Somewhere between Elite Beat Agents and Pikmin rests Orgarhythm, a hybrid of the rhythm and real-time strategy (RTS) genres. They may sound like an extremely unlikely pairing, but these genres actually work quite well together. Orgarhythm is more than a RTS game with a cool soundtrack or a rhythm game where characters perform attack animations (e.g. Theatrhythm). Developers Acquire and Neilo focused on what the two genres have in common and fused them together. The resulting amalgam is entirely unique, though there are several serious drawbacks that taint the experience. After playing the game long enough, it becomes far too inaccessible and unforgiving.
Orgarhythm’s story is brief and easy to miss. It’s available on the game’s website or in the manual. Basically, two godly brothers split themselves between the surface and subterranean realms of a planet. The underground god focuses his destructive energies and creates followers who consume the planet’s energy. They begin to spill onto the surface and start to destroy it as well. The surface god — who constructed his followers from creativity — rises to the challenge, seeking to dispatch his brother’s destructive minions.
A tutorial is available to guide players through the basics. During gameplay, there will always be a song playing. The idea is to issue commands in time with the music. Think of it as a battle chant. The center of the screen flashes in time with the song’s beat to help players get a feel for the rhythm. Upon tapping once, four circles appear around the center. At the left and right sides and below the center are yellow, blue and red circles. Each one corresponds to a type of warrior: earth, water and fire respectively. The fourth circle above the center is white and represents support actions the god can take directly. After tapping on one of the colored circles, four more appear. These new circles represent the types of warriors the god can call forth.
There are strike, archer, catapult and sacrifice troops available. Strike troops are the basic units and attack quickly, but they have to meet their opponents face-to-face. Archers attack more slowly. In return, they can attack enemies behind cover. Certain enemies may rest on higher elevations and remain out of reach even for the archers. In these cases, catapults can be called forth to attack any elevation. The fourth type, sacrifice troops, remain stationary until they meet an enemy. They explode doing great damage but consume the unit in the process.
The process of selecting and deploying troops requires three taps, and the game refers to this as “tri-tapping.” After tri-tapping to selecting the unit’s elemental property and attack type, players swipe on the screen to determine the placement and amount of troops to deploy. A line of corresponding color appears, signifying a destination for the warriors.
Support abilities work similarly, though they do consume a support gauge to use. The gauge can be filled by defeating enemy units or losing friendly ones. Like with warrior selection, there are four main support abilities. The god can heal himself and his troops, slow enemy troops, improve his troops’ attacks, or bolster their defenses. Each ability consumes one-third of the support gauge by default, plus there is a fifth ability that requires a full gauge. The final ability damages enemy troops while healing friendly ones.
Not only must players deploy troops and support them, they must also keep a beat. Orgarhythm’s greatest triumph is how seamlessly the music and combat intertwine. The beat is always pulsing, and every tap should correspond with the rhythm. A successful tri-tap can create new warriors. The player starts each level with four of each type, and this can be increased to a maximum of 16 of each. Successful tri-taps also increase the warriors’ level — up to level five — and grants them improved strength. With each new level, the song also expands and grows, adding new instruments and patterns. This is merely cosmetic, but it definitely adds to the experience. As the god’s warriors gain strength, the music often evolves into an appropriately grandiose maelstrom.
This aural storm can be quieted just as quickly as it rose. Like many rhythm games, every tap in Orgarhythm receives a “grade.” The game keeps it fairly simple, with only four such grades. “Excellent,” “Cool” and “Good” grades will increase or maintain the power. A “Bad” grade at any point in the tri-tap will decrease the troops’ level by one and reset the score combo.
With the basics covered, let’s look at the gameplay. Orgarhythm is composed of 12 stages. Each stage has two songs, one for the normal level and one for the boss at the end. In this way, Orgarhythm also has a lot in common with arcade-style shooters like R-Type and Dragon Spirit. This feeling is furthered by the god’s constant march. The screen scrolls continually as the god and his minions walk without rest. Like the shooters of old, the scrolling ceases when the player reaches a boss. The music changes to something fitting, but it’s not simply about atmosphere. The tempo changes too, setting a new pace for the impending battle.
