Monday, April 27, 2009

demo monday: raycatcher

not quite a kaleidoscope I was on the road this weekend, meaning that the Xbox gets a break. Laptop in hand, I launched Steam for what was probably the first time since there was a sale on World of Goo and started digging through some demos. I found quite the treat!

Raycatcher is a music game by Thinking Studios with a slick, neon aesthetic going for it. Its elements respond to the beat of the music you happen to be listening to – in the demo’s case, some pleasant enough but ultimately forgettable techno – and it can be as hectic or as laid back an experience as you like. If it sounds like Audiosurf comparisons are inevitable, it is because they are, but I still think it’s worth a look.

You start Raycatcher as a wheel in the center of the screen, which you can rotate by moving the mouse. The wheel is composed of six circles, two each of three colors: blue, yellow and red. When the music starts, rays in these same colors start heading toward your wheel, synchronized approximately with the beat of the music you’re listening to – it’s your job to rotate the wheel so that you catch red rays with your red circles, blue rays with your blue circles, and et cetera. Once you’ve caught a certain number of rays with each circle, another layer is added to your wheel, and you begin the process anew. This is a simple enough concept.

Of course, the game would quickly get boring if this was all that was going on, so the game’s designers saw fit to mix things up a bit. For starters, some rays aren’t quite rays at all, but come toward your circle with a lazier trajectory which can make them harder to catch, especially if you’re also trying to pay attention to two or three other rays which are also headed toward you at the same time. Sometimes, two rays of the same color come at you from opposite directions and you’ve got to spin the wheel so it can catch them both at once. If things get too hectic, you can left click to clear all rays from the screen, but this loses you valuable time. To make up for it, you can right click to briefly double the number of rays that come at you, but you’d better make sure you’re ready to catch them all.

Three difficulty levels mean you can make this game as relaxing or as ludicrous as you like, much like Audiosurf. The “mellow” difficulty is a good, relaxing experience suitable for those who like to game a bit just before bedtime, while the “hardcore” difficulty will have you shouting “goddamn, where the hell is my mouse, this touchpad is the worst.” It gets a little crazy.

The full game does give you the option to build playlists with your own MP3s. I like the playlist feature, since it means you can effectively set the length of your play session based on what you wanted to listen to, or that you could try to alternate some fast and slow songs and mix gameplay up a little bit. At least, these are things I think the game would let you do – plugging in your own music isn’t an option in the demo. Even if you could, the gameplay doesn’t vary from song to song as does Audiosurf. Put a classical song into AS and you’ll get a completely different game than if you decided to listen to Korn.* Not so, I suspect, with Raycatcher. Still, it’s nice of them to put it in there.

This is getting a bit long for a post about a demo and it has no real bearing on gameplay, but it should also be said that the writing is a pleasure to read. It’s often witty an genuinely funny. More writing like this. Of course, after Resident Evil 5, any competently strung-together sentences is like a gift from the gods.

As a demo, Raycatcher is functional. It gives you your taste of the gameplay and leaves you wanting more. Still, I liked the Audiosurf demo better because it actually gave you the chance to play some of your own songs before locking you out – I think the limit was five, which was entirely reasonable. With Raycatcher, you have to assume that your music will work as well as the pre-packaged stuff does. Or, you know, you could jump online and read some reviews and figure it out. But where’s the fun in that? The demo would sell itself a little better if it would let me test drive Billie Jean before I actually made the plunge.

Buy or pass? Well, it’s no Audiosurf. I don’t think that Raycatcher has the legs or the user community or the longevity to keep our interest for as long as that game has. Still, it’s cool, it’s fun, and last time I checked its list price on Steam was a ridiculously reasonable $5. I’ve paid more for a sandwich – this one’s a buy.

*: holy shit, Korn is still around