I actually think – and the existence of Alone Musc backs this up – that rhythm games are the most difficult things for independent developers to create. In theory, they should be quite easy, right? It’s not like the genre is known for AAA-budget graphics or big open worlds, but the genre is also so demanding that it’s not one where there’s any room to hide flaws. Indie developers and bigger developers offer the exact same thing with rhythm games, and indies never come out on top.
There are two things that a rhythm game needs, really. One is the soundtrack. A rhythm game that doesn’t have a good set of tunes to play along to is a failure before the first button is pressed. Alone Musc has a strange and eclectic (but in a bad way) tracklist. Most of the pieces are well-known classical compositions, and indeed, some of my very favourites of all time are in there. Beethoven’s Moonlight, for example, or Habanera from the opera, Carmen. There are only 24 music tracks, however, and the recording quality of them is really low, as though the developers found royalty-free versions of them and just dropped them into the game. Through the Switch’s in-built speakers it’s only mildly noticeable, but put on a decent set of headphones (and, really, you’re playing a rhythm game here), and it becomes aggravating just how lo-fi and poorly recorded the music is.
There’s also a half dozen most definitely not classical compositions by an artist called “Geelion” and looking into this artist has been a rabbit hole and a half. I found a Soundcloud for a Geelion, but none of the tracks in this game seems to be on the Soundcloud. When I did type “Geelion Piano Detente” into Google, to search for one of the songs directly, the top result was an academic paper on anti-fascism and Italians in Australia from the 20’s to 40’s. Google seemed to think I was actually searching for “Geelong” and “Detente” and found the one article that it had archived with those two words together in it.
I do think the Soundcloud Geelion is the Geelion in this game, as there are some aesthetic similarities from the little that I’ve listened to, and that leads me to believe that this developer got them to contribute a couple of tracks. Or, more likely, they’re a buddy of someone on the development team. The music is… well, it’s exactly the kind of music you’d expect from a guy with a limited Soundcloud following (57 followers). They’re perfectly fine, chipper beats, don’t get me wrong, but equally, they’re not exactly “rhythm game material,” and Geelion’s presence in the game at all clashes really hard with the classical compositions that make up the rest of Alone Musc’s tracklist. As a result, this game’s play list is confusing, confounding, and not something that I’ll be scrambling to find on Apple Music or Spotify any time soon.
It’s at this point that I would like to point out that classical music does work for rhythm games. A couple of years ago a Korean developer released Pianista on the Switch (I am still the only critic with a Metacritic review of it, sadly), which features very high-quality recordings of a wide range of classical music, and some absolutely gorgeous background art to go with it. I’m sure Pianista was made by a bigger team than the four people that worked on Alone Musc, but I also doubt the developer was that much bigger and, as I wrote at the start of the review, there’s just nowhere to hide with this genre. You’re going to be judged on the quality of your music in a rhythm game.
The gameplay of Alone Musc is a mess too. For one thing, it’s simpler than any other rhythm game on the Switch. There are four buttons involved, and that’s it. No press-and-holds, no pressing two buttons at the same time. No touch screen features, power-ups, or anything else. There are four buttons to press, and you just need to press the right button at the right time.
The problem is twofold: Firstly, there’s so little feedback that I’m still not 100 per cent sure of when the game’s visual engine is telling me to press the button. There’s a barely perceptable light glow on the note as you press the button, and the game has a little pop-up that tells you if you did well or not, but it’s enormously difficult to look at the screen and determine just when the notes raining down from the top of the screen are in the right position. For contrast, Hatsune Miku games have a helpful little arrow that spins around a note like a clock, and when it hits 12, it’s time to press. It’s almost possible to play that game without music thanks to that feedback. The Taiko the Drum games are the same deal. When the icon aligns with your drum, you hit the right button.
Alone Musc is also far too twitchy to rely on following the beat of the music, and if you’re even the smallest fraction of a second out on either side and you won’t be given a “perfect” rating for that note (again, without any meaningful feedback telling you if you pressed the button slightly too early or slightly too late). I can’t see a scenario where I’ll ever get a perfect score on any of these tracks, and it’s entirely because there’s something messed up with regards to the windows for perfect scores… or perhaps the frame rate’s just not consistent enough and that’s throwing my timing. That’s entirely possible too.
Finally, where every other rhythm game I’ve ever played has given you a couple of different difficulty options for each piece of music, with Alone Musc, every track has one difficulty setting. Some are “easy”, others are “impossible.” If you don’t happen to be good at rhythm games (and/or can’t handle Alone Musc’ shoddy implementation on the harder tracks), then some of the game’s best music is subsequently locked off to you. That’s a very silly way to handle a rhythm game when you should be encouraging players to play with all of it.
Should the very negative impression that Alone Musc levels be tempered by the fact that the credits list just four people? Perhaps, but then perhaps those four people should have worked on something more in-line with what they had the resources for. Alone Musc is, by a long way, the poorest rhythm game on a console that has a lot of excellent rhythm games, and unfortunately, for a genre as straightforward as this one, there was nowhere for this team to hide their inability to compete with the other developers working in the genre.