Electronic Symphony doesn't rebuild the concept of Lumines block-by-block, but this Vita launch game is still the most fun I've had with the franchise since it debuted on the PSP back in 2004. What makes this game different than the handful of additional versions that came between now and then? Mechanically, not much. This puzzle game has appeared on the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, PC... even a second PSP release and a PlayStation 2 version of the game appeared. Maybe it's just something about the feel of a Sony handheld that makes Lumines feel special. Or maybe it's the quality of the screens found on both the PSP (which was amazing in its day) and the Vita (which is amazing right now). Those things certainly help, but great graphical design and a terrific soundtrack are the things that drive Lumines: Electronic Symphony.
If you're just joining us, Lumines is a well-based puzzle game where you deal with two different block colors. You want to form squares with those blocks. Squares get wiped from your well as a time line sweeps across the screen, letting you combo your block removals together by building multiple squares during each screen sweep. The tempo of the time line is governed by music, and as you proceed the song will change, giving the game a bit of a rhythmic element. At its core, this is a dependable idea that is satisfying on its own. Wrapping changing music and visuals around it in the form of different skins only deepens the potential obsession level.
Electronic Symphony doesn't play around with the core of this design, but it does add a bit of customization to its main mode. When you play, you can choose a specific avatar, as before. But now, the avatars come stocked with a specific ability that can be built up and used when it's fully charged. These might impact the blocks that come your way by giving you three solid-colored squares in a row. Or, if you'd rather, you can select an avatar that can stop the time line completely for a little bit, carving out a spot for you to land a gigantic combo. The abilities charge up incredibly slowly on their own, but you can charge them up pretty quickly by slapping around the Vita's rear touch panel. It's an interesting idea that flounders a bit because constantly tapping the back of the screen gets kind of annoying. Also, that tapping makes a specific noise in the game that just detracts from the rest of the audio. Everything else, from the sound of dropping blocks to rotating your current piece makes skin-specific sound that tends to fit pretty well with the action. The tapping noise sticks out in a bad way, snapping you out of the trance-like state that the rest of the game does so well. A new shuffle block also appears in the game, which shuffles up the blocks in your well when it lands. Randomly creating squares this way saved me more than a few times.
The default mode is the "voyage," which takes you through the game's skins in a set order that includes tracks from artists like The Chemical Brothers, LCD Soundsystem, Benny Benassi, Kaskade, Aphex Twin, BT, and plenty more. This starts slow, and once you've gotten acclimated to the game, that can be a bit frustrating, because things might not get interesting from a difficulty perspective until you've played for 30 minutes or more. If you fail, you can quit to record your score and earned experience points (which unlock additional skins and avatars) or opt to continue from the current skin, which resets your score but gives just about anyone the chance to see every skin in the voyage, with a little persistence.
For advanced players, there's a master mode, which starts out much harder but uses separate skins with a different soundtrack. Depending on your musical preference, this mode might not be as compelling for you as the main mode. Stopwatch, where you play the game with a set time limit, returns in Electronic Symphony, as does a playlist mode that lets you build a set of your favorite skins and play them. There's also a two-player duel mode that allows you to go up against a local friend. Perhaps it's a bit much to ask, given the rhythmic-nature of the game and the timing restrictions that might impose, but not having proper Internet play is still a bummer. The avatars get new, duel-specific abilities in this mode that let you screw around with your opponent in various ways.
Assuming you're connected to the Internet, every block you eliminate in every mode contributes to the destruction of the "world block," a big spinning cube made of 2,000,000 cubes. This is a group goal for everyone playing the game around the world to shoot for, and the world block resets every 24 hours. I'm not sure what happens when the block is completely erased, but it's an intriguing enough idea to keep me playing every day until I get to find out.
Lumines is a high-quality experience that just about earns its $40 price tag, even though it's a little hard to shake the notion that some of the previous installments appeared as downloadable games at downloadable prices. The quality of the music and skin design should be enough to squash any doubts created by a price disparity, though, so if you're a Vita owner who likes a good puzzle game, bring the Electronic Symphony into your life as soon as you're able.