The Metronomicon Review
A delightful and refreshingly unique rhythm & RPG hybrid
Before games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band created a more standard template for rhythm games, it’s easy to forget that the genre’s early days often ventured into more quirky territory. Numerous Japanese developers would often attach intentionally ridiculous window dressing and stories like in Space Channel 5 or Elite Beat Agents, Even PaRappa the Rapper, the game most commonly labeled as the genre’s proper debut, revolved around a paper-thin dog rapping with onions to woo a flower.
While I wouldn’t say that developer Puuba’s latest title, The Metronomicon, tries to be as unabashedly weird, its genuine mixture of note-matching gameplay and role-playing battles, complete with an actual plot set in a fantastical music-powered world, is refreshing in how unashamed it is to try something completely different. While the gaming industry is no stranger to having promising-sounding experiments turn out more flawed than fun, this is not the case. There’s a shocking amount of substance, polish, and well thought out elements contained within this indie title, and there’s little reason to pass it up if the premise interests you.
The campaign follows four warriors who have just graduated from an esteemed academy fueled by the power of the mysterious Metronomicon book. The group is soon tasked with fighting and investigating the recent rash of disruptive partying monsters, and gradually traverses the land and adds to their party as they seek the truth behind the invader’s intentions.
The story, told through character portraits with corresponding dialog, doesn’t ever make much of an impact, as the characters are fairly one-note and interesting plot developments are scarce. On the plus side, it also lacks moments that made me roll my eyes, and the cutscenes are scant enough that they fail to feel intrusive. The art direction and voice acting during them are thankfully solid as well.
Where The Metronomicon really starts to stand out is how it actually plays. A handful of different stages open up as you progress, each containing around 10 different songs to play as individual levels. Combat is represented with your four selected party members and an enemy bobbing to the beat of each track, while the upper portion of the screen is where the real action happens. There, each party member has their own track of notes perpetually scrolling down a portion of the screen, represented with arrows in a Dance Dance Revolution-like manner.
In traditional rhythm game fashion, it’s up to you to press buttons at the right time for each symbol, and there are plenty of input methods depending on what you prefer. Players can use a keyboard, Xbox controller, dance pad, and even traditional Guitar Hero and Rock Band guitars all via USB. After experimenting with the options I had available, I thought the keyboard controls would be easy to get used to, the Xbox controller was a bit unintuitive, and my trusty old Guitar Hero 2 controller was a perfect fit for the game’s approach. If you have a lot experience with the big two plastic instrument series and still have a USB-capable guitar, I’d recommend trying that method first. The game includes convenient options to change note colors to match corresponding Xbox or guitar buttons, as well.
Conventional note matching is only part of the overall picture, as you’ll be frequently switching character tracks with another button. A successful string of inputs will allow each character to pull off a special attack or buff, and since there’s a cooldown after each move starts, and each fighter has benefits and disadvantages, you won’t get far just relying on one of them.
In typical rhythm game fashion, the HUD keeps track of individual note streaks, and hitting certain amounts of uninterrupted notes will automatically activate passive abilities, wchich benefit your party in various ways. In a welcome move, whenever you switch characters, the game doesn’t start to register any hits or misses until you try and press the corresponding button set again, removing a lot of potential and unnecessary stress.
Each enemy you take on (A level perpetually replaces each vanquished drone until the song ends, a la Theatrhythm Final Fantasy) also lashes out at your party with HP-draining attacks and various detrimental statuses. Some of these are fairly standard, like the HP-draining Bleed, but there are some clever twists on existing concepts, like Blind reducing the amount of time you can view incoming notes or Dizzy making note symbols wobble erratically. There’s also an elemental system in place regarding enemy types and weaknesses to many of your character’s own attacks, where water-based attacks deal extra damage to fire-based characters and so on in a Pokemon-like manner.
These basics are only part of The Metronomicon’s satisfying whole, as the role-playing elements actually play a very important part in conjunction with the note matching. Playthroughs of each track result in experience points, in-game currency, and sometimes equipment being earned. Each character can level up over time, not only gaining conventional upgrades in HP and stats, but eventually unlocking extra abilities.
