Block Rocking Beats
Block-breaking puzzle games are as classic and simplistic of a gaming concept as they come. Name one person with a verifiable heart beat on this Earth who has not tossed a few hours in Tetris. You can not (barring the Amish and those without the means to...obviously). But, increasingly, it's getting harder and harder to justify a retail release (and matching price point) on games of the ilk. With dozen's of Tetris clones lurking throughout cyberspace and the dirt cheap iOS game marketplace peaking in quantity and quality in the past year, puzzle games desperately need to "wow" potential gamers with clever twists on the aged formula. And a little panache in the audio/visual departments would not hurt the cause, either.
This is where the original Lumines succeed to an outstanding degree on the PSP, Sony's first foray into handhelds. Here we are a mere half decade or so later with a shiny new Sony handheld system and a new Lumines firmly tucked within. Just like old times.
Lumines Electronic Symphony on the Playstation Vita is not a game changer like the original Lumines. Rather than attempting to rewrite the (excellent) book, Electronic Symphony makes wise updates to the Lumines blueprint while still packing in a top-flight aesthetic presentation.
For the unfortunate souls who missed out on the first few iterations of the series, Lumines is a rhythmical evolution from games like Tetris or even Bejewled. Players are tasked with surviving stages of falling blocks by arranging the cubes into color matching squares of dimensions at least two by two. While you are frantically organizing the descending blocks, a literally titled "Timeline" sweeps over the playing field in tempo with the background music erasing all matching color squares you have created out of the falling cubes. Every once in a while "special" blocks will appear allowing connected like colored though not squared blocks to be eliminated or another which jumbles the playing field.
The only outright noticeable change to the core mechanics that Electronic Symphony brings to the fold are Avatar abilities. Players now may choose avatars, each with their own set of block-busting rule bending abilities. Some slow down the pace at which the blocks crash onto the screen while others grant players a guaranteed "special" brick. These powers are activated mid-game via a gingerly tap of the Vita's touch screen. Despite this change, I did not find any of the abilities radically modifying the way I play Lumines. Instead the Avatar Abilities became a last-ditch effort to build momentum as the screen was quickly becoming buried in blocks and poor decisions on my part.
Lumines Electronic Symphony may not pack in the sheer number of modes you would expect from a full fledged retail puzzler, but the modes featured are the ones you will actually want to play. Outside of the default "Voyage" mode--a complete playthrough of the entire 40 plus track list--players can dig into a multiplayer "Duel", craft multi-song playlists, race the clock in "Stopwatch" mode or test their mettle in the appropriately titled "Master" mode. All of these additional game sets work as advertised. Stopwatch (and the dangling carrot of a trophy) is maddeningly addictive and Master will send the less...ahem...masterful Lumines players packing in disbelief. The half-exception to the quality of the additional game modes is "Duel". As of writing, "Duel" can hitch up when played through Vita's Ad-Hoc. This can lead to some frustrating network issues and dropped matches. An update has already been released addressing this complication (and applied for this review), which only leads me to wonder what state it was in when Lumines Electronic Symphony was physically released. Lumines Electronic Symphony does not feature online mulitplayer...which is a bummer any way you slice it.
Finally there is "World Block". If connected to the internet, every destroyed block a player renders counts towards a world wide daily total. If that total is greater than the one million plus goal set by the developers at Rocket Studios, every player who contributed will receive a sizable chuck of XP which can be used to unlock more Avatars. This is a similar massive asynchronous co-operative method used in games like Noby Noby Boy. How or when the game decides to upload your personal block destruction data is beyond me; I was frequently greet with a "no contribution" error despite having hours logged in the day (and a constant connection to the world wide web).
The controls are perfect. Granted, block-drop games really can not (and definitely should not) have too much difficulty in the handling department. Taking advantage of all of the touch based features saddled on Sony's new handheld rig, Lumines Electronic Symphony features optional touch screen support. I personally found the touch screen a little slower than the digital buttons or analog stick, so I stuck with the classic control scheme out of habit. I am certain that a player can succeed on the new-fangled touchscreen just as well as a stuck-in-their-way old timer can. The rear touch panel can be tapped repeatedly to accelerate the charging of an Avatar Ability. The increment per tap is one percent of a charge and the cost of concentration lost in the process makes this feature pretty useless.
Unsurprisingly based on pedigree, Electronic Symphony features a stellar selection of licensed Electronic and House music. Packing forty plus tracks from artists such as Benny Benassi, LCD Soundsystem and The Chemical Brothers. As a self dubbed "Celebration of electronica music", Lumines Electronic Symphony passes with flying colors. Original compositions play during the Master and Stopwatch modes. These tracks are just as solid as anything else featured in the game. Headphones (and good ones at that) are nearly a requirement instead of a just a suggestion, though the Vita's speakers handle Electronic Symphony well enough. The visuals are clean and attractive. Each track has a themed skin in which all the blocks are bathed in. Some are little more than design or color changes, while others feature distinct character pair instead of the two toned cubes. Two standouts include a Halloween themed skin and a feudal Japanese motif. Skins swap between tracks in both Playlist and Voyage game types. This helps crush any fatigue that could occur from staring at the same two colored block patterns of dozens of minutes. And the transition looks really neat surrounded in florescent glow.
Within the launch of the Vita, Lumines: Electronic Symphony feels a bit incongruous to the rest of the initial game titles. While many handheld games have begun to strive for delivering expansive experiences similar to those found on their big brother consoles, Lumines:Electronic Symphony feels like a handheld title through and through. While nothing is stopping you from playing Lumines for hours on end (in fact, nothing MAY be able to stop you), the entire game feels like an amazing way to spend the greater part of an hour before moving on to something else. That facet will likely make Lumines: Electronic Symphony an excellent long-standing travel companion. And there is nothing wrong with that at all.
Another Sony handheld, another Lumines game. And I could not be happier about that.