Symphony is a pure arcade-styled shooter. You control your ship, enemies fly into the screen and you shoot them like in Space Invaders although with more elaborate movement options. Stages are generated from the music you feed to the game, which offers a large amount of replayability, only limited by your music library.
There is a story which attempts to explain why you’re shooting down these countless waves of enemies, which involves restoring the Symphony of Souls and freeing composer’s souls, but it’s better to just concentrate on the gameplay. Something worth mentioning within the context of the story is that they throw demons at you to fight. These demon battles are quite fun and provide an interesting variety to shooting common enemies in the game. Demons are limited, however and do not respawn after all of them are felled.
First things first, your ship is controlled solely by using the mouse. This might put off some arcade shooter aficionados, but be rest assured that your ship controls perfectly with it, since the game is tailored for the mouse and requires quick manoeuvres that the stick simply cannot achieve. The controls are tight and very well done, which makes for a smooth playing experience.
You can customise your ship by fitting it with the nice selection of weapons the game has to offer. Weapons range from weak Blasters (your starting weapon), to a Subwoofer which shoots music notes and the slow but powerful Crescendo shots. Furthermore, weapons are upgradeable with the points you acquire from shooting down enemies in your music. Stronger weapons are definitely essential in the higher difficulty level the game has to offer. To top it off, you can rotate your weapons to either cover your weak spots or to concentrate your shots on one specific direction. The customisation options are great and very fun to tinker around with until you acquire the perfect ship setup.
Once you’re satisfied with your ship’s equipment, it’s time to blast off into your music to defend it from otherworldly invaders. Symphony will generate a stage based on the song you feed it and each song has a unique configuration, which is to say that it is possible to do a no death run in your music if you’ve memorized all the possible directions the enemy will come from.
Symphony differs from other arcade shooters in which enemies will come from all sides of the screen with the exception of the bottom half. Thus, configuring your ship to be able to deal with attacks from all directions is very essential unless you want your ship to be a sitting duck. Health works differently in Symphony, where you will only die (and receive a huge penalty) if your core is hit. Receiving a hit on your wings will only destroy your equipped weapons until you have just your core left. Fortunately, weapons can be regenerated by collecting music symbols called “inspiration” from dead enemies. The regenerating weapon system does not make the game easy in any way as you’ll be scavenging every last piece of inspiration in order to stay alive.
Enemies in Symphony are interestingly designed, too. They come in all shapes and sizes, have different attack patterns and some enemies will incite fear more than others. Enemies are not as aggressive in the early stages, but as more bosses are defeated and each piece of the Symphony of Souls is complete, all hell breaks loose. Sometimes enemy ships trap you in a circle. Sometimes they fly in sine wave patterns ala Medusa Heads. Most of the time, they will overwhelm you to no end.
This is not to say that the game is unfair (although sometimes it does feel like it), but the clever enemy design adds a significant flair to otherwise normal cannon fodder. Some enemies will automatically be associated with trouble, for example large enemy ships that explode once they’re destroyed. You will be hard pressed to find an area where you can destroy them without getting wiped out yourself, while fighting waves of enemies. Enemy design is definitely one of Symphony’s strong points.
Symphony’s visuals are eye-catching, too. Everything is presented in bright, flashy neon lights to complement your selection of music. Enemies explode into tiny glittering music notes when they die. You can shoot music notes. Bosses are bizarre. In other words, Symphony is surreal. There is a lot of creativity poured in this game and the visual aesthetics is evidence to that.
However, while the game is visually stunning, this also proves to be a double edged sword. Every so often you will find your ship destroyed without any valid explanation in an intense shootout, causing you to lose precious Inspiration. After a close inspection of the playing field, only then you realise that your core has been the victim of a stray enemy bullet.
Another visual aspect that leads to unexpected deaths is the overpowering brightness of your ship’s weapons once they are levelled up. Stronger weapons have an added glow and trail effect to each projectile fired and it can obscure the trails of the enemies’ bullets. Although enemies tend to telegraph their moves by playing a charging sound before shooting, sometimes it’s too late to realise that they are in the final processes of letting a projectile loose.
Speaking of the game’s presentation, most of the menus were done right aside from inventory management. Unlocking and upgrading weapons is done on the same screen as the song selection. If you imported a large number of songs, it will take quite a while to find the weapon that you want, assuming you remembered which song unlocked the weapon. There is a button on top of the screen which shows all the items you’ve acquired so far, but the sorting option is noticeably absent. This means you still have to scroll down a list of songs trying to find the component that you want to upgrade, and it can be a nightmare especially when you want to try out all the different weapons or to just make an awesome ship.
Still, Symphony is a quite remarkable game with near infinite replay value as long as you feed new songs into it. I had a great time blasting all those ships that dared to corrupt my music. Well… At least until I found myself out-manoeuvred yet again.
Food for thought:
1. For some reason I couldn’t play tracks that were ripped by Sony’s Media Go, but my other tracks work fine.
2. Kudos for a song can only be gained once, so you’ll need to import lots of tracks to acquire enough kudos to upgrade your weapons.
3. Killing an enemy by ramming them does not drop inspiration, so you can’t abuse the “invincibility” power up and ramming into everything.