It quickly becomes apparent that the developers of Harmonix's A City Sleeps are hardcore arcade shoot-'em-up fans. Its screen-filling bullet patterns recall Cave games like Deathsmiles and DoDonPachi, and its multi-faceted mechanics draw inspiration from Radiant Silvergun and other highly regarded classics.

On its surface, A City Sleeps seems like a sudden and dramatic shift for Harmonix, a studio best known for creating the rhythm-driven Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. Snap on a pair of headphones, however, and you'll instantly recognize A City Sleeps as a Harmonix game. Exceptional sound design elevates A City Sleeps within its genre, and the pedigree of talent involved in its creation made it a standout at PAX Prime.
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A City Sleeps

A City Sleeps is a horizontally scrolling twin-stick shooter starring Poe, a dream exorcist who enters her clients' minds and cleanses their inner demons. Poe faces her greatest challenge yet when she discovers that an entire city has fallen into a deep slumber, and only her unique abilities can save its residents.

Poe can pick off enemies from afar by aiming her default shots with the right analog stick, and a powerful close-range attack devastates enemies within striking distance, recalling the melee-based mechanics of shoot-'em-ups like Lords of Thunder and Sol Divide. Perform enough melee strikes and you'll fill Poe's energy meter, allowing her to unleash a screen-clearing sword attack, à la Radiant Silvergun.

A City Sleeps supplements its classic-styled action with its own original gameplay additions. Players can swap between three attack modes by linking with Idols located throughout each level's scrolling backdrop. The green mode makes Idols generate health-refilling item pickups, keeping Poe alive during tense moments. If you'd rather go on the offensive, you might opt for the red or blue modes, which back up Poe with additional firepower.

It's a challenge to swap between shot types mid-battle, so players will want to make extensive use of a time-warping mechanic that temporarily slows bullets and enemy movement when the action gets too hectic. A City Sleeps gives players a variety of approaches to its enemy encounters, allowing them to switch off between safe strategies and more aggressive styles at will.

Genre fans don't need to worry about challenge, either, as A City Sleeps is tough. I died in the game's first level while I was still coming to grips with its mechanics, and later levels ratcheted up the difficulty to extremes unique to the "bullet hell" shooter subgenre. The game will feature multiple difficulty levels, however, letting newcomers get a taste of the action without feeling overwhelmed.

True to Harmonix's style, A City Sleeps' soundscape matches the on-screen action. Musical flourishes accompany every enemy appearance and bullet swarm, and your counterattacks layer additional melodies on top of a backing beat. Harmonix Community Manager Eric Pope notes that the game's sound design was crafted simultaneously alongside its level layouts and bullet patterns, creating a seamless synaesthetic link between its component parts.

Pope explained that A City Sleeps is the first in a series of smaller games in development at Harmonix. The studio's current culture splits creative duties across multiple independent teams, allowing them to flesh out their ideas with a quick turnaround. A City Sleeps, for instance, was conceived earlier this year, and wrapped up development in a few short months. Pope said that players can expect to see similar small-scale projects from Harmonix next year as studio employees experiment with niche genres.

A City Sleeps hits Windows and Mac platforms via Steam on October 16.

[Images: Harmonix]

This article was originally published on Joystiq.