When the music doubles as a plot point, it shouldn't make you want to push "mute".
Publisher: UFO Interactive
Format: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Wii
Game Title: Rock of the Dead
Release Date: 2010-10-19
There is a very specific sort of charm to be found in what is commonly termed a "B-movie". When you're presented with an outlandish plot, eager but inexperienced actors, and special effects that may as well have come from an ambitious MS Paint session and some catsup bottles, you know you're in for a treat. On one level, you're laughing at the production in all of the ways that it comes up short in comparison to the big budget top-level studio films that dominate the box office numbers. On another level, though, you're laughing with it. "Good for them," you say, "they gave it their all, they made a silly movie, and I enjoyed it. It couldn't have cost more than 50 grand to make, but it was worth every penny."
It's clear that Rock of the Dead is positioning itself as the gaming equivalent to the B-movie, from the intentionally ridiculous plot to the B-movie-friendly horror genre. This is a game that wants to be a cult classic, much as the Dreamcast's now ten-year-old Typing of the Dead became, by trying one of those gameplay ideas that seems so bizarre that it just might work.
It doesn't quite succeed.
Typing of the Dead is an influence here in more than just name and status; in terms of gameplay, Rock of the Dead is almost identical. A zombie (or, in the case of this game, a bug of some sort, or maybe an abnormally large sea animal) comes after you, a sequence of colors shows up on top of the encroaching threat, and you have to "play" the colors as quickly as you can, lest you take damage from the oncoming danger. As the story goes, a spaceship has landed, and the protagonist's guitar seems to be the only thing that can combat the sudden outbreak of giant bugs, crabs, and living dead girls.
That last, of course, is a perfectly awkward way of addressing the version of "rock" we are talking about here: all actual rock songs are songs by none other than Rob Zombie, he of the dreadlocks and the horror movies and the "yeah". This makes sense on a purely superficial level, given that there is perhaps no musical artist who better embodies the feel of the B-movie the way Mr. Zombie does. Zombie's music is best absorbed in small doses, though, given that the intentional schlock, complete with big guitars, nigh-unintelligible lyrics, and lots of zombie-horror imagery, can get a little bit oppressive after a while. In Rock of the Dead, you will hear "More Human than Human", White Zombie's biggest hit -- a lot. Then you'll hear another Zombie song. And another. And the only relief that you ever get will be from reorchestrations of classical "hits", like "Flight of the Bumblebee" and a Brahms Hungarian Dance.
While this is a clever way of circumventing licensing costs for any music other than Zombie's (money that could be spent on big name voices like Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day), it makes for an aural experience that is damning in its repetitiveness. When the music doubles as a plot point, it shouldn't make you want to push "mute".
But here's the other thing -- even if you did turn the music off, it would hardly make any difference in your skill at playing the game. The vast majority of the game makes almost no effort at all in integrating the sequences of buttons you push to knock back the baddies into the music you're hearing in the background. Only during major fights and boss battles, which feature a scrolling note highway rather than a static one, do you notice any correlation between what you're playing and what you're hearing. And that's only because the game track you've been hearing for most of the level fades out and turns into something else, usually one of the classical pieces mentioned above.
While I can sympathize with the idea that it would be hard (and perhaps too ambitious given the game's B-movie grade) to come up with a way to seamlessly integrate the music into this type of gameplay. Perhaps coming up with some generative tunes on the way? To all but ignore the musical aspect entirely is a serious missed opportunity. Guitar has become glorified typewriter; it makes the use of the guitar seem basically unnecessary.
The game's not a total loss. Once you get used to the difficult-to-read, left-to-right note charts and the all too deadpan voiceover style from Patrick Harris, it becomes somewhat enjoyable as escapism. Still, the learning curve is too high, and the reward not nearly rewarding enough. If this were a movie, we wouldn't be laughing at it or with it. We would simply be indifferent to it, which in the land of B-movies, is the most damning reaction of all.