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EGM Review: Magical Beat

Posted on August 1, 2014 AT 05:59pm

Drop the beat (and the piece)

It’s easy to think of Arc System Works as that Japanese development house that continues to pump out 2D fighting games, but the company actually takes a break from all of those epic 1-on-1 battles every now and then in order to produce something a little different. Case in point: Magical Beat. Arc’s latest Vita release will feel familiar to anyone who’s played puzzle games in the last 20-plus years: L-shaped blocks consisting of three colored gems fall from the top of the screen, and it’s your job to match those gems in like-colored groupings of three or more to clear them from your side of the screen.

Except, these days, simply having a puzzle game where you match colored pieces together just isn’t enough—your game needs to have a hook. Magical Beat’s main hook is that, as its name implies, everything you do will be in conjunction with the beat of its music. As your next piece sits near the top of the screen, you can rotate it or move it left and right to line up your next move without concern for timing, but hitting the button to drop it into the playfield must be done on beat—which, of course, will be easier or harder depending on the style and tempo of the song. Miss the beat, and those three colored gems will break apart, falling down to random (and potentially unwanted) spots.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s one that really clicked with me moments after first trying the game. Musical puzzle games have existed before—Lumines was an early, quite popular staple of Sony’s handheld ventures—but I’m hard pressed to think of other examples where those two halves were so directly intertwined. Playing Magical Beat, your brain has to work on two very different levels, and when you get in sync with everything onscreen, it’s incredibly fun—especially in those moments where you have enough faith in yourself (and your skills) to just fly through, dropping pieces as quickly as you can.

Of course, the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of music and puzzle-game juggling that I enjoyed so much here is also the point at which some players will simply lose all ability to relate to Magical Beat. I remember some of my EGM coworkers playing Theatrhythm and not understanding how I could keep up with everything, and that’s with only the rhythm-game angle present. Magical Beat isn’t an easy game to get the hang of or become good at—but that’s part of what made me enjoy it.

There’s one other major aspect to Magical Beat that’ll make it divisive to potential players: its soundtrack. The core of the game’s music comes from Japanese artist Kikuo, someone who’s known for his work in creating and producing Vocaloid tracks. If that term means nothing to you, Vocaloids are a sort of virtual singer, where lyrics can be “sung” by inputting them into a piece of computer software—producing vocals that often sound like a robotic lifeform singing the songs of its creators in a desperate plea to be accepted into their world.

Here, Kikuo uses Hatsune Miku—by far the most famous Vocaloid—for all of his lyrics. The result is a rather impressive mix of musical styles, spread out across a soundtrack that not only serves Magical Beat well for its gameplay needs, but which can also be of interest even to those outside of Vocaloid fandom. Still, that isn’t to say everyone will love the game’s musical choices; as a fan of Miku and her sisters and brothers, I’m well aware that my love for virtual idols is definitely not shared by all. There are DLC packs that let you enjoy select tracks from other Arc System Works games like Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and XBlaze, but at that point, you’re talking about really targeting the niche. Magical Beat’s music will probably have very little middle ground: Either you’ll really dig it, or you’ll want nothing to do with it.

The great thing about gaming is that something like Magical Beat can be for a very specific segment of players and not worry about appealing to everyone and anyone—and that’s OK. In fact, that’s why I liked the game as much as I did: It hit on so many things that I enjoy, and as a fan of both puzzle and music/rhythm games, its cute pixel graphics, unique gameplay twists, and specialized soundtrack all hit close to my heart.

Yet, as someone clearly in its target audience, I did come away with one true complaint about Magical Beat: There’s just not enough to it. It’s not a case of “this game is too expensive.” I think its $9.99 price point is perfectly fine. (For that, you get three difficulty courses that take you through five or 10 songs, a free-play mode where you can select the track and difficulty of choice, and then a local multiplayer mode.) It just feels like there needs to be something more here, some additional mode or feature that currently doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s the lack of any sort of online multiplayer, maybe it’s the absence of any online leaderboards, or maybe it’s the personality that could’ve been infused if the game’s diverse cast of characters had more of a chance to shine via Puyo Puyo–esque cutscenes.

Whatever more Magical Beat could have had is a moot point, though. What’s important is what it is—and that’s a clever mix of two gaming genres that come together in a package that both feels comfortingly familiar yet intriguingly different.

Developer: Arc System Works • Publisher: Arc System Works • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 06.17.2014

While Magical Beat’s mix of puzzle and rhythm-gaming concepts won’t be for everyone, those who appreciate such genres will find a unique, enjoyable conglomeration of the two that feels as fresh as it does familiar.

The Good A fresh twist on music-inspired puzzle games that’s both challenging and enjoyable.
The Bad Even at its low price, it feels like there’s something missing from the overall package.
The Ugly How much panic a rhythm-requiring puzzle game can throw you into if you start screwing up.
Magical Beat is available exclusively on PlayStation Vita (via PSN). Review code was provided by Arc System Works for the benefit of this review.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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