Let the rhythm move you
Ask anybody who was around for the launch of the PlayStation Portable about their favorite first experiences with the handheld, and one name will continuously come up: Lumines. Game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi had already shown a love for playing with the concept of merging music and interactive entertainment—his works previous to Lumines were the outer space rhythm series Space Channel 5, and the electronic-fueled synesthesia shooter Rez. With Lumines, however, he had come up with a brilliant concoction: One which could deeply embrace that concept of music-infused gameplay, while also having said gameplay walk a fine balance between easily-understood concepts and intense depth.
With PSP in hand, headphones plugged in, and UMD securely in place, Lumines was a perfect showcase for Sony’s first serious attempt at portable gaming—and in that environment, the game just felt right. Sure, I know; saying that a game “just felt right” may not be the proper logical description that a good game reviewer is supposed to give. Yet beyond talk of graphics, control, soundtrack, options, or any other tangible element of videogames that we can break apart and discuss individually, Lumines had this amazing power to elicit a deeply emotional response from those who played it. It was that quality that great games sometimes contain that can be hard for us to explain in words—that spark of excitement and wonderment that one can only truly understand by directly playing the game for themselves.
As much as I enjoyed Lumines—and its love-it-or-hate-it PSP sequel—that spark just didn’t seem to be there for me when the series made the jump to home consoles. The visuals were bigger and brighter, the music richer and more robust, and online options were available where they hadn’t existed before. And yet, it just wasn’t the same. We’ve seen it many times before: A game—existing as a stand-out on its original platform—expands out onto other hardware, only to now find itself a background player on a larger stage, versus the small-stage star it used to be.
Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I just couldn’t appreciate the Lumines series anymore. Or maybe the problem was the series itself. I’ve seen plenty of games come along, be wonderful, and then lose their luster after the formula is repeated again and again.
Lumines: Electronic Symphony answers that question. My love for this series wasn’t dead—it was just lying dormant for the right time to re-appear. And this, my friends, is the right time.
One of the goals of James Mielke—at one time editor-in-chief of EGM and current producer of Lumines: Electronic Symphony—for this game was to get the soundtrack back on, well, track. It seems like a simple idea—have a specific plan for the game’s music—but it can sometimes be hard to appreciate just how important doing so is for a game based so heavily on that music. As indicated by the game’s subtitle, the idea for Electronic Symphony was a mix of tracks based heavily around electronica, and one which is more about creative groove than it is featuring well-known pop tracks or giving a sense of frantic tension. That was the goal of the original Lumines: Offer players a game where they can sit down, relax, and enjoy the feeling of becoming one with the mixture of puzzles and pulsating beats. That “chill” factor returns to the series here, and it proved to me two things: Just how important that feeling is to the franchise, and just how wonderful of an experience said franchise can be when its present.
In fact, it is that very feeling that made me realize why Lumines works so well for me on systems like the PSP and Vita, and why it doesn’t on consoles. Playing Lumines on the Xbox 360 or PS3, there’s already a strict set of factors in place for the experience you’ll be having: Your location when playing, your seating arrangements, the environment around you, things like that. Instead, I see these games as being more like books, where you find a place to hunker down that feels the most comfortable at the moment, you get into that perfect position, and you enter into a world you quickly find yourself getting lost in. Lumines: Electronic Symphony isn’t about an all-out production that benefits from big screens and even bigger speakers—it’s an experience that benefits from that ability to connect on a more intimate, personal level.
While the track selection feels like a shift back in a proper direction, the rest of Lumines: Electronic Symphony is more polish than reinvention. That isn’t meant in a negative way—because really, little about the Lumines series outside of its musical choices was broken. Much like the PSP was a perfect vehicle for the series at its introduction, here too Sony’s latest portable efforts are an excellent venue for this most recent chapter. The Vita’s OLED screen makes the game absolutely shine; while Electronic Symphony’s sound is king, its visuals are also important, and the series has never looked better than it does here on this display. The game also feels completely natural in regards to its touch interface, though the optional touch-based controls probably won’t be used by any but the most casual of fans (and even then, probably not for long).
One major change has been introduced to the concept of Lumines’ gameplay: Those mascot characters that perviously were little more than window dressing now offer specific abilities. Some give you the power to stop the game’s constantly-moving block-clearing meter in place for a few seconds, allowing you to set up even bigger combos; others give you the ability to, say, turn your next three upcoming pieces into solid-colored blocks. It’s an interesting addition, one which reminds me of another game on Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast: Puyo Puyo 4. For anybody who isn’t much for gimmicks such as these, those ability are totally option–except, if you’re going to want to challenge the higher-ranked players on the world leaderboards, you’ll need to swallow your pride and use every advantage that you’re given.
Which, actually, leads to the one other super-huge change Electronic Symphony introduces: A new type of block that will randomize all other blocks on the playing fields when it touches them. The idea is nearly blasphemous, given that the more skilled Lumines players are often specifically setting up their playfield for the benefit of combos. There will be times when this piece can cause frustration, as it throws a wrench into that plan you were just about to execute. At the same time, it can also mean the difference between life and death when faced with a collection of blocks that simply offers no good options for clearing out some of the junk in your way. My vote on this game-changing new piece was this: At its worse, it’s a nuisance; at its best, it’s the difference between a game over and continuing on to achieve a higher score.
Surprisingly, Lumines: Electronic Symphony may be more about what it doesn’t include than what it does. You have your typical musical tour, the ability to create and challenge playlists, a handful of timed modes, a local human-versus-human multiplayer option, a few other basics, and that’s it. Stripped out are some of the norms from other versions of Lumines, such as puzzle modes or online multiplayer. At first, it’s easy to feel like Electronic Symphony is a little bare-boned—and on paper, it indeed is. Yet what I found well into my time with the game was that while I thought I wanted all of those different options, the truth was I didn’t need them. Some will see Electronic Symphony as not being as robust an offering when compared to its older siblings—and that’s a totally fair opinion.
However, the entire concept for Lumines: Electronic Symphony was to get back to that core experience: Player and game, coming together in a way that reminds us of what made the series so special in the first place. Part of doing that meant stripping away all of that fluff and fat that had built up over time—and while it may be hard to accept that loss at first, it makes for a better-produced, more focused, richer experience. Lumines: Electronic Symphony is a fantastic showcase for the Vita, a finely-crafted re-alignment of the Lumines franchise—and a game that just feels right.
SUMMARY: While it doesn’t have as extensive of a roster of modes as some of its earlier siblings, Lumines: Electronic Symphony is just utterly fantastic in what it does do—most evident in its stellar soundtrack, which returns to the same thematic roots as the original Lumines. Electonic Symphomy must be some sort of alien-technology time machine—turn it on, and suddenly you’ll realize it’s now hours later.
- THE GOOD: A return to the elements that made Lumines such a great experience at its inception.
- THE BAD: The lack of some previously-included modes, while understandable, does make the game feel a little slim options-wise.
- THE UGLY: Some of the high scores that are already on the leaderboards .
Lumines: Electronic Symphony is a PS Vita exclusive.