Music is condemned to play a bit role in most platformers: no matter how good the composer is, and no matter how moving the score, this entire element of a game's development can often be tuned out with little to no impact on the gameplay. Not so with Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians. Here is a game where the music plays as key a role as the avatar onscreen--where nodding your head to the beat can help you float through Beatbuddy’s mix of adventure and puzzle solving more easily. It's a strong and unusual concept, although the focus on following the beat bears unexpected consequences for the longevity of the puzzle-based gameplay.
Other games have incorporated music into their designs before, but they're usually concerned more with some aspect of content generation through custom music as in Symphony or Sound Shapes. Enemies may spawn faster, for instance, or a level's contours may grow more jagged. Beatbuddy takes a more ambitious approach. Everything, friend or foe, dances to the same tune, bringing its own unique timbre to the surrounding symphony and hinting at a profound message concerning the interdependency of all life.
It’s the characters on screen that actually make the music, in other words, rather than being affected by it--and this difference is enough that you might find yourself heading back to a particular spot to enjoy a catchy groove one last time. Almost all of the gameplay involves some sort of puzzle-solving in tandem with their actions--drag a hidden key to this slot, activate the power for that door, figure out how to knock a wall down to progress—and the focus on rhythm asserts itself even when you punch and use a submersible’s machine gun to shoot through obstacles.
There's a story here, but it has about as much impact on the product as a whole as an average album cover does. You are Beatbuddy (Beat, for short), one of a trinity of music gods of sorts, and your fellow musical spirit Harmony has you rescuing your sister Melody from the clutches of the dastardly Prince Maestro. Maestro wants the world to dance to his beat alone, and that's apparently a bad thing because the poor guy doesn't even have the chops to be a one-hit wonder. Toss in a few quips from your buddy Clef from time to time, and you can probably already figure out how this is going to turn out.
Fortunately, the narrative makes up in character what it lacks in depth. When characters speak, they do so through beatboxing--sometimes a little excessively--and when you step away from the keyboard and leave Beat to his own devices, he bobs his head to the music as though he were in an iPod ad and not struggling to save the land of Symphonia from crappy music. Elements of the world pulse with the rhythms; for instance, you find sea anemones waving their tentacles with all the fervor of dancers at a rave.
Consider the game itself a six-track album, with the total running time clocking in at anywhere from four to six hours, depending on how well you handle its myriad puzzles. Beat's world is an underwater one, with toe-tapping crustaceans conjuring faint memories of Disney's The Little Mermaid. For two hours or so, it's effortlessly enjoyable. Beat jams his way through this auditory wonderland, bounding off of bass-thumping coral and timing charges through cymbal-like barriers in conjunction with the rhythm. Through it all, he positions thumpers to propel himself through fallen rock and similar obstacles, occasionally tapping on crabs to stop their music just long enough so he can drag a key through to unlock a new area.
The beauty of Beatbuddy lies in how every element of the game ties in to the musical experience, and it's occasionally breathtaking to realize how deftly developer Threaks manages to bring the whole concept together into a memorable musical composition for each level. For instance, the first level sends you floating past a single floating bass thumper. Later, cymbal-tapping barriers add further texture to the music and so forth until you find Beat wading through a pleasing fusion of Euro club music and Chicago-style swing. Before long, you're tapping your feet to maintain the rhythm as you prepare to shoot through a narrow passageway on the right beat, judging enemy movements based on the music and even bouncing off platforms just to hear how they add to the level's music. If you love dissecting the nuances of musical composition, Beatbuddy will leave you giddy.
And yet things get tiresome. Beatbuddy's reliance on the bass-bumping coral to drive the music and overcome obstacles means that they're scattered throughout every level, and their centrality unfortunately prevents Threaks from spicing up the basic mechanics with different elements. That's not to say that such elements don't exist--there's the Bubbly Buggy, for instance, an armed vessel that blasts enemies and allows Beat to move quickly through cramped tunnels, but its sequences tend to come off as annoyances and unwelcome distractions from Beat's simple punches and thrusts. The continual bobbing to the music grows wearisome in some of the more frantic segments that require precision, as does the need to only use the propulsion system on every second beat.
A handful of remaining bugs also mar the experience from time to time, causing you to waste many minutes thinking you haven't found the right switch or knocked down the right wall, when actually must restart the game. Such moments are especially frustrating since they detract from the musical experience, rendering the need to dash with the beat increasingly more irritating as you search for the problem. On the bright side, the colorful world is always a joy to look at, even if each level ends up looking like a variation on the same theme.
But then, even some of the finest albums have had their bad tracks. On the whole, Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians is a treat and a fine example of how music can be used to shape a game's entire playthrough. The music is unquestionably the highlight here, and even in Beatbuddy's weakest moments, you might have a hard time refraining from tapping your feet or bobbing your head to the rhythm. The lack of variety in terms of the creatures and obstacles you encounter in the world puts a damper on things, but few games explore song in such an intriguing fashion.