So here it is, Harmonix’s first console game, Frequency. The gameplay is essentially the same as playing DDR with a pad; notes cascade along the screen, and you hit buttons along to the beat. But Frequency isn’t about simulating dance steps — the angle here is on music generation and remixing. In this respect, the game manages to provide a unique experience that is only possible thanks to the nature of videogames. On the other hand, like DDR on a pad, there’s only so much fun that can be had with such basic gameplay. Harmonix tries to add some features to make it more like an arcade shooter, but ultimately Frequency walks a very fine line between being an actual game and just an interesting tool.
Frequency has the player float along through an octagonal cylinder (think Tempest) that sits in one of several neon, glowing Tron-worlds. Each face of the cylinder corresponds to a different part of the song, be it bass, guitar, synth, drums, vocals or the Axe (more on that later). Like the arrows in DDR, markers come at you as you float along one of the faces, and hitting the corresponding button at the right time will play the note. Hit enough of them in succession and that part of the song will begin to play on its own, allowing you to rotate to the other faces and activate other sections.
The goal, of course, is to get the entire song playing. This is easier said than done for several reasons. The first is that whenever a section changes to a new thought or movement, it stops again, meaning you’ll constantly be rotating around and re-activating each part. Second, as one might expect from a rhythm game, the notes come hard and fast on the harder difficulties. Failure to land a note results in a loss of energy (which is like DDR’s dance meter), and it is game over if you lose it all. Furthermore, you need to accumulate a high enough aggregate score in each tier of songs in order to unlock the next batch. On the easier settings you shouldn’t have too much trouble, but once you jack up the difficulty you’ll find that Frequency offers as much challenge as any other rhythm game out there.
The other major feature in Frequency is the ability to remix. During a normal playthrough, you can always jump to the Axe section of the cylinder, which allows you to add all sorts of effects and sounds to the song, essentially remixing it. Playing with the Axe can be good fun, but generally it’s used when you’ve cleared the whole song and need something to do until the next movement.
For those looking for something more complex, there’s an entirely separate Remix Mode. You pick a tune and try to create a new mix by adding notes and effects. This allows you to create your own, personal version of any song that both sounds and plays however you want it. It is a powerful and interesting tool that is rather unique to the genre.
So now we know how it plays, but the big question is whether it’s as much fun as the competition. Sadly, that is not a question I can easily answer. One of the biggest variables stems from the fact that the songs only sound as good as you can play. If you screw up, you’re just not going to hear much music. While this setup is no different than what is seen in many rhythm games, only Frequency has different sections of the song continuously copping out. Even if you’re very good at nailing all the notes, it can be very difficult to have the entire piece playing at once for more than a few seconds. This setup seems contradictory, since the entire point of the genre is to fuse gameplay with music.
However, you may think differently if you’re interested in how music is created. As a former musician, I found it fascinating to see all the different sections of a work come together, listening to how just the drums and guitar sound with everything else stripped away, or appreciating the instrumental sections when there’s no voices to obscure them. I also like the fact that the song comes together based on how you decide to proceed. You have control over what happens (so long as you don’t mess up), and this can lead to some very interesting progressions through the song. Frequency is much more concerned with experimentation and composition than it is with performance and showmanship, which perhaps gives it less general appeal, though music buffs may get an even bigger kick out of it.
Some have also argued that the game lacks a certain amount of excitement due to its lack of any sort of peripheral or special controller. Any DDR player will tell you that playing that game without a dance pad is as fun as tapping a pencil on desk. Unless your feet are stomping, the game just doesn’t work. Since playing with a normal controller is the only option with Frequency, you may wonder how long it can stay entertaining.
This is where the aforementioned shooter elements come into play. Not only do you need to gain high scores in order to beat the game, but there are powerups in every level in order to help you achieve that goal. One just acts as a multiplier, while another activates an entire section for free. As you mash notes and scroll along the faces in order to grab powerups, the game definitely has the frantic feel of a good ‘schmup, and ends up being more fun than the basic concept would indicate. That isn’t to say that it is on par with said shooters, and without that element of performance (encapsulated perfectly by Harmonix’s own Guitar Hero), Frequency may have troubles keeping your interest for extended periods of time.
The final piece of debate I’ve seen about the game deals with its soundtrack. While there is some Rock, it is mostly compromised of popular and underground American and European techno. That means there is no J-pop or J-rock to speak of, which may be a problem for Bemani fans, and people who just don’t like techno may find the soundtrack to be rather limited. I thought I would fall into the latter camp, but I found that the quality of the techno pieces is much higher than what appears on the radio. This is some hardcore stuff, and unless you’re absolutely opposed to the genre, you may find the tracks to be somewhat enlightening, or at the very least different than the usual genre fare.
Ultimately, the only problem I had personally with Frequency stems from its clash of ideas. The arcade-esque gameplay is fast and furious, but having so many things to deal with at once, in addition to the ridiculous visual backgrounds, can create an audio/visual overload that makes the game very difficult to play effectible. This in turn makes it hard to fully appreciate the re-mixing elements of the game, since there are times when the music is the last thing that is on your mind, even though it’s supposed to be the main highlight of the game.
On the other hand, the music generation properties are limited to whatever it is you can do with the game’s controls. This means that it isn’t nearly as robust as something like the MTV Music Generators are. I think that Harmonix’s goal with Frequency was not to emulate the experience of a Bemani game, or to create robust composition software, but instead to make a music generator that would function like a game, so that it might appeal to a broader audience. This makes sense considering the company’s history as a developer of interactive music exhibits for museums and science centers. However, with no experience with making console games, you can tell the developers had trouble trying to blend the two ideas together.
If you have a real passion for music of all kinds, and you don’t mind your games being a little unorthodox, then Frequency may just be able to suck you into its strange and beautiful show of sights and sounds. However, the gameplay isn’t robust enough to grab hold of you for long, and the overall design is just about as niche as the Japanese side of the genre.