Over the years we’ve had a number of rhythm-based games, each with their own unique gameplay elements. We’ve had titles such as Guitar Hero and Rockband, which both utilised their own custom controllers to build immersion; the Final Fantasy Theatrhythm series, which gives you full access to the incredible soundtracks of yesteryear whilst fighting mobs; and even Persona Dancing 3, 4 and 5, which also allows you to dance along to the brilliant soundtracks from their respective games. This week I’ve been taking a look a the latest competitor in the genre, Cytus Alpha – an addictive Switch title which triggered my nostalgia for games such as Osu and Elite Beat Agents.
Originally launching on iOS and Android back in 2012, Cytus was subsequently ported to the Vita via the (now dead) PlayStation Mobile service. There have been a few other creations since, such as Cytus II on both mobile platforms, an Arcade cabinet in partnership with Capcom, and even a Chinese stage show based on the story. I’ve looked at clips of the show on Youtube and it reminded me of the live Hatsune Miku shows, where they have a holographic character on stage, only this one also had real actors and a live band playing music from the game.
Having put in around 40 hours or so, so far, I think it’s time to give my fingers a rest from pushing the virtual buttons and move over to pushing the physical keys of my keyboard as I write about my experience with Cytus Alpha; one of the most entertaining rhythm-based games on the Switch to date.
What initially surprised me in Cytus Alpha was the fact the game has an underlying story which is revealed as you progress and unlock various data logs and news articles. Without going into too much detail, ExtenLife Corp has created new android shells for people to transfer themselves into. Not like we saw in Surrogate, where Bruce Willis controlled a robotic version of himself by remotely operating it from the comfort of his own home, with these androids your mind and ‘soul’ are implanted within the machine itself.
Shortly after, a virus breaks out and people begin to die around the world. This epidemic pushes the human race (those who remain) to agree to the procedure and undergo the transformation from mortal, fragile beings into immortal, robotic creations. Over time, those who have made the conversion are starting to question if they are ‘living’ due to the immortality their new bodies provide. They also begin to query the limitations the shells have when it comes to relationships and how their new appearance has changed their personality – nobody speaks to each other out of enjoyment and to be social, it’s all about being informative and factual only; kinda like an artificial robot.
This is as far into the story as I’ve got and I’m intrigued to see how it progresses from here. Completing a certain number of songs and/or obtaining a set amount of points per chapter will unlock diary entries, commercials, data logs, news articles and more, all piecing together this catastrophic event which pushed the human race into a corner, giving them only one chance of survival. It’s rather deep and not what I’d expect from a rhythm game, but it’s a reason for progression as it offers the above rewards for achieving certain criteria.
Earlier I likened Cytus Alpha to Osu and Elite Beat Agents – they are going to be my direct comparisons due to the ‘touch’ element and the way the gameplay mechanics work. Also, the majority of my review and observations are based on the portable version of the game (using my fingers) rather than the Joycon mode – although I will talk about that one later on…
The concept is rather simple, tap the orbs which appear in time with the music, just like we saw in Osu. There’s a variety of ‘notes’ for you to tap along to, single taps, prolonged notes you have to hold down, double notes, and ones you must drag with your finger in a set direction. It’s not that bad at first when playing a song with a difficulty of 1-3, but once it hits the higher levels, get ready to play Twister with your fingers if you’re opting to play it single-handed (like I did most of the time). Unlike Osu though, you have a bit of help with knowing when to actually tap the orbs (outside of them growing to their biggest size and flashing), these are…
The Metronome-like guideline. This line bounces up and down the screen at the same tempo as the song. This isn’t only there to subconsciously imprint the tempo into your head so you can tap along with your feet in order to bond with the beat of the unknown songs, but it also gives you a hint as to when to tap the orbs. Basically, once the line passes the middle of the orb – that’s the time to tap if you want a ‘perfect’ score, slightly over or under will give you a ‘good’, a bit further a ‘bad’ and if you tap before or after the line touches the orb, you get a well deserved ‘miss’.
Multi–coloured orbs. I feel so stupid in admitting this but I didn’t clock on to the reasoning behind the two variants of colours until I was a few hours into the game. There are blue/purple orbs and orange/green ones. These are purposely coloured in order to guide you on when to tap in relation to the direction of the Metronome guideline above. So, if the orb is the blue and purple one, you tap as the guideline is moving up, orange and green ones are tapped as it goes down. Simple. It also works perfectly as a timing indicator on the more complex songs where you’ll be tapping as soon as the guideline bounces at an edge – so you know which notes to prioritise first.
