Music-focused games are a difficult thing to get right. The rhythm game genre has ebbed and flowed over the years, reaching its peak in the early 2010s when everyone and their dog had plastic Guitar Hero instruments strewn across living rooms. Not only does a rhythm game need to have a killer soundtrack, but the player’s inputs also have to feel meaningful, whether it is the satisfying slap on Donkey Konga‘s bongos or the slow build of musical complexity with every pixel struck in Bit Trip. HRDINA, developed by Bartos Studio, gets the first part of the equation right: the background music of HRDINA is outstanding, a chill lounge set that gets more complex as the game progresses. The gameplay, however, is rather clumsy, and a sharp difficulty spike in the game’s second act means few will make it to the end of this experimental music project.
HRDINA is a 2D platformer where the waveforms of the soundtrack make up the shape of the level. Everything in the game world is made of chunky square polygons, from the stick-figure protagonist to the enemies and hazards of the world around them. As the song progresses, the level grows ahead of the player and crumbles behind them, making keeping up with the music an imperative task.
Initially, the game is quite easy, with enemies easily dispatched with a Mario-like bonk to the head or a dash attack from the side. Item boxes dispense further items to aid in gameplay, such as shields, extra lives, keys to unlock new soundtracks, or a crowd of clones to distract enemies. Movement is clumsy, with the player having to clamber awkwardly between lumpy polygonal platforms to progress, but the pace is slow enough ambling along and just enjoying the music is nice early in the game. The life system seems almost seems excessively generous at this point, with the player able to sacrifice a key for six lives or their point total for one.
As the game goes on, however, the speed picks up, and the once easy-to-dispatch enemies are thrown in the player’s face before they have a chance to react. A level where the player is in a bus heightens the clumsiness of the movement, with the vehicle getting stuck on every obstacle. The once reliable item boxes gain a chance creating negative effects such as losing a life, making utilising them a risk.
Worst of all are the boss battles, which highlight every flaw in the game’s control system. The boss battles take place with the player placed upon a tiny platform, the boss looming threateningly above them. The attack button dashes the player a long way to the left or the right, making falling off the stage and losing a life all too easy. The Mario-jump does not work on bosses either, requiring some extremely fancy footwork to survive. I did manage to defeat the enemy-spewing eye boss eventually, but after butting my head against the following level which uses copious amounts of lens flare to heighten the already ridiculous difficulty, I was out.
The sharp spike in difficulty is a real shame, because I think the game worked really well as a chill way to enjoy the album. If HRDINA wants to go for a more challenging experience, it needs more consistency and tighter controls. Bit Trip Runner is the perfect example of this: the levels are extremely difficult right from the start, but every obstacle and enemy is in the same place on every attempt, allowing for lots of trial and error before the level is beaten. The problem with HRDINA‘s harder levels is that it is difficult due to poor controls, rather than clever level design. When I did complete one of the tougher levels, it felt more down to luck than skill. Guitar Hero games have five difficulty levels for a reason—you do not get to playing DragonForce on Expert in one day.
The story of HRDINA is a bit of a mystery to the English speaking player since the lyrics are all in Czech, the only clues to the plot being the short statements the protagonist makes and the changes of the level backgrounds. The little pixel person is unhappy where they are, and is trying to escape to a better place. I would have liked a subtitle translation of the lyrics, since they are clearly important to the story. Perhaps alternative translations could be provided as an extra in the bonus menu, since full subtitles in a platformer could be distracting.
One does not need to understand the language to enjoy the music, however. Performed by the Czech band Zrní, most tracks feature a talented male vocalist accompanied by classical guitar, with drums and violins kicking in on later levels to heighten the emotion. This style of music is rarely seen in video games, and I think it works really well. The full album is available as paid DLC, and I think this is a really interesting way to promote a band to people who would never have heard of them otherwise.
HRDINA suffers from inconsistency in its execution, but I think it is worth checking out nonetheless. In the early levels where the controls are less frustrating, the chill ambience of playing along with excellent music is a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Next week, we will be taking a look at Under What?, a colourful interactive comic. The game can be found on Steam here. You can get in touch with your thoughts via Facebook, Twitter, or through our community Discord server, or you can email me here.