A City Sleeps marks Harmonix’s first foray outside of pure rhythm games like Frequency, Rock Band, and Dance Central. It’s not that much of a stretch, though, as a bullet-hell shooter is all about recognizing and responding to patterns, and many of the enemies and bosses fire their weapons along with each level’s beats. Of course, it’s also not that much of a game, with much of its play time padded by the grueling repetition necessary to memorize the ever-harder versions or cursed constraints of its paltry three levels. In music terms, this is more of an EP than an LP, one that falls between both Savant: Ascent and Retro/Grade in both length and enjoyment.
On the positive side of things, A City Sleeps introduces a new layer of tactics to the genre, as Poe, a member of the dream-exorcising Silk, can install ghosts within certain strong memories, or totem anchor points, that pop up in each level. Swapping between defensive abilities like Vanity’s black-hole shielding and Loyalty’s freezing firepower is necessary to even make a dent in the higher difficulties. That said, even with the ability to slow down time while placing these spirits, the controls never seem precise enough for this spectral juggling. The game’s techno street-punk aesthetic is also appreciated (the fonts and colors are reminiscent of The World Ends with You), but at the same time, the flashy color schemes make it difficult to distinguish between the glowing hit-box at Poe’s center of gravity and all the other bullets and enemies whizzing around her.
A City Sleeps plays more as an artsy passion project for the studio than as a fully realized title, something that becomes apparent as soon as you start to consider the story. There are no cutscenes, nor even animated stills to clarify what’s going on within each of the main levels. If you want to understand why all the enemies in “Entomophobia” are insects, you’ll have to unlock each difficulty (Reverie, Lucid, and Nightmare) and their cursed counterparts (which add separate challenges, like extra or faster projectiles) and read the data log accompanying each on the main menu. Even then, the plot never really explains why or how the nightmares, referred to as Kami, are infesting the city’s grid, nor how they’re connected to Poe’s absent sister. Transistor had a similar hook for doling out information, rewarding players for digging into the meat and potatoes of its mechanics, but that was on top of the actual in-game storytelling that’s critically missing here.
The final level of A City Sleeps is full of good ideas, solidly executed, particularly in the boss fight, so this isn’t just a matter of losing the beat or needing a better hook. It’s that, as with any album, you need more than just flashy effects, as even the richest samples can’t elevate disappointing lyrics.
A City Sleeps is now available on Steam from Harmonix.