Music has a fantastic ability to tell stories, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the rhythm action games that have come out over the past ten years or so. From Let’s Sing to Just Dance to Hatsune Miku, if you’re making music on a console, it’s often just for the sake of producing tunes, or to vaguely experience what it’s like to perform on stage.
There have been the odd exceptions, but the most significant mash ups of rhythm and story came out absolute yonks ago. PaRappa the Rapper, Um Jammer Lammy and Gitaroo Man were the golden age, although The Artful Escape might argue that it dabbled with something similar. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that games have lost their desire to be musicals.
In presentational terms, A Musical Story doesn’t look anything like those peak-era PS2 games. It looks like it might sidle up closer to 2021’s jazz odyssey Genesis Noir, with some artful, screen-printed visuals. But its closest cousin is PaRappa the Rapper. Both PaRappa and A Musical Story’s aim is to take the player on a journey, and use rhythm action – tapping away on a pad in time with the notes – to enrich that story, and maybe ride some emotional peaks and troughs as it goes.
A Musical Story follows Gabriel, a cannery worker in the 1970’s who has a passing resemblance to Jimi Hendrix, and a similar dexterity with a guitar. He finds his mind wandering as he labels cans in the factory, daydreaming of the crow that is the business’s logo, and filling time by creating riffs in his head. Away from the menial labour, he performs in a band with two friends, and their heads are turned by a competition in a far-off studio called ‘Pinewood’ (it’s not clear if this is inspired by the actual Pinewood Studios). So they hop into a truck and head there with heads full of dreams.
What follows is twenty-five ‘episodes’, which takes snapshots of their road trip and re-tells them in the form of music. A circle appears in the centre of the screen, showing a moment from the story, and the first layer of the music plays. That might be a bassline, a drum backing track or some guitar noodling. Having listened to that once, some beats also appear around the circumference, and they represent taps of the LB, RB or LB + RB buttons. Tap in time with these, and other layers will add to the music, with different rhythms and instruments. With a few layers done, the song will surge to a climax, an achievement will pop and you can move on to the next of the twenty-five episodes.
What sets A Musical Story apart is that there’s no visual indicator of where you are in the music. In Rock Band, you have the frets at the bottom of the screen, showing what you need to play and when; in Just Dance you have the dancer. But A Musical Story decides to abandon them. It makes a lot of sense: without them, you have to listen, anticipating when the buttons have to be pressed. It means you are playing the tune rather than the user-interface, which can often be the case with rhythm action games. You have to be in the groove if you want to succeed.
Does it work? Alas, no, it doesn’t. At least, it doesn’t work in A Musical Story. Its problem is that the soundtrack doesn’t have a huge amount of predictability or pattern to it. The genre touchstones here are ambient rock, jazz and psychedelia (folk makes an appearance occasionally), and those genres are just too dissonant and unpredictable. Without the crutch of a ‘You Are Here’ dot, it becomes incredibly hard to follow the rhythm of the music or memorise it.
If A Musical Story’s music abandoned ‘mood’ a little more often and found a groove instead, it might have led to a better result. The first few episodes, for example, have a propulsive feel to them and are much better. The latter episodes: not so much.
To A Musical Story’s credit, it recognises when you’re fumbling away like a drunken busker and gives you help. A dot appears after four or five fails and you can start tracing your place in the song. As with a lot of these ‘you’re rubbish, let me help you’ mechanics, sometimes you will want them, other times you will be insulted by them. But it will get you to the end of the song.
It can’t overcome A Musical Story’s other design hiccup, which is that a single missed note means that you have failed. The musical pieces are reasonably short, no more than a minute long or twenty or thirty notes, so it’s not as if you are wasting a lot of time, but it does mean that a mistake in the opening one or two notes means you have automatically failed and have to wait one minute to try again. There’s no point in playing the remaining notes, as everything is binary: you win or you don’t. That becomes a compounding annoyance, particularly as the first note is the hardest to hit: you often can’t tell when the first note will start, as there’s no indicator to warn you. Also, the excerpt will start immediately as it finishes, and that gives you no time to adapt. You have missed the first note simply because there was no breather.
This suite of niggles makes A Musical Story a bit of a pain to play. But we’re not convinced it would have been vastly improved if they were resolved. That’s down to the story, which has a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve, but is otherwise unremarkable.
The road trip that the band goes on forms the entirety of the story, and not much of note happens. It’s a bad trip in a few senses, as they get stoned and have inter-band conflicts, but that’s effectively it. It’s part Kerouac, part Easy Rider. There’s a neat moment where A Musical Story bucks a gaming cliche that virtually every other game adheres to, but otherwise feels thin. Nowhere is that more true than the middle third, where levels focus on the scenery rather than events. Did we have to have so many levels dedicated to trees, crows and rain?
But we’re not complete philistines: there IS something to be admired in A Musical Story. Separate the music from the game, and you have an eclectic, effective soundtrack. It’s probably worth a Spotify listen on its own. The visuals, too, are superb: although simple, they can convey bliss, menace and a Fantasia-like synesthesia on the turn of a dime.
It’s hard to deny A Musical Story’s craft. The psychedelic soundtrack and dreamy visuals are independently great. But we’re in the business of reviewing games, and it’s here where it falters. This is a rhythm action game that fails to get you in a rhythm, and its innovations only add to the noise. A Musical Story is one to buy only if you’re incredibly curious about a psychedelic rhythm action game.
You can buy A Musical Story from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S