See the video below for an example:
Taking the Joy(con) out of the game…
As I advised before, you can play the game with the Joycons, either in docked, tabletop or portable mode. For me, this is the equivalent of owning Dance Dance Revolution on the Xbox 360, with the dance mat, but using the controller to perform the ‘steps’ for you because you can’t be bothered to get up and dance like a superstar (and annoy your parents with all the banging). In this mode, you don’t have to concentrate on where the orbs are appearing, you just need to ensure you’re on-time with a push of a button. Simply tap any face button as the line crosses the orb and you’re done.
If there’s a set of two orbs to push at the same time, tap any two buttons at the same time; simple. Similarly, holding anything down will emulate the held-down notes and the dragged notes are performed by pushing any of the four shoulder buttons – you don’t even have to push the right direction with the control sticks!
I appreciate making the game accessible for everyone, both for gamers who want to play the game on their TV and people with disabilities which impact their usage of the touch screen. But for me, this isn’t the best way to play the game. If you do decide you want to try this method, as perhaps the hands-on version is too hard when the difficulty and speed ramps up, then be sure to run through the calibration first – I didn’t and my results weren’t the best…
Rhythm-based games require two things in order to be successful, addictive, and fun to play – Good controls and decent music. The controls I covered above – my personal preference is to use your fingers whilst the device is on a stand (I use my Kid Icarus 3DS stand) but both touch and Joycon methods work fine – but what about the music? I went into Cytus Alpha with an open mind, as it’s not full of memorable and iconic music as we saw with the Persona Dance and the Final Fantasy Theatrhythm Series’, but I am glad to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the music on offer within the game.
Boasting over 200 songs, including a bunch of new songs created specifically for this new Switch version, there really is a wide range of titles on offer for you to play through. The majority of the tracks are only a few minutes long, but there are some exceptions which are longer (or at least seem like they’re longer due to the tempo of the tracks). I’ve played through around 60 songs so far and I’ve heard pretty much every genre you can think of; Pop, Game music, Classical, Dance, Electro-pop, etc… A lot of the music is just instrumental but there is a decent amount with vocals in both English and, I presume, Japanese.
The music made Cytus Alpha much more than just another rhythm-based game as each and every track was a delight to listen to. The gameplay side of tapping along to the tracks was perfectly aligned with both the beats and the music itself, so much so that playing along felt natural and easy enough to react to the upcoming notes. If you pick up the Collector’s Edition, from Numskull Games, then you also get a bonus CD which contains ten tracks from ‘Chapter Alpha’. I got hold of the digital edition, so never got the soundtrack, but I’m considering re-buying the physical edition to grab the CD. Alternatively, there appear to be numerous albums out there which cover all the original songs, the additional tracks which were added post-release of the original mobile version, and even an album of new songs based on the story of each chapter!
Who cares about the visuals, the game is all about the music, right?! Wrong. Cytus Alpha, as I mentioned previously, has a story which plays out throughout the chapters as you uncover new pieces of information. These are beautifully illustrated with some magnificent drawings. Each chapter also has its own unique artwork to symbolise the theme or what’s currently happening within the intriguing narrative, and each individual song has it’s own custom-designed visuals before you jump into the song itself.
I know a lot of people won’t really care much for this as the music and gameplay are the stars of the show – which is fine – but I love the amount of effort and care which has gone into the presentation of the game. They could have easily had just given us a basic menu, stripped out the story and given us a list of songs to play. Instead, we have a gorgeous looking game, in every aspect, which gives you multiple reasons to want to progress further into the story – to hear the incredible new music and see what the next batch of artwork looks like.
When you’re actually playing the game, and frantically tapping your fingers all over the place, the game keeps things nice and simple. A lovely white background with a faded image representing the song, and the brightly coloured orbs which stand out like a sore thumb. It’s so simple but it all works perfectly – you’re not distracted by animations or movements behind the notes, it’s a static screen so you can focus on the notes you have to tap. That’s the main issue I had with games such as Rockband and Guitar Hero, the background singers and live music videos always put me off.
