Review | Chime Sharp
I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for music puzzle games. When the Playstation Portable came out in North America in 2005, I wanted the system to play one game: Lumines. It felt like Tetris set to music, and the reward of the music responding to my plays just did something phenomenal to me. I missed the Xbox Live release of the original Chime to scratch that music-puzzler itch, but one of the original creators of Chime, Ste Curran, worked alongside Chilled Mouse to release Chime Sharp, a refined and expanded version of the original. The gameplay is quite similar to the original, but features new gameplay modes and a more extensive tracklist, offering 15 songs from various genres. Chime Sharp is still a work in progress and bug fixes are in the works, but the core game is immensely enjoyable and, dare I say it, “sharp.”
Each level in Chime Sharp takes place on an open grid of squares: your objective is to paint that grid a different color by creating quads: solid blocks that are at least 3×3. Of course, the pieces provided to make those quads aren’t nearly as clean as even traditional Tetris pieces: 5 units in size, you must combine crosses, L-shapes, S-curves, and more to cover the board as cleanly as possible. A terminator line runs across the board in time with the music: once the line runs across a piece you’ve finished building, that quad disappears, opening up more space to work. Unlike Lumines or Tetris though, pieces don’t scroll from the top of the screen to the bottom: you can rotate and position pieces wherever you see fit.
In traditional mode, you only have two minutes to clear the board: every 10 percent of the board you clear gives you bonus time to keep working. Perfect quads, blocks formed using a exact hybrid of pieces, give bonus points and give you the best chance of covering the board completely. Leave stubbly pieces hanging off of the edges of your quads though, and they’ll start to flash as a warning that your combo and score multiplier are about to disappear. Balancing the speed requirement of board painting with the efficiency needed for high scores takes serious practice…though I’m not there yet, I still have a blast trying. Chime Sharp also features two new gameplay modes: Sharp mode, where players have unlimited time, but a set number of lives that decline with every stubble piece left behind, and Strike Mode, which features a 90-second time limit and harsher penalties for missteps. There’s also a Challenge Mode out there for each song…I can’t unlock it myself, but I’m sure it’s difficult. In fact, Chime Sharp’s battle with balance and difficulty is one of the few low points the game offers.
Chime Sharp released in mid-July, and its initial release was staggeringly difficult for me. As much as I enjoyed dropping blocks on the grid and listening to the music, that was practically all I could do. The game came with no documentation on how to play, unlocks of new music were stuck behind 90% completion walls, and there was no fathoming completely clearing a grid to access Sharp or Strike mode (my highest completion right now is ~76%). Since the game’s initial release though, Curran and the Chilled Mouse team have scrambled to tweak the game’s formula and make the content more accessible to new players. Now, Sharp Mode play unlocks at 40% completion, Strike Mode at 60%, and opening up the game’s 15 tracks is much easier on the psyche.
Still, even with those adjustments, I still feel like much of Chime Sharp is simply out of my reach, and I’m not sure what to do about it. With no tutorial, and only a brief, abbreviated gameplay guide packaged with the game, success depends on doing some homework: looking up guides/forum threads, watching recordings of gameplay, etc. I’m waiting to break through the performance wall like I did with Tetris to become semi-proficient, but thankfully the music leaves me with plenty to enjoy aside from high scores.
Chime Sharp’s soundtrack is the heart of the game, and that heart is a strong heart indeed. The 15-track list calls in artists like Chipzel, Chvrches, Music for Bears, Magic Sword, and more. This gives the game a broad range of feelings and tempos, with track genres ranging from classical-style instrumentals to chiptune, and moods that fit whatever you’re interested in puzzling to. Broadening the reach from the original Chime’s six tracks. Curran himself took the responsibility of putting together the playlist, purposefully reaching out to many artists with diverse styles to showcase just how far Chime Sharp’s gameplay could stretch.
During gameplay, as the terminator line runs over the quads players place on the board, the music lights up and responds in kind. Certain effects in the song or vocal queues trigger based on where you drop quads on the board, and the song progresses based on the percentage of the board covered. Even though you’re not “making music” exactly, this relationship is interactive, personal, and is prone to cause uncontrollable smiling. Thankfully, for people who just want to enjoy the music and interactivity, each song offers a practice mode as well; though the pressure may be too much for some in Standard or Strike mode, Practice provides a chance to breathe and simply enjoy the beauty of the game.
Though Chime Sharp is fully-released, it definitely still needs tweaking before Chilled Mouse can call it complete. Some bugs are still floating around in the game here and there, and some may even crash the game or prevent loading. Still, those bugs are increasingly rare as the team patches and updates the game. When the game gets flowing, Chime Sharp is the music puzzle game I didn’t know I was looking for. I’m looking forward to potential downloadable content to see what other styles of music Ste Curran would apply the Chime Sharp formula to; even at its hardest, there are plenty of moments where playing feels like making magic.