It can be a real challenge taking an established genre and trying to do enough different with it to make it stand out enough to convince players it is worth their time and dollar. Match three puzzle game. Four words that readily bring to mind games ranging from Columns to Bejeweled and more. How does one go about breathing fresh life into the matching puzzle genre? By making it not just about the matchmaking, but the timing as well. This is what Magical Beat proposes, and by and large it succeeds.
The matching genre is always trying to find new twists. Games like Bejeweled 3 came up with all sorts of game variants to try and keep the gameplay fresh. Gyromancer and Puzzle Quest are examples of titles that slowed the gameplay down and added RPG elements so there was a sense of story and progression to keep players hooked. Puzzle & Dragons relies heavily on social models.
Still, none of the above comparisons really fit with what Magical beat is trying to do. The closest comparison I can draw off of the top of my head would be Super Puzzle Fighter II HD Remix, because the gameplay is very fast and the goals are designed around competitive head-to-head action.
Magical Beat however, has a different rhythm to it altogether – literally speaking. Instead of just dropping gems or blocks as quickly as possible, you are tasked with doing so to a specific beat. Each stage has a different, catchy song in the background that serves as the pulse for the match. There is a slider bar to the side of the playing field and within it is a visual cue that lets you know the desired range for dropping your blocks. If you time it just right, you can put other blocks onto your opponent’s screen. This is a typical method of ‘attack’ in these types of puzzle games, but since it is based not on big combinations of bricks but instead timing your block drop precisely, it feels fresh and for me at least – far more challenging.
The block dropping is also a little different than what I was used to. Instead of the pieces descending constantly as you flip and twist them around to make them fit, you have three bricks of varying colors that sit at the top of your screen. You can rotate them to the left or right and then you press a button to drop them. If you mistime the decent however, the bricks break apart and randomly scatter on top of the playing field below, completely throwing off whatever strategy you were going for. You can sit back, making the perfect color drop at the perfect time, but the longer you do so, the more turns your opponent gets. Against the computer? This can prove fatal quickly if you are content to sit back for too long, because it will come after you quickly.
Early on, I was relying on the visual meter along the slide, bouncing up and down in time with the beat. I am not a musically inclined individual and possess absolutely no rhythm (my wife could verify this in reference to any attempt in my adult life to dance – both times). That being said, once I started to get a feel for the pulse of each song, there was a distinct advantage to be had in using your ears to tell you when to drop the blocks, so my eyes could stay focused on the patterns of colors below.
The visuals are simple enough, nothing to get terribly excited over. The characters look like cousins or rejected attempts at the Power Puff Girls, for better or worse. I suppose they are cute enough in their own way, but they lack some of the charm of existing characters like Super Puzzle Fighter gave. Arc System Works has promised that upcoming content featuring characters and music from more popular franchises like Xblaze Code: Embryo, BlazBlue and Guilty Gear are on the way, and I have to admit that will be fun to see when it happens.
Magical Beat is a lot of fun, and it succeeds in doing something with a genre of game that sees a lot of imitation but very little innovation. It lacks the depth of a more strategic RPG title, and those kinds of progression hooks always have a way of reeling me in, but there is still a lot of fun to be had here and Magical Beat lends itself perfectly to short bursts of play on the handheld Vita. The best part is, there is a solid core system here that could be expanded on very easily. Easy to recommend if you are a fan of these kinds of games.
Review by Nick