Characters are only able to have three attacks and one passive ability enabled at a time, but the way these options are implemented is inspired. One attack can be carried out after inputting a certain number of notes successfully, but continuing that character’s streak will eventually activate a second or third attack instead, with the last one being the strongest and the game automatically activating the last unlocked tier if you miss a note. Attacks can also be reordered outside of battle, and each one automatically goes up or down in strength if you change its tier.
While each individual party member can mix and rearrange their own abilities, they offer a fairly diverse array of benefits. Violet the mage deals exclusively in elemental attacks, Clark the medic provides healing and buffs, and scientist in training Sara offers a mix of the two. Other characters can offer conventional physical attacks, the ability to soak up damage as a tank, or deliver super strong blows with debuffs applied to allies as a drawback.
This core element of stacking attacks, combined with the ability to customize abilities, gives the game a genuine strategic aspect that neither feels needlessly complicated or too undercooked. I had many points in battle where I desired sticking with one character track to build up their next move, but knew it was important to switch to someone else for a more effective attack, healing, or status buffs. There’s also a selection of ultimate team abilities that can be gradually built up and unleashed at will a la Star Power, ranging from major buffs being applied to the whole party or unleashing a constant stream of attacks for a brief period.
Creating a well-balanced team is important if you want to stand a chance against enemies on the harder areas and difficulties (I recommend always having at least 1 healer handy), but there are plenty of varied opportunities to suit the different approach each player may take. Enemies also periodically drop various items, which can then be applied to fighters of your choice while outside of battle. These can range from general bonuses like extra resistance against specific elemental attacks to items better suited for specific characters, like boosting a healer or thief’s effectiveness. Many of their names and descriptions also have some appealingly cheeky references, like the Stone Hulk Hands with a description that hints at avoiding a lawsuit from Marvel.
I’ve spent most of this review detailing how The Metronomicon works, so it’s important to also note that these many aspects come together beautifully. Playing through each song with the intuitive guitar control method is a lot of fun, and the game’s unique mechanics result in it feeling like a very fresh and unique experience that fails to wear out its welcome.
That’s saying something, considering that it hosts over 40 tracks and is decently long for a rhythm game (beating the campaign without focusing on its optional material takes at least 6 hours). These types of games can also be dramatically affected by the quality of their soundtrack, but The Metronomicon has a varied list that has a lot more good to great songs than forgettable or bad ones, and even contains exclusive tracks from notable groups like Shiny Toy Guns. They mainly stick to various forms of EDM with some chiptunes and rock tracks here and there, so if that kind of sound doesn’t appeal to you, the game may be a tough sell, but I found a lot to like.
Even outside of the numerous main levels, the game throws a decent amount of sidequests at you. Though these re-use existing songs, there are often extra goals required to succeed, like achieving a specific note streak minimum, and you’re often rewarded with valuable equipment. An arena unlocked early on gets even more specific, often giving you preset parties and abilities, but one of its primary rewards is a currency that can be used to upgrade your main hub both for continuous benefits to your fighters and for traditional extras like unlocking music and cutscenes for replaying.
The game boasts an appealing fully hand-drawn style that is presented via stylish HUDs and menus, and technical performance during gameplay is flawless, but I’d still say the game’s only noteworthy flaws still fall under these categories. The way certain elements are set up during battles makes it difficult to easily note things like enemy health bars and status afflictions for each individual fighter without losing a current note streak, as they’re spread out quite a bit. Also, most selections within menus outside of battle result in a brief freeze for the entire game, and the launching of the actual application takes a bit longer to move on from that transitional black screen than usual.
However, these issues do little to diminish from The Metronomicon’s very satisfying whole. For a $20 digital indie title, there’s a constant feeling of polish and inspiration to the game, how it plays, and how easy it is to get caught up in many of its tunes (I found myself moving to the beat many times). I was interested in the game from the moment I first heard about its gimmick, and I’m still impressed with what a good time it is. PC owners looking for a fun new take on rhythm gaming will absolutely want to pick this one up.