Symphony is an ideal experience for that peculiar crowd of people who switch on their own music when they start up a game; in this case, it's a mouse-controlled shooter that uses your personal music library to generate custom levels. It's not the first time a developer has orchestrated this waltz between arcade shooters and personal music, though; AudioSurf tackled it in 2008 (although the setup was more like F-Zero than Galaga), and Beat Hazard revived the concept in 2010. But rather than rehashing familiar themes, Symphony distinguishes itself through the appeal of its design, which channels the glowing neon aesthetic of Geometry Wars and pads it with an impressive range of upgrade options. It's not without some flaws, but its energetic gameplay and ever-changing levels render it well worth its $9.99 price tag.
If you don't have mountains of albums in your hard drive, Symphony comes with its own selection of 21 indie music tracks from 10 different artists that range from fast-paced dance tracks to somber piano solos. Most are designed to ease you into the experience with their comparative mellowness, and thus it's much better to push the game's limits with your own high-octane tracks. Relentless beat sprees like New Order's "Confusion" rain down waves of enemies with all the force of a freight train, and even U2's "With or Without You" poses a challenge with its dogged bass line and crescendos. It's a nice touch, since the resulting gameplay excels through shifts between the predictability of the song you're listening to and the fairly unpredictable challenges of the enemies the song produces.
Considered solely as a shooter, Symphony is fun but only a couple of notches above average. Each song generates a level that looks and plays like a classic arcade space shooter in the vein of Galaga (although with a boxed-in arena-style presentation), complete with enemies that hurtle menacingly at your ship and barriers that cause instant death when touched. As with all such games, unfortunately, it's sometimes hard to see the ammo pumping out of your opponents' guns amid all the explosions on the screen. The good news is that dying itself isn't a problem because of infinite lives; what hurts you is the loss of a good chunk of the "inspiration" you pick up after killing enemies. This inspiration allows you to repair your ship and its four guns in the heat of battle, but more importantly, it's the currency for the upgrades you can snag after each round.
That's where Symphony comes into its own. Completing each song grants you the chance to purchase a single boost or weapon for your ship's four slots with your inspiration, and since the process is completely random, you won't have to worry about sitting through one type of song to get a particular item. Sometimes the item may be a "subwoofer" that draws its firepower from your music's bassline; at others, it could be a scattershot cannon that spits out ammo in a broad arc. The only drawback is that the list of upgrades gets impossible to manage after you've been playing for a while--since each upgrade is attached to a specific song, finding that crescendo weapon when you have enough inspiration to buy it largely on how good your memory is.
There's even a story, although it serves little purpose other than to provide some context for the boss fights that pop up every five songs or so. The idea is that a vile entity from beyond the solar system is harvesting the souls of composers and using their music against you, and it's your job to liberate them and your music. That's where the "Symphony of Souls" comes in, and you unlock each of its five parts by battling one of the five bosses that appear in random songs.
As you progress, enemy movements become more complex, new enemies appear, and you unlock six different difficulty levels. The names of the difficulty settings themselves maintain the charm of the whole, as each bears an appropriate name, such as pianissimo, mezzo-piano, and fortissimo. And as a nod to competition, there's a leaderboard feature that lets you chart your prowess on Steam song by song. If you're less into Lady Gaga and Skrillex and more into M. Ward and Steve Earle, you thus have a better chance of dominating your own boards.
Still, Symphony's not without its problems. If you're using an older version of iTunes, you may find yourself unable to play the m4a files that most of Apple's music files come packaged as these days. A quick update of iTunes is usually enough to fix the issue, but the problem persisted on at least one computer even after the update. There are also some minor but stubborn lag issues, which rear their heads when new enemies appear or the tempo changes, even when playing Symphony on the lowest settings. They're never so discordant that they render the game unplayable, but it's frustrating when you lose some of your hard-earned inspiration just because a split-second burp in the frame rate lands an enemy projectile in your paper-thin hull and knocks you out of action. It's also regrettable that developer Empty Clip Studios borrowed so heavily from the look and feel of Geometry Wars; with a unique visual design, Symphony might have distinguished itself from the crowded library of shooters even further.
For all that, though, Symphony is both fun and often addictive, particularly when you experience the wide range of scenarios presented by a massive music library. When it's not bogged down by brief spurts of lag, the mouse-based combat is responsive and fluid. Its unique approach to upgrades gives it enough of a novel edge over its two competitors to warrant some attention, and it's yet another exciting way to interact with your music collection. The worst of its issues could be fixed with a simple patch, and even in its current form, you'll still get more fun out of it than you will from most albums with the same price.