Review: The Metronomicon

Wherever a monster raises its vicious head, eventually a hero will be along to chop it off. Does every encounter need to be so violent and brutal, though? If we can’t talk to the monsters wouldn’t it be better to just dance them away? The Metronomicon tackles this deeply philosophical question and comes up with an emphatic “yes!”, although the results aren’t quite so pacifistic as one would expect. A band of dance-warriors fresh from the top of their graduating class is setting off across the land to fight the monster raves that have been causing so much chaos, and successfully pulling off a chain of DDR-style moves brings out attacks, magic, healing and all the other RPG abilities that a good party has to draw from. The Metronomicon fuses two distinct genres into a weird and upbeat whole, and while there are a few logistical issues the presentation can’t fix the music and energy make up for it.

The game starts off with the graduation ceremony of a class of four adventurers as they become ready to take on the world. They’re a well-rounded group, with a fighter, healer, magic user, and defender all fully trained and ready to bust out their dancing skills on the battlefield. A fully-voiced cut-scene and brief tutorial later and it’s time to head out to the woods and shut down the first of many out-of-control monster parties through a series of songs and challenges.

As is typical for an RPG, each character has its own skill set, except instead of calling up a menu of options you can have three possible abilities active per character. Each ability is activated by hitting a string of notes scrolling down the screen, and the number of sections of song in a row determines both the activated skill plus its power. The first string of notes has a blue background, which segues into red for the second skill and yellow for the third.  Switch characters in the middle of a section and you activate the skill associated with the last-completed stretch of notes, or clear all three to activate whichever skill you slotted into the most powerful slot.  Once a skill is activated the character goes into a cool-down period, so you can’t just spam the warrior’s attack or healing spells.  You can equip any skill a character knows to any  of the their three slots, but you’ll need to balance out the desire for a big effect against speed of activation.

The track notes are basically DDR, four arrow lanes for up, down, left, and right, and they can be activated either by face buttons or d-pad.  Initially you can use one method or the other but pretty soon it becomes clear you’ll want to use both hands together, as notes drop down in thicker clusters and dual-direction beats become common.  By the time you get to the second boss the levels stop handing out a win just for showing up and begin making you work for progress.  Unless you’re a controller-using DDR vet, of course, in which case you’ll want to bump up the difficulty (available at any time in the level select menu) to switch to Hard.

Unlike its DDR inspiration, however,  The Metronomicon features four note tracks running concurrently for the different skills you’ll want to access, so the shoulder bumpers are used to change which character you’re playing.  The four unique tracks aren’t drastically different from each other but it’s enough that you can’t simply memorize the song and tap your way through it.  Switching from healer to defense will get different notes than going from warrior to berserker, and how long you stay on one character is dependent on how you’ve arranged their abilities and which one you need at the moment.  I found that I tended to start most songs in the same way, but once the fight gets properly started the need for different abilities threw pre-set patterns out the window and changed the gameplay to a more reactive set of tactics.  Memorizing one note track isn’t that tricky, but four is a bit much.  Thankfully The Metronomicon is aware of this and the notes scroll at a speed designed to give you a fair chance to react, rather than pulling out the ultra-maniac note cascades you might have seen in Japanese arcade videos.  It also helps that the hit window is very generous.

When you do miss a note, however, the game is kind enough to activate the last completed chain rather than call it a complete miss.  Working on a skill that requires two note sections to complete and blow it on the second half?  You get the first skill for free, although there’s no promise it will be useful.  Getting a Remove Debuff instead of Heal when everyone’s status is fine isn’t very helpful but at least it keeps the combo alive.  Each character gets a bonus skill that automatically activates after reaching a note chain of a certain size, and there’s no ignoring how useful it is getting a free attack or regeneration spell.  As the game progresses new characters of different classes show up, leading to a party of mixed abilities for any imaginable situation.

There are a few logistical problems with mixing a genre that requires focus with one that uses a lot of information found all over the screen, though.  The note tracks inspire tunnel vision that blots out the rest of the information.  I know the monsters are creative and silly in their design but haven’t got a good look at one in motion yet.  How full is the enemy’s HP bar on the right of the screen?  No idea, just keep pouring damage on and it will go away soon enough.  The same goes for the party HP bar on the left, which is a little more visible thanks to it being right beside a note track, but I got into the habit of blowing off a healing spell on principle rather than when necessary, because that would involve removing focus from the next set of notes scrolling down the page.  Enemies have an elemental affinity displayed above their health bar but it’s easier to just cast whatever magic is in the user’s tier 3 spot than to look away from the notes.  The information is there, but seeing it while working the song never felt practical.

Closing Comments:

The Metronomicon is bright and upbeat fusion of two genres that shouldn’t fit together as well as they do.  There’s a great sense of humor running through the entire game from the character and monster designs, background details, and even item descriptions, and the audio holds up its end with an energetic soundtrack holding a large number of tunes that are fun to tap out attacks to.  The challenge level ramps up at a fair speed, forcing you to get better not by grinding levels on easier monsters but by actually improving your skills.  Your group may get stronger with abilities perfectly placed to maximize damage but it doesn’t do much good unless you can nail multiple note sections in a row to break out the big attacks and activate the passive abilities.  There are even side-quests in the form of extra songs not necessary to beat an area, an arena to earn bonus items and other goodies, and a free play mode separate from the main storyline.  The Metronomicon doesn’t perfectly fuse its genres, stumbling a bit on presenting the information necessary to properly play an RPG while focusing on keeping a note combo alive, but there’s a sense of pure fun running through the entire game that makes it easy to ignore. The monsters are throwing an excellent party out in the wilderness and if they didn’t want a band of heroes to dance their way through then maybe they shouldn’t have pumped out such a great soundtrack.