RPGs on Xbox Live Indie Games are a risky proposition. Some are well intentioned but awkward and/or dull (Monster King), others are enjoyable but brief (EvilQuest) and depressingly many are risible, fanservice-infested forays into the hormonal hothouse of the teenage boy market (Temple of Dogolrak 2 and its ilk). Meanwhile, some of the better XBLIGs that are labelled as RPGs don’t really qualify for the genre (Dead Pixels and BloodyCheckers spring to mind).
Sashaying flamboyantly into the midst of this latter category comes Sequence. It’s been available on XBLIG and Steam (here) for some time, but has managed to consistently defy my attempts to review it. Somehow, reviewing Sequence feels like a bigger job than usual, and it took me months to realise that it’s because the game doesn’t feel indie, or at least Xbox indie. Where I can say everything that needs to be said about Super Killer Hornet or Vidiot Game in a couple of hours of frantic typing, Sequence, like a fickle spouse, demands more attention.
In essence, Sequence is two types of game in one: it has the character-driven story, stat building, item hunting and monster slaying of an RPG, but it also has the music-based button-matching of a rhythm game. What it doesn’t have in any noticeable way is sequences, leading Sequence to join the noble ranks of XBLIGs whose titles have nothing to do with their content.
I played the demo for Sequence a couple of times before I bought the full game, and although I was intrigued by the rhythm/RPG combination, that alone hadn’t entirely sold me on it. I’m not rhythmically inclined (just ask anyone who’s seen me dance) and the game itself warns that the Normal difficulty mode might be too tough for people like me. Apparently the average person should be fine with Normal, but even Easy was difficult for me in places. I took this warning to heart, not least because other rhythm games I’ve attempted have obliterated me and then gloated over my mangled self-esteem. XBLIG’s Beat Hazard, for instance, is completely impossible for me. I can’t even get through the tutorial. Evidently I simply don’t perceive rhythm in sounds very well.
So it would need more than the promise of splicing RPGs with a genre I’m horrible at to persuade me to part with my pennies. Sequence managed it by presenting me with something I couldn’t resist: characters who actually have character. Even the finest heavyweights of the RPG genre often end up with characters who are pretty much just one personality trait with legs. Pick an RPG character, and a description of them can usually be narrowed down to one main feature – recklessness, fear of emotional dependence, evasion of responsibility, grief, idiocy, belligerence. That isn’t the case with Ki, the main character of Sequence. He isn’t an elaborately written mass of contradictions and internal conflicts like, say, Kain from the Legacy of Kain series, but he similarly defies easy description because he’s best categorised as ‘just some guy’. In fact, he’s perhaps closer to a sitcom lead character than anyone in a drama, because he has a definite attitude and sense of humour of his own but at the same time he doesn’t have a particularly outstanding character trait. I couldn’t sum Ki up for you, but I could tell you I liked him.
That’s the other component of Sequence’s use of character. While the boss enemies are usually one-note caricatures (intentionally, I suspect) the two leads, Ki and Naia, are genuinely likeable. It can be easy to like a dramatic character as a worthwhile mechanic of the story, but it’s much harder to like them as a person, because so few are actually anything like real people. Ki and Naia are slightly unremarkable and nondescript, just like real people, but at the same time this realness combines with witty, charming dialogue to make them both genuinely pleasant company. Observing their interaction was the most enjoyable part of the whole game. Writing alone isn’t enough for this, at least here in the 21st century. Ki and Naia are also well acted, which is a hell of a novelty for an XBLIG. Each independently feels like the acting captured their character, but more importantly when the speak to each other it feels like there’s genuine chemistry between the actors.
That’s what sold me on Sequence despite my rhythmic ineptitude, and it’s what kept me going when grinding the same couple of enemies (and, by extension, songs) over and over grew stale. The mechanics of the game are solid and fun, but it’s the character writing and the way it’s delivered that pulls you in and keeps you there.
