Games like PaRappa The Rapper and Space Channel 5 (SC5) have coupled rhythm to the experience of playing. If those games involve performance with a direct connection to the music (rapping in PaRappa, dancing in SC5), how well would the use of rhythm go when coupled with the frantic nature of a shooter thats more about traversing a network? Could the visuals go one step further, exploring how sound would "look" rather than how characters would dance or move to the music? How would the player deal with making new beats while trying to manage a firefight at the same time?
For a moment, enter a venue in Las Vegas: the Blue Man Group. After garnering popularity at venues in Chicago and New York for their innovative "new media" performance, the Blue Men are a group of three who use percussion and sound to explore media and how people connect to each other in various ways. One segment of their show features an original song titled "Rods and Cones" in which the Blue Men play along to their custom instruments and explore what sound would "look like if we could see it," according to an electronic scrolling text marquee placed in the background of their stage. Projected waves and bars appear against "drum walls" on the stage with the visual graffiti becoming more intense as the music becomes more complex.
If the Blue Men had to choose among the games Ive mentioned, Im sure they would enjoy a game like Rez compared to PaRappa and SC5. Where the latter two games end, Rez begins. Sight is significantly linked to sound and both are exhibited visually, just like the Blue Mens performances.
Rez is the child of Tetsuya Mizuguchi. The father of Ulala and Space Channel 5, Mizuguchi announced the release Rez last year under the United Game Artists label. U.G.A.s first title for the PlayStation 2, Rez takes place in a future where computer network crimes have gone out of control. In order to take care of matters, a system called "Project-K" has been devised with an advanced artificial intelligence core named Eden.
Because of the information overflow circulating in the network and an increase in viruses attacking it, Eden became confused and eventually shut itself down. Now, someone needs to hack in and re-awaken Eden by breaking through the viruses and firewalls that have turned the construct inside out.
The presentation of the network is quite psychedelic when it becomes the background (both visually and contextually) for a shooter. Prior to its release, I was discouraged to see that Rez was rail-based (read: a guided experience where the player doesnt control movement through the playing field). Fortunately this does turns out to be an advantage, allowing the player to stay focused on targeting and, most importantly, creating light and music.
Creating sounds and visuals takes place intuitively in Rez. Holding down the fire button locks onto enemies. So with a maximum number of eight target locks I can let go and beams are released from my "avatar". Whenever an enemy is targeted, hit or destroyed, a sound is made. It could be a drumbeat, a clap or a musical note. This is where the enjoyment of playing Rez really takes place. No matter how the timing goes when I lock onto or fire at enemies, every one of them synchronizes with the music. I dont feel pressured at all to time my shots or associate myself with the beat to make catchy sounds. The player creates new beats while playing, effortlessly.
During play, the dual shock function of the PlayStation 2 controller is utilized, thumping to the rhythm of the music. This is definitely an added attraction into the world of Rez and intertwines the musical, graphical and tactile to make for a very cool experience. As multifaceted as this is, however, the graphics for Rez are much more simple in their direction.
Rez projects minimalism effectively. Everything looks simple, with wire frame landscapes, architecture and enemies that resemble anything from spacecraft to aquatic mammals. Streams of color explode when enemies are fired upon. At rapid speeds, flying through the levels can be breathtaking with so many effects taking place at once. The situation can get extreme, with a full compliment of missiles and other strange projectiles headed towards the player. Its at these times that Rezs framerate dips just a little. Its noticeable, but not enough to throw someone completely out of their trance.
When I play Rez, I reminisce about the film Tron. Although the former is recent while Tron itself is 20 years old, both feature graphics with basic shapes and simple shading for everything that moves. Rez clearly has Tron-based inspirations: one of the bosses is clearly inspired by the films Master Control Program control tower. Additionally, both deal with reaching the center of the network in order to liberate users access to information (or, more specifically in Rezs case, freeing the network itself).
Its interesting that Rezs graphics, so technical and mechanical in nature, have such organic qualities pulsing to the musical beat and reacting in other ways to the music. Even my avatar (the character evolves as enough power ups are acquired) pulses correctly to each stages music. Each area appears to be ethnically and culturally inspired. The first level of Rez, for instance, has Egyptian qualities while the fourth area clearly has Chinese influence with complementary sounds and instruments. This referencing makes the network appear as an encyclopedia of evolution and progress. When reaching the fifth and final area of the games normal mode, I was teased with text telling the story of Mans evolution and the possibility of a future evolution - human and technological prophecies, indeed.
Transcendence (or perhaps even just ascendance) appears to be one of Rez themes, clearly shown in the fifth and final area. Here, the best electronica of the game plays on: Adam Freelands "Fear" remix. Obviously slower in rhythm with its strong percussion, I felt that Rez would have been stronger if the songs for the first four areas of the game were more distinct like this one. Id like to think that the best was saved for the last stage, but at the same time the first four areas had seemingly formulaic techno compositions that were not as inspiring or powerful as the fifth. Since this area is the games last area of normal play, I was sad to see the game over so quickly.
Because Rez is very short and only mildly difficult (I finished the five areas in under two hours), the player will be left naturally wanting more. Shooters in general are never really long per se, but Rez takes the cake for being the shortest shooter Ive played, unfortunately. Thankfully, there are other modes that became available as stages are repeated or, for instance, areas are completed without letting any enemies escape unscathed, making replay value worth the time. Extra modes include a "score attack" and a "beyond" mode, the latter of which contains extra levels unrelated to the main mode of breaking through to Eden. The extra modes are a necessary addition to the already short game, but for any casual gamer who doesnt like to replay levels these extras may never see the light of day if he or she cant sit with the game to replay levels and unlock them.
Playing Rez can be highly infectious even if for just a few minutes, so even the casual gamer might want to try that stage "just one more time." Because targeting and shooting is always associated with the music, the creation of beats and sounds is something I couldnt escape. I replayed the entire fifth area of the game when I originally intended to check a few visuals for just a moment. The addiction I had certainly maintains Rez with a higher rating in addition to its alternative approach to graphics. The mix of visuals and sound makes it as fun to watch as it is to play.
Consider, then, how the Blue Man Group performs. Movement with light, sound, and the body is essential. Another of their songs, aptly titled "Synaesthetic" is something Rez claims to be a visual exhibition of sound. If the game even covered a slightly wider scope of Electronica in its main areas of play (or perhaps even other genres of music), and if it explored the meaning of Eden more so, than Rez would be a more intriguing shooter than it already is.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.