It’s almost jarring, the shift from brain-bending frustration to laid back enjoyment in Backbeat. Ichigoichie Games’ latest is a mix of movement-and-timing-based puzzles, nostalgic narrative, and funky-funk beats. Players take control of Watts, a bassist without a band but with dreams of doing something a bit more than working a dead-end job and floating on by through her existence. Step one is to get a band. Step two is to… well, just play.
It’s not Rock Band, though. You’re not standing about strumming plastic instruments; your band isn’t even playing a specific song per se – this is funk, this is jam sessions, this is seeing where the beat takes you. Literally, in the sense that the main puzzle behind each level involves navigating an area, going from point A to point B, and jamming along as you go. It starts out simple enough, but within not much time you’re having to manage the timeline-based movement of your four band members, avoiding obstacles and making sure to all arrive at the goal area on – or around – the same time.
So surely everyone can just take the same route, in the same amount of time? Oh, sweet summer child, of course that’s not the case. No, each member of the band moves at a different beat – or pace. Watts moves at a steady couple of squares per move/turn, while your drummer – thanks to an injury he suffered – moves much further each turn and requires obstacles to be smartly used to stop him in his tracks and help redirect him towards the goal. Plus the other two moving at their individual beat-pace. Plus the obstacles to avoid, including people who get in the way, gates that open/close at certain points, and more. It swiftly becomes a lot to manage, and the fine balancing act can soon give way to panicked backtracking and do-overs to try and make things as perfect (or just vaguely correct) as they can be.
It’s something Ichigoichie is clearly aware of, though, as Backbeat doesn’t punish you for messing up. You’re always able to go back single moves to try a different route, or at the press of a button you’re able to reset the entire stage and try again. It might not seem like the possibilities are endless, with just four directions open to move in, but that’s four movements for every character, on every space they stand in, in every turn they take. It can be a lot to mull over.
Which makes it all the more pleasant when you do work hard at a level and eventually make your way through – yes, Backbeat slaps on the screen the barely earned grade C (must try harder), but you’re rewarded with a real-time playback of your band making their way through the space, playing their instruments as they go. It’s a neat little jam; a relaxing way to decompress after what can be a puzzle that makes your head hurt.
Helpfully, the music throughout Backbeat is great. There’s a true feel of funk throughout, from the background music, through the tunes the band jams out as they stroll, onto incidental sound effects when you’re choosing a direction to walk in or encounter an obstacle. The game is designed around making music, so it makes sense the actual soundtrack would be as integrated as it seems to be. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, and genuinely one of the sound effects when encountering an obstacle – a blare of saxophone, shifting the note played each time you hit said obstacle – is bizarrely satisfying. I honestly found myself tapping away at the A button to move into something in the way repeatedly, just to play the almost-but-not-really tune.
The demo included around 20 or so levels of the final game’s 40, so there’s plenty yet to be seen – and a coherent, full narrative to get involved in and help bundle the experience along. How all the different elements come together will, as always, be key here – a narrative you don’t care about, in a game that does rely fairly heavily on it, is going to be a letdown. Puzzles getting too samey, being too easy, being too hard – any of these and you’ve got yourself a letdown. If it suddenly slips into nu metal in the endgame, that would be a letdown. There are variables to consider, and it’s hard to see how the final game will actually end up faring.
But there’s no doubt from this brief, unfinished snippet of the game that there’s something thoroughly pleasant about Backbeat. That vague mid-nineties nostalgia, the funky-funky beats, the reward of beating an environmental puzzle – that stress-to-relaxation switch in your brain going off. It’s all good, and it makes you hopeful that the complete package will come together in a coherent, enjoyable whole.
Genre: Beat-based puzzle
Format: PC / Mac
Developer: Ichigoichie Games
Publisher: Ichigoichie Games
Release: Early 2022