A City Sleeps review: wake up call

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, Mac
Publisher Harmonix Music Systems
Developer Harmonix Music Systems
Release Date Oct 16, 2014

A City Sleeps may be Harmonix's most traditional video game ever.

Over the 13 years it's existed as a studio, Harmonix has made a name for itself as the industry's leading developer of music games — from the Kinect-only Dance Central series to the instrument simulation of the Rock Band games. Music is still key to A City Sleeps, but unlike those games, it's a background element that you have no control over.

That lack of control becomes A City Sleeps' biggest problem. The shoot-em-up genre that serves as its foundation is all about mastery, about perfecting your movements and firing off the exact shots needed to bump up your high score. That feeling is possible here, but I couldn't shake the thought that for the first time in a Harmonix game, the music was holding me back.

In A City Sleeps, music is an element that you have no control over
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In A City Sleeps, you take on the role of Poe, a sword-wielding, headphone-wearing electronic music fan who has the ability to enter dreams and exorcise the demons inside the dreamer's head. Each of those dreams serves as a three-part level, which in turn has several difficulty settings and modifiers to make it more challenging.

Within dreams, Poe floats through 2D scrolling levels, shooting a wave of bullets at enemies that spawn in while dodging bullets from them. Though Poe's model takes up a good portion of the game, the bullets only hurt her if they hit her "core," a green circle in the center of her body.

This can be a little confusing; more than once, I found myself accidentally dodging into bullets because my eyes were scanning over Poe too quickly to determine where that weak point was located. The graffiti-esque art style in A City Sleeps looks cool but led to both Poe and her weak spot blending into the busy backgrounds along with enemy projectiles.

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Projectiles from both Poe and her enemies are shot out in a pattern based on the beat of the electronic music that plays in the stages. Enemies spawning into the stage are also tied to the music.

While this made me feel a connection to the music, it also bothered me in many situations. I often whittled an enemy's health down with a barrage of shots, only to have them speed off from the screen before I could connect for the killing blow. It felt like that ever-important high score and my spot on the leaderboards were being negatively affected by the game design choice of alternating shot speed based on the music.

You can play around the slow speed of attack by getting in close to enemies, at which point your attack switches to a more damaging melee swing. But since most enemies shoot fast-moving projectiles, especially at the higher difficulties, I rarely felt confident using this mechanic.

A City Sleeps' three boss fights are wonderful
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A City Sleeps provides some other tools to help strategically improve your performance. As you complete dreams across different difficulty settings, you unlock ghosts. While flying through each level, Poe will come across relics that she can then possess with one of her ghosts, providing backup of sorts. For example, the ghost of mercy will heal, the ghost of anger will shoot extra projectiles at enemies, and the ghost of loyalty can freeze enemies or shoot a ricocheting lightning bolt.

Beyond that, you can further modify your abilities by equipping relics, and levels can be modified with curses to make them more challenging (but also provide a higher point multiplier). There are a lot of options at your disposal that are meant to make each stage of A City Sleeps highly replayable, and it certainly felt fun messing around with different ghost and relic combinations and figuring out which provided me the best buffs for specific enemies. I was even able to use some ghost/relic combos to help make up for my issues with not being able to control shot speed.

The problem is that there's just not enough content in A City Sleeps to really stretch these interesting mechanics out in any meaningful way. At launch, the game has three levels, each of which lasts around five to 10 minutes depending on how well you perform. More difficulty and curse options unlock, allowing you to remix the stages, and you'll need to conquer each of these if you want every ghost and relic in the game. But it just wasn't enough to keep me engaged.

There were moments in the hour I spent playing through each level for the first time where everything really clicked. A City Sleeps' three boss fights, in particular, are a wonderful mix of traditional shoot-em-up bosses with a screen full of bullets to dodge and the more puzzle-y bosses of action-adventure games, where there are specific steps to be taken for success. I found myself challenged both intellectually and mechanically, and pushed to try different combinations of relics and ghosts to see what helped most.

I just wanted...more.

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Wrap Up:

A City Sleeps has too little content and a frustrating main conceit

I'm not one to complain about games being too short very often, but A City Sleeps doesn't allow itself enough breathing room to fully explore its own central concept. I would have loved more dreams to explore, more bosses to fight, more challenges that required playing smarter with the ghosts I brought into battle. The core mechanic of music dictating the rate of fire is just frustrating enough that I can't see myself sticking to the leaderboards, and there's nothing else to keep me invested.

A City Sleeps was reviewed using a final downloadable pre-release Steam key provided by Harmonix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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