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Gal Metal turns Switch Joy-Cons into drumsticks, for better and worse

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Great style doesn’t always make for great substance

Gal Metal, a heavy metal rhythm game heading to Nintendo Switch, has all the makings of the console’s first success in the genre. It’s got a fantastic premise — an all-female teen heavy metal band — coupled with a lovely art style. But going hands on with Gal Metal during Tokyo Game Show left me feeling like its promise had been squandered on some outdated motion control mechanics.

Produced by Tak Fujii of former Konami fame (and E3 infamy), Gal Metal comes off at first as more of a visual novel than a traditional rhythm game. The story unfolds through a series of manga-style panels without any narration, meaning there’s plenty of reading and a strange lack of music introducing the game.

I could only glean so much of the Japanese-language demo’s plot, but from what I gathered, Gal Metal is a strange hybrid combination of anime hit Your Name, alien invasion movies and high school battle of the bands competitions. Aliens besiege a Japanese town for reasons unclear to me. A boy and girl get caught in the crossfire and are briefly abducted. When they return to Earth, it turns out that they have apparently swapped bodies.

The boy, who is now living life as the girl, heads to school and somehow learns that the resident all-girl metal band is capable of taking the aliens down. Our hero joins on as a drummer, and so it goes.

How we got to this point is beyond me, but I am happy to roll with it if it means fun rhythm gameplay. That’s where Gal Metal disappoints. Each Joy-Con becomes a drumstick during the music sections. Remember Wii Music, or other Wii games that had you shaking the Wii Remotes around like you were air drumming? Gal Metal works like that, too, except without much satisfying feedback or form.

The tutorial suggested that there would be note maps to follow as I practiced shaking the Joy-Cons along to some repetitive chords. It wasn’t the most entertaining pattern, but more than that, the size of the Joy-Con and the strangely inconsistent use of HD Rumble meant I hardly recognized whether my hits were registering or not.

More confusing is that, after all of that training to learn notes and chords, the actual battle sections — where the band faces off against the aliens — drops any of that strategy or challenge entirely. The point of Gal Metal, according to developer DMM Games, is to just feel the music and jam. I will admit that not knowing Japanese left me especially confused on this point, but the game doesn’t actually encourage freeform play as much as one would think, considering.

As I flailed the tiny Joy-Con throughout an electric “Ode to Joy” cover, I found myself racking up points — and losing them, too. But there were no notes and seemingly no imperative to play in any particular way. Gal Metal still expects players to have perfect timing and keep appropriate tempo, but there’s no guidance as to what either of those meant in context. How scoring worked was unclear, and it was frustrating to see my score increase and decrease with little rhyme or reason.

Again, all of this was in Japanese, so maybe there’s some better explanation for the odd rigidity of what’s supposed to be an unconventionally freewheeling game. I’m still amped about Gal Metal on principle — I love me some good, girl-fronted rock — but in practice, I think the game could use, well, more practice before its February launch in Japan.