As I mentioned in my preview for the game, SUPERBEAT: XONiC is the spiritual successor to the DJMax games that you may have played back on the PSP. It’s a hardcore rhythm experience that caters to those looking for the opportunity to really test their skills. Despite not having a famous license or a bevy of well known tracks to rely on, SBX is a game that fans of the genre should definitely consider. There are some bumps on the road, however. Let’s take a look.
When you boot up the game, you’ll see five different options, though only two of these are actual play modes. The first three allow you to check your stats, compare your rank with others across the world, and edit some basic options. The meat of the game comes from “Stage” and “World Tour”. Across both modes you earn experience to level up. Leveling up unlocks various icons that can be equipped as well as new songs to play in stage mode. Said icons aren’t just for show either; they have various stat boosts that do things like increasing the experience you earn and making it so your health bar regenerates faster.
Stage mode is the main star of the game. First, you choose one of three different difficulty settings. From there, you play three songs of your choice from a pool generated by the game. The idea is that the choices get tougher as you move on. Fail any song, and you lose and go back to the main menu. If you can beat all three, your score is recorded. You high score for each difficulty can be uploaded to the leaderboards, where you can see how you measure up to the competition. There’s also a free play option, where you can play any song on any difficulty, but there’s a catch. For the most part, you only unlock a song for free play by beating it in Stage. This also works for each of the three different difficulties. If you want to play a song on hard, you need to have beaten it on hard first.
Next up is World Tour, which is awkward. It consists of a number of missions that give you objectives to complete over the course of a handful of songs. The awkward part comes from the fact that these missions are only unlocked when you reach certain level milestones. Basically, you can clear every available mission, but be unable to progress further until you level up in Stage mode for a bit. The missions themselves come in the form of “reach this combo”, “don’t miss this many notes”, and so on. Things get very difficult rather quickly, especially when the game starts adding modifiers to the gameplay. For example, it’s hard not to miss notes when they keep blinking in and out of view. The mode is definitely not for newcomers, and will cater to those seeking the ultimate challenge.
Playing the game is a bit complicated. On the various settings, you can be expected to hit notes using the face buttons, the d-pad, the analog sticks, and the shoulder buttons. At most, that’s ten different inputs you need to be ready for. The touch screen is also available, and interchangeable with the the buttons. However, you can’t use the touch screen in place of the shoulder buttons. It can get messy for sure, but it makes pulling off a long combo incredibly rewarding.
As a song plays, various icons will appear and head from the center of the screen to one of two “gears” on the edges of the screen. When a note passes the gear, you’re meant to hit the corresponding button. It sounds easy, but there are some hiccups. The regular notes, those you need to use the face buttons and d-pad for, are color coded. On easy, green is for the bottom buttons while blue is for the top. On the tougher two difficulties however, blue is for the middle buttons and there’s a green input for the top AND bottom. I’m not sure why they didn’t just use three different colors. While some games are content to have players flick the sticks in any direction during play, SBX requires precision flicks. Yellow arrows tell you to flick the stick up or down, while red arrows mean holding the stick in the direction. You might even have to flick it back and forth for longer notes as well. On the hardest difficulty, those shoulder button notes can be especially tricky because you often have to hit them or hold them while hitting other buttons on the same side of the system. Basically, you’re going to get hand cramps.
As you play each song, you’re looking to build up a combo of successful inputs in order to rack up a high score. Missing a note drains your health meter, while hitting a note restores it a bit. If your health meter empties, you’ve failed the song. However, the game will let you finish the song out instead of immediately kicking you back to the menu. This lets you practice a bit without further fear of failing.
In terms of difficulty, the game is all over the place. No matter what your skill level, you’ll be able to find a few or several songs that you can play. The crazy thing is that there are songs that are so fast and so demanding that you might fail them even on Easy. What’s going to make the game hard for most is the sheer number of different inputs you have to remember. Going back and forth between buttons and sticks at a fast rate can be incredibly confusing. In addition, the game makes it difficult to get your rhythm back once you lose it. When you press the correct button at the correct time, some sort of percussion sound will play. If you miss the note, the sound won’t play. If you press the button at a time when you shouldn’t, the sound won’t play. So instead of hearing yourself play the beat poorly, you’re hearing awkward silences.
The key thing to remember, however, is that the game is quite fun overall. That’s partly because of the nature of the genre, and partly because of the complex and challenging nature of the gameplay. Doing well simply feels good, even if you’re not a fan of the particular song you’re playing. It can be incredibly addicting, and the urge to do better will likely keep you playing for long sessions.
In terms of visuals, the game looks solid enough, but is wholly unimpressive. Instead of music videos, the game uses visualizations of the music. This often involves colored patterns or objects moving around the screen. However, they’re kept in check so as not to interfere with you being able to see the notes. It amounts to a subdued light show. The colors are vibrant and pop off the screen, but there’s just not much to look at.
As for audio, it’s all about the music. There are over fifty different tracks in the game, at an average length of about two minutes. When I say there is a large range of musical styles, I mean it. You’ll find pop, classical, dance, R&B, metal, progressive, and more. None of the songs are likely to be familiar to anyone outside of fans of the dev’s other work, though. There are no big name acts or pop standards here. As such, the track list can seem underwhelming. However, the tunes are generally quite catchy and the variety is quite welcome. A rhythm game is nothing without enjoyable music, and this game certainly as that.
Finally, let’s get to a couple of hang ups the game has. For starters, the options menu, leaderboard, and player stats screen can only be used with the touch screen, which makes no sense at all. More importantly, there are options for customization while you play. On the track select screen, there are three small buttons on the upper right side of the screen. You can only interact with these using the touch screen, and the gist is that you cycle through a few different modifiers. These do things like make the notes appear later, remove parts of the HUD, etc. However, nothing in the game tells you that these things are going to happen. You have to experiment to find our yourself. There’s also an option in the game that lets you speed up or slow down the note speed. While you’re playing a song, you have to hold down select and adjust the speed with the shoulder buttons. For many songs, taking the time to do this will likely result in an outright failure. For some reason, you can’t pause the game and make the adjustment there. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Short Attention Span Summary
SBX is a flawed, yet fun game. There are a number of odd design choices that hold the game back, and the complexity/high degree of difficulty narrow the potential audience. However, for those willing to put their skills to the test, they’ll find a challenging rhythm game with a fun soundtrack. If nothing else, this serves as a great proof of concept, and I hope the series continues down the line.