Vib-Ribbon: The Charming, if Somewhat Lacking Rhythm Game
The conventions employed by games within the music genre tend to be consistent across the board. Regardless of the catalytic instrument used, the gameplay ultimately boils down to simply matching some rendition of notes and/or beats with proper timing. In that respect, Vib-Ribbon is no different. However, a quick glance at the vector-style box art should be enough to indicate that Vib-Ribbon is really not that much of a conformist. It's a PlayStation import that not everyone will necessarily be able to enjoy, but those that have the right tastes will find a game whose charm makes up for its deficiencies.
What differentiates Vib-Ribbon from most of the other modern music games on the market can be found in the way in which Vib-Ribbon presents its content. Instead of solely being packaged with pre-programmed songs that are tweaked according to difficulty, the game lets players import any song they please from a music CD. There are indeed several songs from Japanese indie group Laugh&Peace included in the game which serve as introductions to Vib-Ribbon's content, but the vast majority of the value stems from using one's own music collection. Thankfully, Vib-Ribbon does a good job of being able to make its levels from the material with which it is provided. Although the game engine has a tendency to draw upon the bass, it'll also occasionally call upon vocals and other parts to mess around with timing. It's not a completely perfect implementation, but it's still well-done overall and makes the game worthwhile in that respect.
Vib-Ribbon's actual gameplay is probably its most defining characteristic outside of the music importation feature. Whereas other music games simply rely on hand-eye coordination involving abstract symbols, Vib-Ribbon uses the music to generate obstacle courses. The player, as the main character Vibri, has to successfully overcome several types of obstacles by using the shoulder buttons, down on the d-pad, and the X-button. Easy levels only include four different types of obstacles, which consist of a loop, a jagged line, a gap, and a rectangle and crossing them is simply a matter of hitting one of the previously-mentioned buttons correctly. Harder levels, however, also have combination obstacles, which incorporate two types of obstacles. Crossing them is a matter of determining which parts make up the combined obstacle and then hitting the respective buttons. It's an elegant control setup which becomes natural after several play-sessions and, indeed, getting familiar with the nuances of interacting with Vibri's hindrances is a must for harder songs.
All of that is essentially the core gameplay and doesn't change from song to song. However, the inherent difficulty level which certain songs may have can also bring about other mechanics. Faster songs, for example, may make the obstacles rotate while the camera is at a certain angle, which can make timing a tough matter. Other songs, however, may change the speed at which certain obstacles approach Vibri. At one moment, one might expect that a jagged line is the next thing to cross, but a rectangle may actually speed ahead of it and become the next target. The game also changes which direction Vibri is seen running, which is done mainly in intermissions which the game generates during a song to grant the player a small break. (That, however, is something which only shows up in the music CD-generated levels.) If necessary, the game also changes the tempo in timing with the music and makes the shapes move accordingly.
All of these mechanics can make for a harder experience in theory. However, most of them don't tend to pose much of a threat in practice. However, the difficulty can feel somewhat sporadic between songs. While some guesstimating can be done beforehand, it's not set in stone until the game actually starts running. The only indicator which the player receives beforehand is Vibri's pace. But because that takes place just moments before each song actually commences, it's usually too late. Thus, some surprises can show up when trying out different songs. Over the course of testing, there were a few instances where fast piano solos generated harder levels than things such as punk rock riffs. It's not too much of a detraction, but it can still be an unpleasant surprise nevertheless.
On a completely different note, the aesthetics of Vib-Ribbon are among the most unique in the PlayStation's offerings. Instead of colorful sprites or textured polygons, Vib-Ribbon opts for a simple vector-based style. Absolutely everything in the game, save for the development studio's logo, is done entirely with very defined white lines. Because it's a style which has virtually no presence in today's gaming, the meagerness of it doesn't actually hurt the game at all. The visuals also give Vibri a quasi-personality in and of itself, as no rabbit would be typically rendered in the manner that she is. (Depending on how well the player does, however, Vibri may either become something better or worse than a rabbit over the course of the game. Each of these different forms lend their own unique appearance with the vector lines as well.) In the end, it's a very modest graphics engine, but it's sufficient enough to convey what the game wants to get across as well as simultaneously give it plenty of flair to boot.
When considering that the game is a musical one, it should come to no surprise that it tackles that department well. The abstract sound effects and main menu music play just fine, as do Vib-Ribbon's packed-in songs. There also happens to be some very interesting voice acting for Vibri, which is done in jolly and psychedelic manner. Music which is imported from CDs also plays just fine and the audio quality sounds on par with any other CD player on the market. All told, Vib-Ribbon's music and sounds are good and solid, a task which is critical for a game within its respective category.
If there is one main gripe to be had about Vib-Ribbon, though, then it's the fact that the game is devoid of any real depth. The game's entirety consists of jumping over obstacles and listening to music and while those things may have been implemented well, the absence of other things to do robs it of a little value. Although a lot of motivation for playing it can come from seeing how it interprets one's own music, there's otherwise no other real reason to play the game. It's unfortunate in that respect. However, what is there does manage to be compelling and it compensates for that one major fault.
In the end, Vib-Ribbon is one of the more unique music games to have ever been conceived. Although its premise may ultimately be very short and sweet, it's one that is still rarely done in the industry today, let alone done well. Not everyone will necessary like this game for very obvious reasons and the main fault does hurt the game's potential. However, for those who are big music buffs and/or like their games developed on the more surreal side, Vib-Ribbon is a game worth playing. Just be sure to go into this experience knowing full well what this game has to offer.