A City Sleeps hands-on: This musical shoot-em-up will give you nightmares

A City Sleeps

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The words I said while playing A City Sleeps, Harmonix's new bullet-hell game, cannot and should not be reprinted, so we can make some up. "Mother-finger!" I yelled after dying ten seconds into the game. "Son of a birch beer!" I said after the boss swatted me down for the tenth time. "Bucking rod plan it!" I said as the entire screen filled with bullets for me to dodge.

I sat with Harmonix's Nick Chester near the Dance Central stage at PAX, hunched over a laptop trying not to die. And failing. And failing. And failing. And cursing. And cursing. And cursing.

"Yeah, the game gets hard really fast," was the only sympathy I got from Chester.

Holy mother of funk.


Remember Chroma, the music-based first-person shooter Harmonix announced earlier this year? In case you hadn't heard, that project is on hold—a move that, coincidentally or not, timed up with Harmonix laying off a ton of people earlier this year.

chroma alpha screenshot 02

Goodbye, Chroma. See you again soon, maybe?

Chester says Chroma isn't gone for good—fans loved the concept, but that it required a lot more work than they initially anticipated. The fallout? A group of five people at Harmonix took some of those concepts and reworked them into a 2D side-scrolling shoot-em-up, the aforementioned A City Sleeps.

And they did it in only three or four months. The game's set to release this October.

You play as Poe, who has the power to enter people's dreams and fight off nightmares. As you might've guessed from the title, Poe's entire city has fallen into a hellish, unnatural sleep and it's up to her to wake them up. I'm hoping the concept isn't just set-dressing and we actually get some interesting Psychonauts-esque explorations of people's subconscious fears in A City Sleeps, though I didn't see much of that from my one-level demo.

A City Sleeps controls like a twin-stick shooter. The left stick flies Poe around the screen, while the right stick fires shots. Getting in close to an enemy makes it so Poe's projectile attack turns into a sword-based melee attack, charging her special move (an enormous sword that basically wipes out everything on screen). Of course, getting in close to an enemy also makes Poe more vulnerable to attack.

A City Sleeps

The catch is, of course, that the game was made by Harmonix. Music is in the company's name. Poe only shoots (or slashes) at enemies on the beat, with each shot producing a drum sound. Stop firing, and the drums stop too. Enemies function the same way—shots are timed to cascading synth notes and the like. You can see the Chroma DNA, though A City Sleeps obviously plays differently. It's more akin to Soundodger, really.

Like Chroma, the music aspects are more an added benefit than a necessity. If you know music—like, really know music—you can sort of track the way the song is progressing and anticipate what'll happen next. However, you could ignore the music entirely or play with the sound off and have a totally fun shoot-em-up experience. Most of the time the synced music and visuals is more like watching Wizard of Oz with Dark Side of the Moon in the background than an actual skill-based benefit.

More important to victory is knowing when and how to use the game's Idol system. Poe has a trio (at least in the demo) of ghosts accompanying her journey. The Mercy ghost provides health, while the other two attack enemies. In order to use these ghosts you have to slot them into structures that appear during the level, typically two at a time, meaning you could set both structures to Mercy and get twice the healing benefit or set one to Mercy and one to an attack or both to attacks or whatever matches your style. Different-shaped structures also modify the ghosts, for instance making the Mercy ghost's healing power an area-of-effect versus an item pick-up.

A City Sleeps

Don't think just because you have these healing nodes that you're safe, though. I died untold numbers of times even with health freely available, and when the game's feeling really mean (during the boss battle) it takes away these nodes entirely and makes you focus solely on preserving Poe.

It's not Chroma, and I still think that's sort of a shame. However, A City Sleeps is some of the most fun I had at PAX, and definitely hooked me even if it was through mercilessly beating me down. And hey, I beat the demo in the end, so I think that's all that matters. As I said, look for A City Sleeps on Steam in October, for $15. You can preorder it now for a slight discount.

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