A rhythm game with a storyline. So, first the music. Then . . . there is the writing.
SequencePublisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: XBox 360
Developer: Iridium Studios
Release date: 2011-05-05
I feel a bit sorry for what I'm about to do, which is to completely tear Iridium Studios' inaugural title a new one. There is something about Sequence in all its quaint earnestness and amateur writing that almost makes it too precious to hate.
But hate it I do. I'm not sure when the exact moment was -- if it was the third time that I reached for a bottle of painkillers to get through a level's dangerously overused music or when I shut off the voice acting and stopped paying attention to the cutscenes entirely, but after that, I started to despise everything about it. The characters, the dialogue, the plot, the visual design, the audio, the disingenuous drop rates, the button calibration that I couldn't seem to finesse, the whole concept of playing a Dance Dance Revolution RPG with your thumbs and then only having a handful of tracks to play over and over and over (and over and over). The painful college sports references, made worse when I visited Iridium's website to find that, indeed, one dev went to the University of Florida and the other is in Michigan. All the cute art design and catchy tunes in the world can't redeem that level of vain self-insertion.
Taken individually, the components of Sequence seem rather interesting. It's a rhythm game with a storyline. Your protagonist wakes up in a tower rife with monsters with only the disembodied voice of a young woman for a guide, and the only way to advance is to defeat the various critters with some strange kind of button-based dance battle. It plays constantly with the fourth wall and nods slyly to some incredibly up to date internet memes that players will most likely recognize. The painterly art design of the characters and backdrops reminds me of Grim Grimoire, a grossly underappreciated and favorite Atlus RPG of mine. The battle screens seem intimidatingly busy, but the tutorial walks you through it methodically such that battles coupled with complicated multitasking become second nature. Item management is simple and elegant. Really, for production value alone, the fact that the developers are practically giving this away for 240 Microsoft Points ($3) is a crime against all the hard work that has clearly gone into it. If only the end product were even worth a dime.
First, the music. Now grant you, there is nothing inherently bad about its track offerings, except for the fact you hear each one a nauseating number of times. There are three regular enemies per floor in a tower of seven and one boss for each, the latter usually introducing a new track which becomes an enemy standard for the next floor. Although button combinations are slightly randomized, the tracks themselves never change, and while the best DDR players I know have encoded the moves of their top ten favorites into muscle memory from playing them so much, the tracks of Sequence are more like popsynth exercise drills.
But the biggest objection I ended up having to the game is the writing and dialogue. For a while, I thought that perhaps it was the subpar voice acting that was making the cutscenes sound insipid, but the writing really is so overdone it becomes bland. Like the above mentioned "racist" joke and name drops of colleges, there is something so, so Scott Pilgrim about this game... complete with the unlikeable protagonist, yet minus any female empowerment.
Even when we encounter stage boss Jane, a decorated military servicewoman, her role afterwards devolves into that of a support character who treats the male protagonist Ky as her superior. Despite the fact that she and Naia, the other prominent female character, interact frequently, the conversation always has to do with Ky or some other man. Even Naia herself, who eventually leaves her perch as disembodied guide and joins Ky on the floors of the tower, hangs out in the safe room while Ky fights monsters alone. Ky in turn is obsessed with her safety and orders Jane to watch over her -- because demeaning paternalism is romantic, you see. Especially mere hours after you insulted the young woman's race.
I am used to seeing googly-eyed anime characters treat anything with breasts as inferior support characters, but normally those games come from Japan. This is an American born title that, while aspiring to the level of pure arbitrariness and awesome hair styles of the Japanese RPG, really exhibits that American quality. They talk about college football, Craigslist, and 4chan. It's so American I was expecting them to split an apple pie at the end. So why in the world would an American indie developer team (one half of which is female) produce a game about women hanging around letting men do all the hard work? No, hanging a lampshade on it does not absolve the game of these issues.
The weakness of the character writing together with the artificial gravitas of the absurd storyline, wherein some sort of Cube-esque conspiracy sits adjacent to internet memes, results in a plot that doesn't know if it wants to be taken seriously. There are a lot of what I would call tender moments -- if either Ky or Naia were the least bit likeable -- but these are more than undercut by the absolute irreverence that the script has for its own narrative conceits. When a game is so aware that it doesn't make sense, how are we supposed to care about any of this heartfelt (cheesy, overwrought) dialogue? Metal Gear Solid at least took itself seriously.
Sometimes it's enough for a paper-thin story to surround a great mechanic. Unfortunately, the gameplay that forms the basis for Sequence is as mighty in ambition and underwhelming in execution as the rest of this title. Beautiful, creative and different though it may be, it is just far too played out, far too shallow, and far too obnoxious to be worth the ultimate time investment. While I definitely look forward to future work from Iridium, who seem inclined toward the sort of ingenuity and slick presentation that I could stand to see more of in Xbox Live's indie offerings, this game is way too tone deaf.