I am generally a fan of bullet-hell shoot ’em up games. I remember playing Ikaruga once it came to North America, and I vividly remember the frustration that came along with it. When I received the review key for A City Sleeps, released by Harmonix on PC and Mac mid-October, one of the first things that drew my attention was a line in the email about the development team and their inspiration in building this game:
AA City Sleeps was built by a small team at Harmonix that’s passionate about classic, hardcore “bullet hell” shooters.
The email goes on to warn the reviewer that the game “can be and should be difficult,” having been designed with “hardcore players (or lovers of shoot ’em up difficulty)” in mind. By all the standards they set for themselves, they certainly did what they set out to do, and they did it with the particular Harmonix flair that we’ve come to expect…
…which brings me to my first warning about the game.
When Harmonix says that this game “can be…difficult,” it’s like saying that water can be wet. There is no level of difficulty in this game that holds your hand in the way most “Easy mode” players would expect. In the easiest levels of play, there is still significant challenge, and an absolute need for coordination and awareness. In the hardest levels of play, you physically age yourself prematurely (I am not a doctor, so keep that in mind). A City Sleeps is not for the faint of heart, or the easily frustrated.
That said, the game performs beautifully, though certain elements do take some getting used to. The core gameplay is similar to that of other bullet-hell shoot ’em ups; you enter a screen, bad guys enter a screen, and everyone starts shooting everywhere. A City Sleeps adds to that basic formula in a few ways.
Right off the bat, the first thing you should notice is the Harmonix feel of the game. The soundtrack is really well done, and the gameplay moves to the music. Getting into a rhythm while playing, in much the same way that you would in other Harmonix games, can definitely give you an advantage and result in a better performance.
Next, the game expands the strategic element of gameplay by introducing “ghosts” of various attributes (anger, mercy, obsession, loyalty, etc.). These ghosts are able to be mounted in two structures that will float in and out of play. One structure provides a local area-of-effect style use of the ghost, while the other provides a more ranged style use of the ghost. You can mount one ghost into both structures, or give the structures separate ghosts. Mercy provides healing, while Anger attacks, so depending on the layout of the field, you may want to stay in one place and take an area-of-effect heal while the other structure attacks, or you may want to drop an area-of-effect attack and pick up healing orbs in any part of the screen.
Poe’s center of gravity is the only part of her that can take damage. By using ranged attacks, melee attacks, and dodging, you will defeat enemies and avoid damage as much as possible. Doing so fills a special meter, alongside your health bar, that, when full, allows you to use a special attack through Heartstrings, your weapon. This special attack (as seen briefly at about 0:35 in the video below) produces an incorporeal arm wielding a massive red katana, that can deal significant damage to the screen.
One problem with the core gameplay, however, lies in Poe’s ranged attack. The projectiles move with rhythm, and take a significant amount of time to reach their destinations, if their destinations are distant. This requires you to shoot where something will be, rather than where something is, and when you’re trying to dodge an increasingly ridiculous number of enemy projectiles while managing your ghost placement and tracking your enemy locations, this delay can really stretch battles out in a bad way.
A City Sleeps provides you with plenty of tools to use in the bullet-hell pandemonium it drops you in. While using those tools effectively is yet another level of awareness and coordination that needs to be mastered on top of the standard gameplay, it is essential if you wish to have any hope of success. Study the rhythm of Poe’s abilities and attacks, the different types of enemies, and the way the game flows, and eventually you may find your way to the end of the game.
It’s not a lot of game. There are three levels, with multiple difficulty stages for each level. It feels like a lot of game, because it takes so long to be successful, but that’s not a good thing. Between the sensory overload and the additional mechanics, A City Sleeps is not just hard, it’s brutal. I can’t speak for all players, but personally, it’s not a game that I’d throw on unless I was willing to dedicate not just time, but energy, concentration, and effort to. It seems almost to be hard for the sake of being hard, and I am concerned that affects its accessibility.
All in all, the game is gorgeous, both visually and aurally. It’s bright, colorful, fluid, and enticing. The gameplay has some elements that could use polish, and the visuals can, at times be absolutely overwhelming, which contribute to its genre-defining difficulty. Unfortunately, it also may be too hard for most people to really enjoy beyond their initial explorations.