Review: MTV/Harmonix Phase
There is a difference, albeit a subtle one, between "rhythm" and "timing" games: a rhythm game challenges you to push buttons to match the drumbeats or other instruments in a currently playing song, while a timing game's button presses aren't based upon music. This difference has just been blurred by MTV Networks' Phase ($5), a new iPod game developed by Harmonix, makers of game console rhythm titles such as Guitar Hero, Frequency, and Amplitude.
Like these earlier titles, Phase uses the metaphor of a 3-D road to represent an individual song. While a track is playing, discs and dots appear on the road in a manner that vaguely tracks with the song, floating towards you from a horizon line in the distance. When a disc is on the cusp of floating off the bottom of the screen, you tap the Click Wheel’s left, center, or right button to grab it, while dots appear in “flowing sweeps” that instead must be grabbed by sweeping your finger over the Click Wheel’s touch surface in the same direction as the dots are moving from left to right. Switching between tapping for the discs and sweeping for the dots is the game’s single biggest challenge on its medium or easy difficulty levels.
Not surprisingly, the more discs and dots you catch, the better you do, and the better your chance of making it through each of the checkpoints in a given song/level. Make it through all of the checkpoints and you win the level.
The novelty factor here is that Phase carries the tagline, “your music is the game,” and creates levels—sort of—based upon music from your iTunes 7.5 (or later) library. When you download Phase, iTunes creates an empty Phase Music playlist; you select a bunch of tracks, drop them in, and let iTunes quickly analyze each to create a unique Phase level. Install Phase on your iPod 5G, classic, or nano 3G, and you can choose from a list of free, included tracks from indie bands, or use a simplified iPod-style menu to use tracks from your own library. Though none of the included music is a big deal by comparison with the licensed tracks that now accompany console games, Harmonix deserves a lot of credit for both packing in music, and trying to find a way to do something with what’s already in your library.
It’s hard to say what exactly Phase does with your tracks, though. The number of checkpoints in a level depends on the length of the current track, and the number of dots and discs appears to vary based on elements Phase has detected in the song. During some songs, the objects appear at times and in an order that makes you think you’re following a rhythm, while in other songs, the patterns seem all but randomly generated, hence the blurring of “rhythm” and “timing” noted at the start of this review. On balance, we’d call Phase a timing game in that button presses are based more on what’s happening on screen than what’s in your music, but there are times when you’ll think the synergy’s better than that; turning on Hard mode, with its insane number of beats, will scotch any such feeling.
The bigger questions are whether Phase is fun and how it looks and feels for the asking price. Simply put, it’s above average, but not great. Harmonix uses simple cartoony artwork for its backgrounds, side of the road graphics, discs and dots; fans of the rhythm game genre may recognize the look as similar to the 11-year-old game Parappa the Rapper, only dumbed down a lot for the iPod’s screen. The graphics change between levels, but never become memorable; at best, the art is functionally fun.
So is the gameplay. Having to match the on-screen button commands is as easy or as hard as you set in the difficulty profile before you start, and the marathon mode is little more than the single-song mode with five songs to go through in a row. There’s no apparent higher purpose or reward than accumulating points for successful completion. And while Phase and iTunes go some ways towards creating new levels from your music, it goes without saying that the levels would be better if they were—in keeping with earlier Harmonix titles—more fine-tuned to the rhythms of the audio that’s playing.
Though Phase would typically earn our flat B, general recommendation on the strength of its graphics and gameplay, the game’s rating is boosted to a B+ by its inclusion of a legitimate soundtrack and the ability to use your own tracks in a meaningful, if not completely ideal way. If you want a way to more actively pass the time while listening to your iPod’s music, Phase is a very good option.