A City Sleeps is a music-driven, bullet hell shooter with an invigorating soundtrack and a colorful, comic-like presentation. The hybrid of concepts feels fresh and fun in the beginning, and there are moments when the ideas harmonize, but the game rapidly runs out of new stages and music, and you're left with nothing to do but replay the same levels at higher difficulty settings. At that point, your enthusiasm quickly falls through the cracks, well before you get access to the game's advanced upgrades. Shoot-em-ups have a reputation for being challenging by design, especially the bullet hell variants, but for A City Sleeps, there are more hurdles than bullet patterns to overcome and it's all to easy to find yourself tripping over the bumps along the way.
It's interesting to see how A City Sleeps toys with the general makeup of a bullet hell shooter, though. Games such as Ikaruga, DoDonPachi, and Mushimesama are members of the infamous sub-genre, which are defined by their screen-filling, curtains of bullets. Nearly every bullet hell shooter scrolls in a unidirectional fashion, be it horizontally or vertically. Enemies come from one part of the screen, and thus, so do their bullets. The background scrolls from right to left in A City Sleeps, but in reality, this is a twin stick shooter like Geometry Wars, with a static field. The background may be moving in a single direction, but enemies and their bullets come from every direction, drastically increasing the amount of ground you need to monitor at a given moment.
It's good that your weapon can fire in any direction, too, which affords you the flexibility to evade incoming fire and attack your enemies from any angle. You can close in and attack with a katana, which charges a meter for every successful strike. Once your meter is full, you can then slash at large swaths of enemies with a screen-sized spirit sword, which is invaluable during boss fights.
You're also able to tap into the power of spirits by possessing idols that appear at fixed intervals throughout levels. Once possessed, these idols can emit healing energy, fire at enemies, or freeze them in their tracks, depending on the spirit you assign to them, and you have the ability to reassign spirits on the fly with a simple button combination. Exploiting this mechanic is an important aspect of your strategy, and thankfully, the game also slows to a snail's pace when you initiate the possession process. You can unlock new properties for each spirit type, but only after you complete levels at advanced difficulty levels. In theory, the progression of abilities should work in step with the game's difficulty, but you always feel like the game is two steps ahead of you, and unlike most shooters, you don't earn weapon upgrades during levels. It's frustrating that you have to beat levels to get the most useful upgrades when you feel woefully ill-equipped in the first place.
The background may be moving in a single direction, but enemies and their bullets come from every direction, drastically increasing the amount of ground you need to monitor at a given moment.
As is tradition, your character, in this case Poe the Dream Exorcist, is only vulnerable at the very center of her character model. Here, her hitbox clearly represented by a green beacon. Being able to quickly identify her weak spot is critical when you're caught in the middle of a bullet wave, and in this instance, Harmonix has given you an advantage that you wouldn't normally have. Feel lucky, because you move at a slightly lazy clip, and though you can dash at a fixed distance, it's too big of a bound and thus not good for frequent use.
A City Sleeps is painfully difficult once you get past the first round of levels. This is partially because there are times when enemies attack you from every direction, pummeling you with dozens of bullets, but it's also due to the way in which the background music influences your weapon. The music is great, and firing your weapon contributes to it in a satisfying way by emitting sounds to the beat, but your rate of fire is also dictated by said beat, which fluctuates throughout each level. In other words: you can't count on your weapon firing in a consistent pattern at all times. In order to predict its behavior, you need to be in sync the music. Nevertheless, when enemies move at a consistent speed, regardless of the music, you're at a disadvantage when you can't defend yourself just the same.
Though it limits your potential firepower, the connection between the gameplay and music can be downright mesmerizing when you aren't stuck in an insurmountable situation. The tracks are simple and mellow in the beginning, but as stages progress, your weapon, and the actions of possessed idols and your enemies, add new layers to the orchestra. As the combination of instruments ramps up, you feel increasingly engaged in the action. It's not hard to feel in tune with the soundtrack, but this feeling fades away once the onslaught from your enemies reaches its peak and you struggle to find your footing.
You could argue that this connection between music and your weapon presents an unusual chance to balance multiple skills, but A City Sleeps ramps up the challenge too quickly to facilitate a proper learning curve. It would have been so much more enjoyable if the challenge grew in a smooth manner, because after you beat the game's three levels, a paltry selection, all that's left to do is replay them at harder difficulties. Not only is the game too repetitive as a result, but it's hard to get much enjoyment from the process when it feels like you don't have the tools you need to succeed. If the disbursement of upgrades were different, then maybe this wouldn't be the case, but as is, you feel alienated by the odds well before you get the chance to equip yourself for success.
A City Sleeps leans on hardcore difficulty to compensate for its lack of content, and its use of music, while interesting, is a source of frustration, especially as the difficulty increases. It's disappointing, because at its core, there are a lot of good ideas, but they never truly shine in the presence of the game's issues. Highly-skilled shoot-em-up fans and bullet hell veterans will find an experience that lives up to their maniacal expectations, but unless you count yourself among the shooter elite, don't expect A City Sleeps to hold your attention for long.