In a period of time where pretty much any relatively average indie game ports are practically falling from the skies and on into the Xbox Store, it's nice to see that some of the more ingenious titles of the last few years haven't been neglected. Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians is very much one of those ingenious romps, blending puzzles and adventure with music in a way that threatens to produce a massively compelling mix.
The underlying story behind Beatbuddy is that the evil Prince Maestro is trying to get the entire world of Symphonia to follow his tune. To do that, he'll have to pinch all of the land's music to keep to himself first, since he's not all that skilled when it comes to laying down tracks. He's kidnapped the eponymous hero's sisters Melody and Harmony to begin with and naturally, Beatbuddy (with the help of his pal Clef) is out to free them and put a stop to Maestro's plan.
Beatbuddy starts out as a massively intriguing proposition. The game kicks off quietly at first and then gradually, more and more layers of the track that the level is based on are added. If you happen across an enemy or obstacle – such as a Hi-Hat Crab or a path-blocking Snare Stream - they will always either form a part of the music itself or be active on the beat, helping to pull everything together. Some will require you to work with the beat itself in order to progress, with things such as those Snare Streams being impassable unless you match the beat, for example. When you're not controlling Beatbuddy, you're controlling the BubbleBuggy, an underwater vehicle which bounces along with the beat of the music very satisfyingly and which is only able to move faster if you hit the A button on every second beat to activate a dash feature.
Puzzles are generally of the lock-and-key variety, with Beatbuddy not only finding stranded locks to put in place but also being able to occasionally move already active locks around. So, you may need to take a lock piece from an open door (which closes it), move it to a closed door you want to get through in order to open it and then move it back to get back through to where you were. This opens up a whole host of possibilities for some pretty complex puzzles and adds some really nice variety to proceedings. There will undoubtedly be times where you're staring at a puzzle that sprawls throughout multiple screens, thinking that something's amiss as everything you've tried hasn't worked. Then, a second or two later, the solution will hit you like a lightning bolt and you'll be kicking yourself that you didn't think of it sooner. That's one of the hallmarks of top-notch puzzling, right there.
Music is at the core of the game for sure and the initial awe at what the developers have created here – especially with the gorgeous hand-drawn art – will be enough to sell it to most. The problem is that the devices used in the game for puzzles are re-used so many times that you're essentially left doing the same thing over and over again. A plant that bounces you at speed into a destructible wall is aiming the wrong way, so you need to adjust a deflector to fire you in the right direction. A door needs a lock from elsewhere in the level. Some pipes need to be spun around in a particular order to allow you to float through them to wherever you need to get to. You need to hit a "Music Switch" to turn something off or on. It all becomes very by the numbers after the first couple of levels, despite the occasional high point. Not only that, but the way that the puzzles elongate the game play means that with each 30-60 minute level being based on only one tune, it doesn't matter how good the soundtrack is – and it's stellar (no pun intended, Parov) - there will be times where you'll be listening to the same bar of the same song for a dozen minutes at a time.
There's also the lack of any sort of big finish to the levels. In order to vary the music somewhat, you'll be played the parts of the track in different ways as each level goes on. In one section you'll get the melody. In another you'll get the synthesized bass notes and a drum. In a third you'll get that melody back but there will also be some snippets of the lyrics and so on. With the game taking on more of an exploratory bent with multiple paths to follow, the whole idea of the level gradually layering in more and more of the song to the point that the whole thing is blasting out of the speakers at the section's climax just doesn't happen. You could get to a point where you've got the drums and melody playing, only to see the bass introduced and then taken away again when you decide to explore a corridor that the game hasn't deemed to be necessary to the plot, even though the only way to proceed is to head down that corridor and grab a lock. On a few of the levels, you'll find that you barely hear the full song for more than a couple of seconds as a reward for your fifty minutes of play.
Sadly, there are a few bugs to report, too. After completing the third level and ensuring that the game had autosaved, we took a break and exited the game. Coming back to it, we found that the game resumed at the start of level two, losing us about an hour and a half of play. This only happened once, but it was definitely infuriating. Also, that third level features multiple sections where you can escape or get pushed out of the map entirely with no way back, causing you to need to restart from the last checkpoint. There are inconsistencies at times as well. Clef orders you to get into the BubbleBuggy when you need to in order to progress usually, so it was disheartening – albeit not strictly something you could file as a bug, per say - to find a couple of sections that break that trend. A good while was spent trying to get Beatbuddy to swim through sections that absolutely require the vehicle, but which make every indication that you should continue with your futile attempts to beat them without it.
Being a game with such a big focus on music, Beatbuddy's soundtrack is obviously going to be in the spotlight and the development team have come up with the licenced goods. With tracks from La Rochelle, Parov Stelar, Sabrepulse and more – some of which are exclusive to the game - there's a lot to like about the tunes that they've selected here. More than one member of Team pX has nipped in and picked up the soundtrack album, let's put it that way.
Beatbuddy features some initially great and well-executed ideas and as a whole is generally entertaining despite a few annoying bugs and missed steps. The ideas on show are undeniably overused however, meaning that the repetitive nature of things does scuff the polish of an aesthetically pleasing package. This is a way off being number one with a bullet, but it will still provide a few hours of enjoyment if you decide to stick with it.