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Orgarhythm review: Laying down godlike beats

Heidi Kemps

If it's possible to have a favorite "type" of game – not genre, mind you, but favorite "type" – I'd have to say that the games I love most are "ambitious but imperfect." These are games that try to do intriguing, daring things: meld genres together, build themselves around an interesting theme, tell a story in an unconventional manner. Often they run into more than a few technical and design hiccups, perhaps because the developers' ambitions outstripped their team's capability to realize them. But in spite of their flaws, there's something secretly awesome about them that makes wrestling with all their foibles worth it.

Having read all that, you've probably already guessed that Orgarhythm falls into this category. It's a bizarre mix of god-sim, rhythm game, and RTS that mostly – mostly – works. When it shines brightest, it's a fabulous and unique experience.

Gallery: Orgarhythm (10/23/12) | 8 Photos

So how does this unusual hybrid function? Well, Orgarhythm is the sort of game that, if your buddy asked you to describe how it was played, you'd give up after a few sentences, dig out the Vita, and say "Look, I'll just show you, okay?" I don't exactly have that luxury right now, so bear with me.

You're a god. Not just any god, mind you, but a particularly smooth god whose existence involves strutting, breakdancing, and commanding your equally jammin' followers to destroy what I assume are the enemies of funky-freshness. Your existence is mostly strolling around the earth on a preset path, spreading hot beats wherever you go. Yet there are many foes, including several giant, beastly bosses, who do not appreciate the encroachment of your fresh new sound on their territory. As you walk through the stages, they will attack you. Lose all your god's HP and there's blood on the dance floor ... your blood!

(Okay, that's not the real story. The real story revolves around two warring god-brothers, but it's not terribly important. You probably won't even notice there's a plot at all.)

But wait! Your hip holiness has followers, and followers can be instructed to do your bidding. Orgarhythm employs a system similar to Patapon, though it uses the Vita's touchscreen rather than face buttons. To command your soldiers, you tap your god, then tap an icon representing one of three troop colors: Yellow, Red, and Blue. The troop colors have a triangular relationship: Blue has advantage over red, red holds sway over yellow, and yellow has an edge on blue. You then pick a type of troop from one of four options: head-on fist-fighters, long-distance archers, damaging but resource-consuming catapulters, and powerful "Sacrifices" whose explosive power is offset by the fact that they aren't around for very long. After you make your choices, you draw lines with your finger on the Vita touchscreen to direct your troops' movements.

There's a twist to all of this, though. There's a constant backbeat running through the stage, and timing your icon taps to the song's rhythm builds up your strength. A succession of three on-rhythm taps takes you up a level and adds an extra team member to your army. The more commands you issue in succession without losing track of the beat, the more your level and army builds. If you screw up, you can still issue commands, but your combo string will be broken and you'll drop a level. Higher levels grant you and your troops more strength, and you'll have access to a set of bonus commands like restorative magic.

You'll also get an extra layer of instrumentation added to the music with each successful level gained, which is a pretty sweet reward in itself – as you might expect from a music-driven game, the soundtrack here is nothing short of spectacular. You may find yourself replaying stages not just for better scores and additional experience, but also for another chance to hear some of the best game music this year.

At the end of each stage, there's a unique boss enemy with a distinct gimmick that you'll need to discover in order to defeat it. These encounters are, for the most part, the highlight of the levels and Orgarhythm as a whole, though a couple of them are very aggravating. (There's a special place in this world's hell for those two giants at the end of the Holy Oratorio level.) Beating a stage earns you experience, which can be used to bolster your abilities before waltzing along to the next area.

Does that all make sense? Maybe not just yet, but at least it sounds interesting, right? Orgarhythm's flow certainly takes some getting used to, but in practice, you get the hang of it quickly. You have to, really. After only a few stages on "casual" difficulty, the enemies start swarming you pretty fast, and you'll need to skillfully command your devout followers without missing a beat, figuratively and literally. Since your god's path – and the enemy types and placement – are linear and predetermined, you can fall back on trial-and-error memorization if your reaction time isn't so hot. (There's a feature called "AI" that, when enabled, supposedly changes up enemy behavior on subsequent stage plays, but I didn't notice a huge difference.)

That is, if all goes according to plan and your troops actually do what you want them to. This is Orgarhythm's biggest problem. Often, about a fifth of the time I would guess, my troops would fail to carry out the actions I had assigned to them. This occurred for a variety of reasons – bad path-finding, targeting the wrong enemy with projectiles (you'd think they'd fire on the enemies that aren't immune to arrows), or just stopping what they're doing altogether for no apparent reason at all. At first, I thought I might have accidentally tapped the Vita's rear touch pad – doing so recalls your troops – but that alone couldn't explain how many times the issue cropped up.

Most of the time, your crew is well-behaved, but they screw up just often enough to be irritating. It's also annoying that both dividing your troops and directing their movement are accomplished with the same touch screen gesture. Sliding your finger directs your troops, but the length of the slide also determines how many troops to send, making the act of divvying up troops under pressure an exercise in frustration.

Orgarhythm isn't a terribly lengthy game (you can beat the standard campaign in the course of a few hours), but it comes with a lot of unlockable goodies: new difficulty levels, abilities, and plenty of trophies. There's local multiplayer available, too, if you're fortunate enough to have a nearby friend who shares your taste in janky but secretly awesome niche games.

That's really the best way I can think of to describe Orgarhythm: despite a fairly serious issue – the aforementioned troop misbehavior – I think it's absolutely worth playing. The theme is a lot of fun, the gameplay is unique, the music is masterful, and the boss fights can be truly spectacular. I'm immensely glad I took the time to play through this game, and if anything I've said thus far compels you to check it out for yourself, I hope you'll feel the same way.

This review is based on a PSN download Orgarhythm, for the PlayStation Vita, provided by XSEED.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City. Her work has been seen on G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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