Soundfall preview: Music to our ears

The debut title from Drastic Games is a head-bopping isometric shooter unafraid to move to its own groove, largely because it forces players into the exact same position. Soundfall casts you as Melody Harper, an audiophile-turned-weapons expert whisked off to a far-off land, offering the player ample opportunity to keep an army of enemies at bay using creative gunfire in the endless pursuit for loot. So far, so expected. But there’s more to this synth-infused dungeon crawler than first meets the eye. Because in the rhythm-driven domains of Symphonia, your ears prove an equally important tool, as you must shoot, move, and dodge to the beat either alone or in four-player co-op.

Creative director Nick Cooper makes no bones about the road to keeping Soundfall on track being long – it’s been five-and-half years since development began after being fully funded on Fig – but the game’s unique combination of twin-stick and music-based action is one that the team, made up of Epic Games alumni, have had faith in right from the very start. “We were influenced by games like Audioshield, Ikaruga, Geometry Wars, and Assault Android Cactus – high-energy rhythm and bullet hell games with slick graphics and a cool premise,” he says. And as far as premises go, blasting in time to the tune proved a tempting one. “The first breakthrough on music mechanics was getting some capsule-shaped proto enemies bouncing to the beat.”

Select indie releases like BPM: Bullets Per Minute and Crypt of the NecroDancer have toyed with this shooting-meets-music fusion before, true, but Soundfall ups the ante by making almost everything procedural by design. Everything from the items you can pick up, enemies you destroy, to even the dungeons themselves are entirely randomised with each new run, letting Drastic Games maximise the impact of the content a small studio such as itself can produce while retaining a grand scale. How do you tie music into a gameplay foundation this unpredictable, though? That’s where the help of an audio analysis algorithm comes in.

The beat meter at the bottom of the screen will help you keep in time. It’ll also offer feedback depending on how well you unleash your actions.

“Everything in the game needs to be animated and scripted so that it syncs up to the beat,” says Cooper. “For example, our animations always need to have their impactful moments land at multiples of 0.5 seconds, which we then scale to the BPM and sync to the beat.” This still doesn’t do much to address having to account for input windows, however, which can be make or break in a twin-stick shooter where timing is crucial.

Online play brings yet another huge amount of complexity to this. “Players need to feel like their actions and the environment are moving on-beat even with network latency, which we do with a lot of networking prediction, as well as simulating some things on the client that most games would normally make server-authoritative.”

There are ten lands that make up the music world of Symphonia in total, all inspired by a different genre or instrument family

Drastic Games is intent on not making things easy for itself. It’s a fact only further emphasised by featuring a total of five playable characters, each with their own uniquely music-themed instrument that must be fired or swung to the beat accordingly. The aforementioned Melody, for instance, is primarily an up-close melee fighter, wielding a microphone-sword capable of unleashing a three-hit combo or spinning attack. Lydia Stroll, as the game’s resident cello prodigy, is far more range-based thanks to her cello-bow, while house DJ Ky Hyun dishes out wave-based death using his turntable-scythe. Guitarist Jaxon and rock drummer Brite are similarly equipped to deal knockback damage.

Whatever weapon you’re wielding or whichever character you happen to be playing as, eradicating the evil race of Discordians should remain possible thanks to the inclusion of an ever-pulsating beat meter located at the bottom of the screen. This small addition not only ensures that fighting to the beat is always fair and fun, but also works to help you better navigate the symphonic world Drastic Games has created – regardless of the musical genre playing at the time. As you’d probably expect, with music so essential to the game’s core, the process of compiling its soundtrack was a major – and also collaborative – effort. “Our one full-time audio engineer-composer, Jens Kiilstofte, did a lot of tracks for the game, including the main theme, map themes, and one of our boss themes, among others,” Cooper says. “In addition, Soundfall has original songs from 17 different artists. Half of our music is licensed through Epidemic Sound. For the other half, we approached a lot of artists individually.” Choosing who to work with was a case of finding the perfect fit of what music style would fit within each of Symphonia’s ten dynamically different locations.

Soundfall’s action can get pretty chaotic during full four-player sessions, but it always looks entrancing thanks to its luminous art style

Looking back now, on the cusp of Soundfall’s launch, Cooper and company are hopeful that its melting pot of musical ideas will jive with its intended audience of arcade action fans and music lovers. And if it does become a hit, Drastic Games is prepared for the occasional encore. “Originally, we wanted something we could make in less than a year, but as we saw more potential, we expanded on our original goals,” he says. “It’s something we’ve continuously worked on and tried to improve. And we’ll probably continue to iterate with updates post-launch.”

Infinite playlist

Those who pick up the PC version of‭ ‬Soundfall‭ ‬can look forward to blasting along to their own customised playlists of tracks‭. ‬Once imported‭, ‬the chosen song will generate a‭ ‬new‭ ‬“undiscovered”‭ ‬region‭, ‬creating levels using Drastic Games’‭ ‬self-built audio analysis algorithm‭. ‬“Attributes such as tempo‭, ‬loudness‭, ‬complexity‭, ‬and danceability are fed into a machine learning algorithm to categorise it into‭ ‬a genre and family‭,‬”‭ ‬Cooper reveals‭. ‬“These are then used to determine the environment type of the song‭; ‬the types‭, ‬variations‭, ‬and combinations of enemies that appear‭; ‬the types of loot that the players will find‭; ‬and the physical layout of the level‭.‬”

Genre Rhythm, loot-shooter, dungeon crawler | Format PC  /  Switch  /  PS4  /  PS5  /  XBO  /  XB S/X | Developer Drastic Games | Publisher Noodlecake | Release 2022 | Social @SoundfallGame

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