EyeToy: Groove is the second game to hit the US that uses Sony's EyeToy peripheral for the PlayStation 2--a peripheral that projects a mirror image of the player on the screen, allowing the player to interact with graphical elements that the game overlays on the screen. Last year's EyeToy: Play introduced this concept to the world with a small collection of novel minigames, and the new EyeToy: Groove tightens the focus of the gameplay, delivering a rhythm action experience that's entertaining, if a little familiar.
The manual for Groove offers some flimsy pretense about your performance being under the scrutiny of a panel of dancing judges and a gaggle of press people, which is far, far more pretense than the game needs. The game gets you dancing by placing six circular pads along the sides of the screen--two at the top, two in the middle, and two at the bottom. Once the music starts, dots will start moving from the center of the screen toward one of the pads, and in order to score, you need to move your hand over the appropriate pad when the dot passes right over it. Timing is, of course, key, and your score will improve based on how close to the center of the circular pad the dot is when you put your hand there.
This is all pretty basic rhythm game stuff, and aficionados of the genre will likely identify a lot of the action as being lifted directly from Samba de Amigo. The gameplay stays fairly varied by regularly tossing in some special mechanics, though many of these little tricks have also been seen previously in Sonic Team's seminal maracas-based rhythm game. Sometimes the dots will have trails behind them, which signals that you'll have to keep shaking your hand in front of the circular pad for a few extra beats in order to score. The circular pads will regularly morph into much larger pads, providing an easier target for you to hit. The pads can also morph into a set of arrows, and you'll have to move your hand across this path in time with a special cursor in order to score. Once or twice per song, the game will lose the standard circular pads and go into "pose" mode, where two circles will randomly appear on the screen, and you'll have to place your hands inside them quickly. By mixing up all these different elements and throwing odd patterns at you, the game can get very challenging, something that most hardcore rhythm junkies crave, though the game scales down nicely for novice players as well.
The beauty of Groove is that, unlike most rhythm games, which generally only reward you for total mechanical accuracy, you can actually improve your score just by dancing around. Obviously, you'll fail if you don't hit the marks on time, but you can gain little bonuses just by adding a little extra flair to your movement. Rhythm games of this type are generally not for the bashful, since they force you to jump around like a maniac in front of your TV and your friends, and Groove gets points for encouraging especially goofy behavior.
Aside from the standard single-player game, Groove lets you program in your own custom moves and also includes a variety of multiplayer options for up to four people. There are cooperative modes where two players play at the same time and some competitive modes where you can simply try to outscore your opponent or force your opponent to try to mimic your moves. Groove is, really, the kind of game best played with a group--without friends around to laugh at the absurdity of dancing in front of your TV, it's easy to feel supremely foolish--and the multiplayer modes really help turn the game into a full-fledged group activity.
It's common for peripheral-based rhythm games to suffer a little bit because of the interface--the home version of the DDR pad easily scrunches up on carpeted floor, and the sensors under the Samba de Amigo maracas have a tendency to swing around when the action gets real fast and furious--and Groove is no different. As anyone who has set up a game of EyeToy: Play can attest, Sony's EyeToy camera peripheral needs optimal light conditions to work properly. It seems that Groove is even more finicky than Play was, which can make setup a bit frustrating if you tend to keep your gaming room pretty dark.
The visuals in Groove are a peculiar thing, for the fact that you are, essentially, the graphics. The video feed that the EyeToy produces looks a little fuzzy, and the resolution isn't great, but the game layers some nice effects over what the camera is capturing, making the game much easier to look at. There is a short freestyle section to each song where you can just move however you want. When you're in freestyle time, the game slaps on some psychedelic effects that react to your movement, and these are arguably the slickest-looking parts of the game. The game generally carries a faux-disco look to it, which is a little understated at times--though, considering that being able to see yourself onscreen is paramount to playing the game correctly, it's hard to give the game too much grief for this shortcoming.
If you didn't already know that Groove was developed in the UK, you could easily tell by the game's soundtrack, which consists largely of classic disco along the lines of Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie" and modern European dance hits like Junior Senior's "Move Your Feet." Though you might not recognize many of the songs, or even the artists for that matter, the majority of it is quite catchy and works within the context of an action-based rhythm game nicely. There's a grand total of 30 songs to dance along to in Groove, and the cross section is broad enough that you're bound to find something that suits your musical fancy.
There's a novelty to seeing yourself playing the game on your TV as you're actually playing the game, but aside from this little gimmick, there's really nothing in EyeToy: Groove that we haven't seen in past rhythm games. There are mechanically comparable rhythm games that have a more pronounced personality than Groove, which may be disappointing for some, as the rhythm genre is essentially defined by extremely and purposefully bizarre visuals. However, there's really nothing quite like EyeToy: Groove on the PlayStation 2, and fans of the genre, or really anyone looking for a unique, casual experience, would do well to give the game a look.