and the like, but the theme and feel remains the same. Curses work kind of like skulls in Halo, making enemies' shots faster or ensuring one hit will kill you, but they’re more like a remix than something new to play.
The game is clearly made to challenge hardcore players, but there's not a lot to keep casual or mid-level players coming back. To earn new ghosts and equippable boosts, you have to beat these new difficulty levels. If you've hit the limits of your skill level, there's nothing else to do. The very power-ups and ghosts that could help you shake things up are gated off. This appears to be a deliberate choice to offer meaningful rewards once you finally conquer a new difficulty, but it feels more like a punishment for players who are never going to get anywhere in Nightmare mode or the even more daunting Nightmare Cursed.
A City Sleeps is an intriguing take on shoot ‘em ups, but the limited content and out of reach powers keep it from reaching its potential.