So far, I have done nothing but praise Orgarhythm for its fresh ideas. The unfortunate reality of Orgarhythm is that it does possess a fairly limited appeal, but not because of the mixed genres. It could certainly appeal to those who don’t care for RTS or rhythm games. No, Orgarhythm flounders on a few key fundamentals that do mar the experience, the most significant of which is difficulty. Particularly, the bosses start to become excessively challenging.
In my first encounter with the eighth boss, he destroyed my character in no time at all. Prior to this, the bosses had identifiable patterns and weakness. The eighth boss simply whirled about the area, raining fire on my god and his troops. Most bosses cycle through colors, noticeably changing strengths and weaknesses. The eighth boss does not appear to do this. He just likes slaughter. After a few tries, I was able to muscle through the eighth boss by using support abilities. Things ran fairly smoothly for the next two stages, but then came the 11th boss.
Attacking Orgarhythm’s 11th boss resulted in countless failures. Try as I might, no amount of strategy tweaking or support ability spamming could push me through this one. It could be argued that the stage should be difficult, especially since it’s the second-to-last one. I agree with this sentiment, but the 11th boss is difficult in all the wrong ways. Even on the easiest difficulty, this level remains impassable. Though they are very different, Guitar Hero and Rock Band allow players to practice difficult sections of songs. There are no checkpoints in Orgarhythm, so losing to a boss means starting a level over from the beginning. In repeating the 11th level over and over, Orgarhythm began to reveal all of its ugly flaws. These flaws, though more noticeable in the endgame, pervade throughout the entire experience.
With the potential to command up to 48 units at once, attacking any number of enemy units, the action on-screen can be frantic. Though their designs are different, their coloring is identical and the friendly warriors and enemies are easy to confuse. On many occasions, my god’s health would begin decreasing without warning. It wasn’t until closer examination that I could find enemy units who had wormed their way in between my troops and could sort of blend in. Launching a counterattack to remedy this can be frustrating. Since it’s important to keep the beat, it may take a few moments to get the timing right before launching through the tri-tap process. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to just tap constantly to keep the rhythm. Personally, the act of swiping to deploy troops almost always threw my rhythm off. Furthermore, there is always a delay as the units to run over to their deployment location. With the rate enemy troops close in and the sluggishness with which friendlies respond, deployment almost needs to be predictive rather than reactionary.
Even with excellent deployment, friendly troops can behave moronically. There are countless situations in Orgarhythm where enemy archers appear behind barriers. Logic dictates using friendly archers here to attack at a distance. Deploy the archers too far away, and they may attack another group of enemies running by. Send them too close to the enemy archers, and they may just run up against the barrier endlessly. They’ll never stop to attack, returning to the god having accomplished nothing. The friendly troops are usually so set on reaching the deployment line that they’ll often run right by any enemy troops closing in on the god. It got to the point where I mainly just deployed archers because — if they ran behind enemies — at least they could at least turn around and shoot.
Though I couldn’t finish the game on the casual difficulty, I decided to try the other two difficulties as well. In a Rhythm game like Guitar Hero or Rockband, it is often possible to move to the easier songs on a higher difficulty and feel some sort of progress. For example, maybe the last set of songs is too tough on hard, but I could restart the journey on expert and still feel myself improving. Orgarhythm is without this luxury. The other two difficulties are even less forgiving than casual, and do not seem to teach new skills in the same way other rhythm games’ multiple difficulties can.
Normal difficulty is available on any level by default. Clearing a level on normal unlocks the hard difficulty for that particular stage. On casual, players can simply re-deploy their troops if they deploy too many, put them in the wrong place, or create the wrong kind. With normal and hard, the troops must stay deployed for a set amount of time before they can be used again. They can be recalled prematurely by tapping the back touch pad four times, but this decreases the troop level by one every time it’s used.
It’s tough to recommend Orgarhythm for a number of reasons. Even on casual difficulty, it will be a difficult task to clear all of the levels. There is no demo currently available, so players will have to jump in blindly — a significant thing to ask with the game’s $30 price tag. What’s more, Orgarhythm is only available as a download. There are no returns or trade-ins if the game is too tough. Orgarhythm has co-op and versus multiplayer modes, which could extend the replay for some. Unfortunately these are restricted to local, ad-hoc matches only, and I was unable to test them.
All of the game’s flaws compile and add up over time, which is definitely a shame. Though it begins as truly innovative experience, Orgarhythm turns completely sour in — almost literally — its 11th hour.