While we wait for Phil Spencer to reach the ‘Guitar Hero’ box in the Activision-Blizzard vaults, we are going through a bit of a purple patch for music games. Much of that is thanks to Japan: we’ve had the mighty Taiko no Tatsujin: The Drum Master! arrive on Game Pass, and Hatsune Miku Logic Paint S, while a puzzle game, has finally brought the pop diva to the Xbox. Toss The Artful Escape onto that pile, and you have a strong six months for games that know their way around a tune.
Welcome, then, to Beat Souls. It comes from indie mega-stable Eastasiasoft, who are better known for their pixel-platformers and shmups, making this a bit of a left-turn for them. It’s a pure rhythm action game in the Rock Band/Dance Dance Revolution sense: this is a jukebox of songs (forty-five of them, with several longer mixes) and a sequence of commands for you to tap in to get a high score.
That might make Beat Souls sound conventional, but it isn’t quite. While this is about 80% rhythm action game, the remainder borrows from mobile endless runners like Temple Run and Subway Surfers. You play a character running towards the back of the screen while waves of notes approach you. There are five different ‘lanes’ for your character to move in, so you are switching track to ensure you hit the notes as they arrive. But there are obstacles among the notes, so you are also dodging them and using a jump button to navigate traps on the floor.
It’s not as simple as merely hitting the notes, either. Most commonly, you need to pass between the notes like a skier passing through slalom flags. But at other times, the notes bunch together, giving you no room to pass between them, so you have to press LB or RB to collect the two notes to your left or right respectively. And the notes also change colour from orange to blue, which means tapping B to switch alignment.
Do all of the above perfectly, and you will find that your feverish pad-tapping matches the beats of the music. And that’s Beat Souls’ MO really: to find a synchronicity between the music and the endless running, creating zen moments where you feel completely in tune with the music, man.
And the music is, as you would hope, absolutely brilliant. If you have played Voez, Cytus Alpha or – although not quite as poppy – the Hatsune Miku games, then you will know what to expect here. These are throbbing JPop hits, although Beat Souls is skewed to the more instrumental, house-music end of the JPop spectrum. They are pulsating and match the action perfectly. They may not be quite as catchy as their peers, and won’t get you reaching for Spotify to add them to a playlist, but they are perfect for the game at hand.
There are forty-five songs to play, and they are sorted according to characters. You compete against three characters and they have fifteen levels each. You’re given a score according to your performance, with bonuses given for avoiding damage or reaching Full Combo (hitting every note), and there’s a rudimentary levelling system that locks off levels and the second game mode, Endless Hell, which is effectively a survival mode against a longer track.
The difficulty ranges from meditative to full-on Dragonforce, with sequences that – honestly – I can’t imagine a human managing. Especially when you unlock a level’s harder layout, the sequences are sadistic, and the punishment for missing notes is pretty hardcore. Not only are you losing combos and therefore score, you are also getting damaged, and reducing to zero health will mean a complete abandonment of the level. Beat Souls is a hard taskmaster, but it’s still a reasonably fair one.
The asterisk here is that Beat Souls can be quite hard to read. It’s not like Guitar Hero, where both the lane and the colour of the note make it abundantly clear of what you need to press and when. The notes in Beat Souls look the same regardless of whether you need to slalom them or press LB or RB. That freedom has its positives, but it also has a large negative: you can easily get yourself into a muddle trying to work out where you are meant to be positioned. When an avalanche of notes is approaching, that can be devastating. We often found ourselves wishing that Beat Souls was a bit more legible.
And that legibility stretches to the positioning of the character, too. There’s a lot of visual noise on screen, and the various light-shows can make you lose track of where your character is. Too often, I found myself missing notes when I thought I was hitting them, and having to readjust meant I lost a combo. We’d have handed over a few extra quid for a multiplayer mode, too.
None of these issues are dealbreakers, but they do position Beat Souls to the more demanding and exacting side of rhythm action games. It can occasionally leave a bad taste, that a fault wasn’t entirely your own.
But its moments of confusion shouldn’t tarnish what’s been achieved here. A small indie developer has gathered together a pulsating playlist of forty-five JPop hits and then mapped them to an innovative take on rhythm action. Beat Souls is part endless runner, part Hatsune Miku, and it’s totally slapping.
You can buy Beat Souls from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S