I have never been a big fan of shoot ’em ups. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel as weighty and satisfying to me as hack and slash combat or maybe it’s because I tend to get confused by the visuals at times, but they’ve never really struck a chord with me, which had me searching them out. Recently, I was given a chance to revise my opinion when a friend of mine gifted me with the recent Humble Bundle that featured a bunch of games with playable lady protagonists. I was ecstatic to see that A City Sleeps was on that list! I never heard of it before, but the aesthetic reminded me of Transistor, and I was eager to try something new after beating my head against a wall trying to beat a boss in Dark Souls.
In A City Sleeps, you play as Poe, a dream exorcist, who travels into people’s dreams to clear out the nightmares that are within them. You’re give a sword that can shoot projectiles and ghosts that can be slotted into set pieces within the levels to give you boosts through various means. One ghost named Mercy will give you health when you use them while Anger does damage to your enemies.
Created by Harmonix of Rock Band fame, the developers weaved music into the gameplay by having your attack and the attacks of your enemies follow the patterns of the music. In some places, it can almost feel like you’re creating your own music through the combat of the game, and when I wasn’t shooting wildly at projectiles, the game would become eerily silent as my attacks provided the baseline sound for all the music in A City Sleeps.
There are a lot of things that the game does right—with gorgeous visuals and sound that is not active enough to be distracting, but can help to give you cues on how to move and when. I remember thinking while playing the game that this was what it would probably feel like to be some sort of badass fairy. The game has a futuristic feel that is heavily reminiscent of Transistor, and just like Transistor, it allows you to modify your gameplay by making it harder (through curses instead of limiters) and even has a jukebox with songs you can unlock in it.
From there, the games diverge, with Transistor being a pseudo-strategy fighting game at heart and A City Sleeps being a rhythm one. Where the game further diverged from Transistor was when the problems came in for me. The visuals are minimalistic in a lot of ways, probably so it won’t distract the player from all the projectiles that they’re supposed to be dodging, but that just made it harder to tell which projectiles were going to hurt you.
Try to picture this with me for a moment: the player, as Poe, is shooting projectiles in order to hurt the enemies. The enemies are also shooting projectiles in various patterns that will hurt Poe if they hit her in the center of her chest. Beyond that, the ghosts you use in the fights will also send out projectiles. Most of the projectiles need to be dodged, but if you’re using the healing items, you need to let those healing bullets hit you. To put it bluntly, there was too much going on during the game for me to focus where I needed to. This was fine while playing on the easiest difficulty, but going up even one level left me not knowing where to focus my attention. In the end, I could only look at Poe and a small radius around her, which left me in many a tight spot.
The story was another place where the game fell short. My favorite games tend to merge story and gameplay, weaving them together so that it doesn’t feel like I’m getting exposition dumped on me. Whether this is done through the environment like in Dark Souls, through audio logs like in BioShock, or cutscenes and dialogue trees like in Dragon Age: Origins, the story should be intimately intertwined with the game’s mechanics or atmosphere.
Audio logs helped add to that eerie feeling in BioShock and peeled away the deeper layers of the story little by little. Dark Souls has ancient-feeling ruins and shambling monstrosities that speak of a once-great civilization laid low by the stuff of nightmares. In Dragon Age: Origins, you were made to feel like the dialogue choices that you made mattered in the grand scheme of things and helped to set the course for your future in Ferelden.
In A City Sleeps, the story is relegated to text boxes on the level select screen and it wasn’t until I had beat the first round of levels that I even realized the text was readable if I hovered over the level and pressed the right button.
The gameplay was fun, though, and I wanted more once I had finished the third dream, eagerly looking for the fourth one only to realize that it didn’t exist. Once you’ve beat the third dream, all you can do is unlock new ghosts to vary your play style and make the levels more difficult. To put this in perspective, I beat all three dreams in less than half an hour and there was nothing else I could do but play those three dreams again on a harder difficulty, which meant even more projectiles filling the screen.
For someone who isn’t a big fan of shoot ’em ups to begin with and who is terrible at rhythm games, I felt like Harmonics had taken away any reason I had to continue with the game. There was no real sense of accomplishment that the game instilled. I hadn’t been playing long enough for that to happen and I certainly hadn’t found myself growing more attached to Poe in the short amount of time that we spent together. Right from the very beginning of Transistor, we have a sense of who Red is and the game starts helping us connect with her. Poe remained faceless and without personality to me, leaving only the high pitched noises she made when a projectile hit echoing in my mind after I stopped playing the game.
I wanted to love this game because there are beautiful elements to it and some really clever syncing up of the music to create a unique experience, but it remained a shallow one for me. The game is beautiful, if brief, and it could have easily had a lot of replay value for someone who likes shoot ’em ups and rhythm games more than I do.
Considering that this game currently retails for $10 and originally was sold at an even higher price, I can’t help but think that if I had bought it at full price I would have felt cheated. As a game and an experience, I found A City Sleeps lacking in the end, but if all you’re looking for is something short to fill the time which doubles as a badass fairy simulator, then this is the game for you.