What a time it is to release a rhythm-action combat game. We can only imagine what it must have been like in the SURT and tinyBuild offices when Hi-Fi RUSH surprise-launched. Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets had been announced and prepped for launch for months, and then – BOOM – a AAA competitor suddenly lands, days before. The press are smitten with HiFi RUSH, reviews are so good that they glow in the dark, and Rhythm Sprout’s big birthday is well and truly crashed.
We feel for Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets, because it is very definitely the least-good of the two rhythm action games. But it’s still rather fantastic indeed, with its own particular appeal, and it doesn’t deserve to have its launch-window hijacked. On its own, it could have found a niche audience. With Hi-Fi RUSH noisily moving in next door, that niche has undoubtedly gotten smaller.
Let’s do what we can to support it. Firstly, Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets has oodles of charisma. It’s the life of the party. From the very first moment that you wake up in King Brock’s throne room (a broccoli, hugely demanding, with some notes of loneliness), you can tell that developers SURT have had an absolute blast making this. The dialogue fizzes, full of self-deprecation, bad puns and one-liners. At times it captures the same lightning in the bottle that the King of the Cosmos does in Katamari games. It’s irreverent and might not be to everyone’s taste but we loved it.
That stretches to the other characters, too. Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets isn’t afraid to stop the music and have a chat, introducing characters with all of their foibles proudly stapled to the front of their shirts. There’s Count Arelle, who nobody likes because he keeps sending lame Youtube videos, and hilariously drops smoke bombs without actually moving out of the smoke afterwards. A later moment had us in tears, as we showed clemency to an enemy, only for an end-of-episode-like coda to play, telling us what that enemy did in the years after we met them.
There’s a Nintendo-like sheen to the presentation, with every character, menu and interface element buffed to the highest of quality. We hate to invoke it again, but Hi-Fi RUSH comes to mind, as the two games spare no expense in making their games abundantly clear, yet uniquely stylish at the same time. We loved how everyone in Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets looks like the background character from a Super Mario Odyssey level, but with the richness of character that you would find in a South Park episode.
Of course, Rhythm Sprout is all about the sick beats, as hinted in the title, and it’s here where it also excels. You couldn’t pin a musical genre on Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets. It’s so perversely eclectic that only one song appears for any given musical genre. There’s a Vengaboys rip off, for ‘90s sake, a piece of elevator music, EDM, rock, reggaeton, light jazz and more, all getting the sprout treatment. But rather than feel like a cringey cover band, each song stands alone well. Sure, someone in the audio department was doing some musical checkboxing, but they know what they’re doing.
Rhythm Sprout’s journey to rescue Princess Cauliflower and defeat King Sugar Daddy takes the form of a PaRappa the Rapper wrapper-like story, but it’s mostly an excuse to deliver individual songs. Sprout walks away from the camera as button prompts move towards the camera, and your ability to meet those prompts determines how fast and far he gets along the path.
The button prompts, at least in rhythm action terms, are surprisingly minimalist. Really, there are only three buttons to press in Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets, and one of those three only crops up rarely. There’s a ‘right’, presented in pink, which is triggered by pressing your choice of A, B, X or Y. And there’s a ‘left’, presented in yellow, which is your choice of any button on the D-pad.
This freedom to find the button that suits you is fantastic accessibility, and totally welcoming. We found that A and Left best suited us, but you will find your own. And what’s the third button, we hear you ask? Well, that’s your choice of shoulder button, and it’s invoked whenever a space-bar like blue oblong appears across the button prompts. These are rarer, and they represent an attack by the enemy (who appear with a neat musical bridge). Nail these and you can keep walking, but fail to hit them and you will take damage. Your health pool is not infinite, so these are the most important beats to match.
We have mixed feelings over the rhythm action inputs, but skewing towards the positive. Thanks to the in-game calibration, and a pretty good mapping to the beats of the music, we rarely felt like we were out of control. We hardly ever missed a beat and cursed some faraway developer. But, and this is hugely subjective, we still found ourselves occasionally stumbling over the notes.
Part of that is the similarity in the vertical placement of notes. Left and right notes are placed in a very similar orientation, and our mind – simple as it is – kept conflating them. We had to keep correcting ourselves, reminding our fingers that pink is right and yellow is left. It’s hugely subjective, but we found that the notes were getting mentally jumbled, and we weren’t convinced that it was totally our fault.
Plus, the difficulty curve is crazy. Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets has no chill. You get probably six or seven levels to feel like you’re getting a handle on the situation, but as soon as you hit Fruitland then all bets are off. Notes arrive in Dragonforce-style barrages, and keeping on top of the sheer BPM is a challenge. There’s something about matching these rhythms on two sides of a controller that is also unnatural. If we had a guitar in our hands, we might not be making mistakes, but with a controller it can feel frantic and a touch awkward.
All credit to Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets, as it puts in so many safety nets that you’re basically falling into a trampoline. It’s hard to fail, as you have to miss a fair few notes (or the blue space-bars) to really risk your health, and that health can be reclaimed by chaining some Perfect notes. You can also play in Beginner Mode, which ups your health and merges the left and right notes together. Although, we would say that this still doesn’t put it within reach of younger players. Our seven-year-old could only manage four levels before it got too difficult.
But persisting is worth it, and adults can always dial down the difficulty so that progression is all-but-guaranteed. There are plenty of levels here, spread out across a campaign, a prologue and some bonus levels, and they’re each lovingly lubricated by some of the funniest characters and interactions that you’ll experience with a pad in your hands. We felt like we had to keep progressing, simply to see what comes around the next corner.
Sure, sure, Hi-Fi RUSH is a thing, and Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets doesn’t quite compete on its terms. But let’s shove it aside for the moment and judge Rhythm Sprout: Sick Beats & Bad Sweets on its own. Rhythm Sprout is a playlist of eclectic bangers, tied to a simple rhythm action system that slaps you round the face with challenge. But master it – or take advantage of the Beginner Mode – and you will experience what will undoubtedly be one of the most charming games of 2023.
You can buy Rhythm Sprout from the Xbox Store
- Gorgeously presented
- Bloody hilarious
- Huge number of options, levels and safety nets
- Full of earworms
- Note presentation can be a touch confusing
- Sharp difficulty curve
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - tinyBuild
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch, PC
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 1 February 2023
- Launch price from - £12.49