Much like the classical pianist who has thoroughly mastered his craft and finds the act of reading sheet music to be perfectly droll, the multicolored gem charts of Guitar Heros and Rock Bands have become easy pleasy lemon squeezy. If you've been playing those games since the genre's inception, you can probably tap and strum through most songs on the hardest difficulty settings. It is unlikely, however, that you could do so backwards while dodging increasingly violent salvos of enemy lasers.
24 Caret Games' PSN-exclusive indie shoot-em-up Retro/Grade asks you to do just that, forcing you to use your brain (and your digits) in a manner which you're almost certainly unaccustomed to. In case you haven't been following it (you terrible dummy), here's the pitch: You're a pilot who's flying his spacecraft through a reversed flow of time, dodging enemy fire as it's sucked back into their ships, while re-collecting your own fired bursts by navigating to the appropriate track and strumming, in time, on a guitar peripheral. (Or a controller, if you're so inclined.)
Both graphically and mechanically, the game's come a long way since our demo at last year's PAX. Enemy ships, projectiles and the constantly-scrolling background all look wonderful -- almost to a fault, considering the kind of attention Retro/Grade demands from its players. No matter how much I played the game during my demo, I found myself forgetting the intricacies of its backwards march, dodging the lasers which were, in a proper time stream, mine.
Also new to this build are laser beams, which require you to hold down the strum bar until they pass, occasionally switching lanes mid-stream. This, too, moves contrariwise to my understanding of rhythm games, which typically require you to hold down a fret button, never changing pitch during their duration.
It works really well, though. After enough lasers, beams and missile barrages (which require you to strum the bar as fast as you can), I couldn't help but express myself through dance a bit during my demo on the show floor. Which was, as you might assume, a little embarrassing. Considering the catchiness of Nautilus' (also reversed) soundtrack, the odds were stacked heavily in dancing's favor.
There were plenty of power-ups to go around, such as a multiplier doubler that you activate by -- naturally -- tilting the guitar controller into the "rock" position. Honestly, that's the only facet which resembles the guitar-based games that preceded Retro/Grade; but even that's a little bizarre, considering the bonus points you're earning are actually subtracted from your score, since the game's in reverse, and you start with the largest amount of points you can possibly earn on that particular track.
Needless to say, it's a lot to take in. However, the interplay between cerebral dexterity and straight-up danceability is something I've never experienced in ... well, anything. Ever. Retro/Grade wants to lull you into a polychromatic, synesthetic trance, but demands you don't get too absentminded, lest you forget that some lasers are meant to be run into.