Review: Chime Sharp

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Six years after the original made its XBLA debut, Chime is back with refined gameplay and a more complete ensemble of features. Unfortunately, a few missed notes prevent the game from maintaining a steady beat.

Mechanically, Chime Sharp functions just like the first game. The gameplay and presentation are highly reminiscent of Lumines–as well as the father of all block puzzlers, Tetris–except here the shaped puzzle pieces are dragged and slotted in wherever you want them to go as opposed to automatically dropping from above while you frantically rush to drop them in the best spot. The objective is to rotate and piece the blocks together on the play grid to form 3×3 quads. Once a quad has been activated, it begins to fill up with a self-contained meter. During this time, the quad can be expanded upon, but once the meter fills it becomes inactive, its score value locks in, and the squares on the grid underneath the quad are colored in. Thus the primary goal is to build a high score while attempting to cover as much of the background grid as possible.

Music plays an integral role in the puzzle dynamic as well. A beatline steadily passes across the grid from left to right, each pass clearing away inactive quads while leaving behind block fragments from outside a quad’s boundaries and adding notes and beats to the music as your coverage percentage increases. Forming multiple quads in succession builds a score multiplier, while leftover fragments gradually decay with each pass of the beatline. After a certain number of passes, old fragments begin to blink, which means on the next pass they will be removed automatically, and your multiplier will be reset. This makes it important to carefully plan block placement to keep fragments from making the board too messy or, better yet, form perfect quads so you don’t have to fuss with any fragments whatsoever.

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Chime Sharp expands upon its sparse predecessor with a deeper roster of modes and songs, as well as a new camera option that displays the play grid on a slant to give the visuals a three-dimensional effect. (Don’t worry, purists, the classic camera is still an option.) Up from only five songs before (the PC version added Portal‘s “Still Alive” as a bonus sixth song), the sequel includes 15 tracks, from artists such as Chipzel, Magic Sword, Chvrches, Message to Bears, Steve Reich, Symbion Project, and others. I don’t find the music to be as nod-your-head catchy as the first game’s tunes, but rather more relaxing in tone, which in combination with the diverse range of soft neon color schemes creates an ideal atmosphere for totally trancing out into a sort of music synthesizing block puzzler dreamscape. Each song has its own color palette, assortment of puzzle shapes, and pacing. Alienware PC users with an AlienFX rig are even treated to a little extra light show with case lighting that changes to coordinate with the different tracks.

Initially, each song can be played in a free practice mode or a standard mode with a two-minute time limit plus the opportunity to earn time bonuses at coverage milestones indicated by a tiered progression bar located across the bottom of the screen. From there, reaching a certain coverage percentage in standard mode unlocks Sharp mode, in which the time limit is replaced by an allotment of 10 lives that are depleted for losing fragments. Beating a song’s Sharp mode then unlocks Strike mode, which has a firm 90-second time clock, a faster beatline, and a lost fragment penalty that erases grid coverage. Challenge mode, naturally, is the ultimate challenge for Chime masters, though I’ve yet to unlock it for any of the tracks to know what it’s all about.

The unlock requirements are kind of a drag to be honest. In my opinion, challenge in a casual puzzle game of this nature should come from mastering the mechanics and replaying to improve high scores (or to move up the rankings on the online leaderboards), not from having to replay a handful of songs over and over again to meet an arbitrary completion percentage in order to be able to proceed. Even though patches have significantly reduced the unlock threshold (from an insane 90% coverage requirement per level/mode at time of launch last week to a more reasonable 40% for unlocking new songs and 60% for new modes), the fact remains that too much grinding is required just to gain access to the vast majority of the game’s content. This won’t be an issue for skilled players, but for casual players just getting into the 40-60% coverage range actually can be a more daunting task than you might think. The mode unlocks I understand, but only having five of the fifteen songs available to start with feels like an unnecessary barrier to enjoying all that the game has to offer.

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For a game that spent over half a year in early access, it’s alarming that there’s still an underlying lack of polish. For one, it’s perplexing that something as basic as an in-game how-to-play guide (something the original game has, by the way) is nowhere to be found. A digital manual has been posted to the game’s Steam page since release, but having it built directly into the interface for in-game reference would be ideal, especially since some of the rules aren’t clearly defined. Of greater concern, the completion tracking doesn’t seem to be working properly for all songs and modes. On a number of occasions, I’ve reached the required coverage percentage to unlock the next song or mode without actually unlocking it. I’ve also encountered a weird issue where I unlocked one of the bonuses in the Extras menu (a brief story telling the history of Chime, its inspiration and development), but upon returning to play the game later it was no longer accessible, and I had to unlock it all over again. Some achievements are not triggering properly either. Little things like that are by no means catastrophic, but they do add hints of frustration and confusion to an experience that you just want to play and chill out with. Post-release patches have addressed a number of other bugs and imbalances, but those I’ve specifically described above are ongoing.

Mouse controls also can be a bit jittery at times. When trying to precisely slot shapes together, on occasion the cursor will sort of slip to the next space over while clicking to place a block, throwing off the formation you were working on. This isn’t an issue playing with a gamepad, but in terms of cursor speed mouse control is faster for a game like this.

Chime Sharp is a great game and a worthwhile sequel, so soothing and addictive, with just the right level of challenge that requires effort and skill without getting so nuts that your mellow becomes harshed. But man, parts of the game still seem unfinished and unnecessarily demanding. The fact that some of the fundamental game systems aren’t operating correctly is a disappointment. If you don’t mind putting up with some early grinding to unlock stuff, Chime Sharp‘s sublime music-puzzle gameplay and relaxing trance vibe stack up against any game in the genre. At the same time, it may be best to wait for some additional patching before going into full-on chillax mode. A demo’s available on Steam, so that’s probably a good place to start.

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Pros:
+ Core puzzle mechanics are easy to learn, hard to master
+ Smooth, chill vibe is addictive and relaxing
+ It’s Chime, but with more songs and modes

Cons:
– Unlock hurdles are more annoying than challenging
– No in-game how-to menu; unlock progression rules are confusing
– Still could use extra overall polish and optimization

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac/Linux
Publisher: Chilled Mouse
Developer: Ste Curran, Twistplay
Release Date: 7/19/2016
Genre: Music/Puzzle
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Chime Sharp is on Steam for $14.99

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!