The Difficulty and Progression
Cytus Alpha has a number of progression blockers which some people may not like, as they’re based around the difficulty and how well you can adapt to the various songs. Each song has a set difficulty rating for both an ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ mode, ranging from 1 to 10. At 1, the music is a slow tempo and there aren’t many notes, 10 will have you tying your fingers in a knot if you’re not careful! However, what I found interesting was the number the difficulty was set to (you can’t change the pre-defined difficulty) isn’t the only deciding factor in how hard the song is going to be. A game which is ‘Easy’ on difficulty 6 may just be a fast tempo with a decent amount of notes, yet a song which has it’s Hard’ mode set to 6 will use more double and sliding notes, and an even faster tempo or metronome guideline.
This threw me off a little as I was expecting the scale to be the same for both difficulties, but it’s not. Every song has an ‘Easy’ and ‘Hard’ mode, the scale within each of these modes seems to be independent of each other and aren’t comparable – you just know that a song with a ‘Hard’ mode set to 4 isn’t going to be as difficult as a song whose ‘Hard’ mode is set to 7, for example.
So, progression… You must earn five million points in any chapter in order to unlock the next. This is easy enough as I was getting 80-90,000 on each song via the Easy mode (Easy and Hard count as two tracks in terms of points). However, you must complete a certain number of songs per chapter to unlock the optional side stories such as the logs and news articles. So, there is a wall set up until you hit a required amount of points, in terms of progression, and the number of songs, in terms of the story, but nothing felt too hard to achieve and I loved playing all of the tracks anyway.
Is there a multiplayer aspect?
Surprisingly, there is an online multiplayer mode – although I’ve only got it to work once! There are two ways to start an online game, you can be the searcher or the requester. If you go into the ‘Matching’ menu, you can pick the difficulty range you wish to search for (you can’t pick a song). This triggers the game to look for up to two people waiting for a player on a song between the two difficulty levels you picked. Alternatively, if you have ‘matching’ turned on, when you go to play a song, the game will search to see if anyone is doing the above step and looking to play with someone.
If either search finds another person (or two), you’ll play the song as normal and your scores will be shown at the end. Personally, I wish the online aspect was more populated but it’s not a deal-breaker for me as I like to play on my own.
However, don’t despair if you like to be social, you can still compete in the online leaderboards. Tapping your name will show how you rank in the world in relation to various statistics, such as per-song or overall (both per score or wins in the above MP mode). I think I’m around 4,000 in the world, with the people at the top of the list having a score I’ll never dream of achieving! It appears there are some people out there who play this game constantly and are able to hit a ‘Perfect’ score on almost every single song.
Buy this game. It’s out now, physically in Europe and Australia, thanks to Numskull Games – all music and rhythm genre fans will love this title!
Side by side Joycon vs Touch mode:
Personally, I believe Cytus Alpha is the best rhythm-based game out on the Nintendo Switch, despite its little-known soundtrack. With over 200 songs to unlock, an intriguing story to uncover, and an online leaderboard to climb, there are literally hours upon hours worth of content awaiting your twitchy fingers! Launching with support for both touch and Joycon gameplay, the developers learnt from their previous release (VOEZ) and made the game accessible to all from the get-go (even though I strongly urge everyone to play with touch and not the Joycons if possible). The artwork is glorious, the music is amazing, and the gameplay is as smooth as you can get – I’m really struggling to find anything negative about this incredible game.
If you’re a fan of rhythm-based games and/or love tapping along to new and interesting music you may not have heard before, you need to pick up Cytus Alpha today. It’s available both digitally and physically but the physical version comes with a ten-track soundtrack. I’ve sunk over 40 hours into the game so far and I’m still a long way from the end, it’s a brilliant game for either long or short sessions due to the short length of most of the songs.
I honestly can’t praise this game enough.
- - Over 200 songs to play, all of which have been magical and brilliant so far
- - Beautiful artwork for every chapter, song, diary entry, and new log you unlock
- - Playable either by touch or using the Joycons (although touching is always better)
- - Online leaderboards, online score attack, bonus chapters, and two difficulties per song
- - The physical version comes with the soundtrack to chapter one
- - I couldn't ever find anyone in the MP score mode
- - Progression relies on your ability to earn a certain amount of points (which I didn't find too hard)