I feel like I could leave it there, but I’d be remiss in writing a review without talking about how the game actually plays. So this is how it works. You control Ki, who wakes to find himself mysteriously stashed in a tower that’s crammed with monsters, and with no guidance but a mysterious disembodied voice calling herself Naia. You don’t walk Ki around or have any direct control over an avatar of him between battles, but instead you use menus to set up his gear and check what you need to be doing next. This is usually a pretty fleeting experience, as the bulk of the gameplay is a combination of battles and skill acquisition, both of which occur through the medium of a rhythm game.
Generally at any given time you need to either gain enough item drops to craft something useful or gain experience for levelling, both of which come from fighting the tower’s legions of beasties. Each floor of the tower has three enemy types available, and you can choose which type you want to confront each time you leave your safe room. They have different powers, different patterns and, crucially, different item drops. The unfortunate side effect of this is that you will end up battling each enemy type numerous times, and once you’ve got a handle on which skills are most useful against an enemy, it becomes repetitive and almost mindless. Still, rhythm games repetitive by nature and tend to rely on the quality of the music to sustain them. Here, although each enemy consistently uses its own song every time you fight it (and some songs are used by more than one enemy type) the music is catchy and compelling enough to make this a pleasant, rather than arduous, experience. I’m the sort of person who repeatedly listens to favourite songs anyway, so replays of Sequence’s engaging tunes weren’t too heavy a burden. Credit for the score here goes to Ronald Jenkees, whose music can easily be found on YouTube. He also sells CDs, if you really take a shine to his work. Oddly enough, being linked on Twitter to this song from Sequence was the main reason I paid a second visit to the demo (which then led to a buy).
Combat occurs on three panels, which you can switch between freely. The all focus on matching directional presses with the arrows that are descending the screen. The first panel is defence; the arrows that fall in time with the music represent your opponent’s attacks, and pressing the corresponding directions defends against those attacks. The next panel is abilities; when you activate an ability (using a thumbstick and shoulder button) a set pattern of arrows falls in this panel, and to successfully use the ability you need to match the directions. The final panel is your reserves of magic power; arrows fall basically at random, and each one you match recharges a bit of your magic power which you can then use to activate more abilities.
The catch is that you can only view and act on one panel at a time. If you want to regain magic power, you have to risk taking hits. If you want to use an ability, you have to take hits and miss out on magic regen. It’s a very simple idea really, but it works well. Everything you do is a question of cost versus benefit. Nor are you able to cheese it and just fend off attacks for ten minutes, waiting for an easy moment to cast a spell. The duration of the song is also the duration of the battle, and once that sweet music fades out, the fight is lost. Ki doesn’t die or anything so dramatic, but it is an inconvenience to have wasted the time and effort that you put in. This can be frustrating when you were sincerely trying to win, but it has the interesting effect of forcing you to play less cautiously, take some risks and fight in a way that isn’t just effective but also quick.
Learning new abilities and crafting equipment from item drops follows a similar pattern. Only one panel this time, but you have to match the directions with a certain degree of accuracy in order to succeed. This could perhaps have been made a little more interesting, but it works well enough.
As someone with the rhythmic aptitude of a watermelon, some of the mid-game battles seemed remarkably tough. The obstructive interference that each floor’s boss can throw into your routine grind-fights also served as a mighty pain in my arrhythmic behind. As a whole though, the mechanics worked well enough that I enjoyed them for almost the whole length of the game before I started to feel a touch of tedium. The novelty would have worn off a lot sooner if not for the likeable characters and their charming dialogue, plus the ever-present mystery of exactly what this tower full of monsters is actually about.
If any of this sounds remotely interesting to you, I recommend playing Sequence’s demo twice. Once to get the tutorial section, and then again to actually play a bit of the game (you have Microsoft’s 8-minute demo time limit to thank for that necessity). Even just the tutorial will give you an idea of the tone and quality of the character interaction. If it doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe Sequence isn’t for you, and that might be the hardest thing about writing this review – not describing the gameplay or accounting for my enjoyment of it, but trying to guess who would or wouldn’t like it. I avoid rhythm games but I like Sequence. I dislike menu interfaces but I like Sequence. I have no sense of rhythm but I like Sequence. I can’t guess whether or not you’ll like it too, but I can tell you it’s worth trying for yourself. Only by stepping into that tower with Ki and Naia can you know for sure, and believe me that if you do find you like it, you’ll be glad you listened.