One of the my favorite things about Harmonix as a studio is how they’ve managed to hang on to their soul and passion for game development even after having created two of the most successful franchises in video game history (and subsequently, the many, many sequels which followed). Guitar Hero and Rock Band were a legitimate phenomenon, so much so that their popularity eventually became their downfall (taking music games as a collective whole with them). Harmonix themselves have yet to close up shop though, and in the post-music game crash they’ve started to experiment and begin to redefine themselves as a studio capable of more than popularizing plastic instruments.
A City Sleeps is the result of their recent efforts, an energetic bullet hell shooter fueled by thumping EDM and blazing neon lights. Entering the dreams of a troubled cyberpunk city, the nightmares of its inhabitants become personified as alien specters, tormenting their hosts and waging a war on anyone who should try to exorcise them.
However intriguing a setup, it was almost immediately forgotten once I actually entered a dream and became entranced by the sensory explosion I was somehow enacting. While it occupies space in the realms of both rhythm games and bullet-hell shooters, A City Sleeps’ biggest strength is as an active visualizer which requires your complete attention if you hope to see it through to the end.
Each shot fired provides a beat, a synth, a note in a constantly remixing track which ebbs and flows as you fight off enemies, each of which in turn provides their own melody. The compositions which emerge from these systems are at once beautifully uniform and unstable; digital consistency grinding against human unpredictability and imperfection to mold a track that is immediately familiar yet never quite identical.
The act of remixing these tracks alone isn’t what captives me though. It’s in the combination of intense arcade shooting, total absorption in the gorgeous and overwhelming visuals, and the constant harmony of so many sounds coming together that something incredible is born. A City Sleeps isn’t a game which compels me to explore it fully, not due to a lack of curiosity at what might be hidden at the end of its most challenging stages, but because I find a comfort and excitement in its most basic missions. The earliest levels showcase A City Sleeps at its most dynamic and controllable, allowing the player to appreciate the genius of the various instruments working to allow such a game to function, without the all-encompassing stress and overstimulation present when the difficulty is raised.
It’s a slight disappointment then that these moments are almost immediately replaced with missions that lean heavily toward static memorization and mechanical competency. I was enthralled by my first trilogy of dreams, but found myself losing patience and interest when the difficulty rose and I needed to utilize a more utilitarian approach to combat. A City Sleep is at its best when it allows the player enough freedom to experiment without given so much as let their attention wander, something sadly only understood in the earliest moments of the game.
A City Sleeps may tend to favor its least interesting and impressive elements, but while it runs short, in its most accessible state it is also its most ingenious. This is not the game I would have expected to see from Harmonix, and their inexperience definitely shows in attempting to repurpose the same progression system that worked so much better in their previous games, but for how limited its scope may be I find myself continually fascinated by what A City Sleep has attempted, and in its finest moments succeeds with beyond question.