Review: Dub Dash

DubDash_1

Making the jump up from mobile app to full-on Steam PC release, Dub Dash is a rhythm runner-like steeped in funky-fresh dubstep electronic music. The music is great and the visuals pop like a sea of flailing glow sticks at a rave, but due to some unfortunate design choices what starts as a fun experience quickly falls out of tune.

In Dub Dash, your avatar is a futuristic wheel-looking vehicle that automatically rolls full steam ahead along a narrow highway carved into a geometric environment viewed through a sort of spherical, fish-eye distortion. The objective is simply to tap–or tap and hold–left or right on the keyboard to steer the wheel in either direction to avoid spikes and other obstacles in the way, ultimately to survive through the duration of the accompanying music track and reach the exit portal waiting at the end to unlock the next song.

The game consists of only nine main songs, and along the way new gameplay wrinkles are introduced to mix up the beat a bit and constantly keep you on your toes. Each level is divided into sections by portal doorways, and each time passing through a portal generally means there is a new twist to be ready for on the other side. At times the game morphs into a sort of side-scrolling Flappy Bird clone, in which the wheel turns into a spacecraft and you have to fly it through a hazardous corridor by tapping the left or right key at just the right strength to raise elevation and letting go of the keys entirely to let gravity do its thing. In other instances the wheel divides in two and you have to control the two wheels independently in a split-screen view, or the level switches into a 3D maze where you have to time your turns to avoid smacking into a wall. Some of the other changes are a little more subtle, like the camera turning sideways or upside down, forcing you to adjust or outright reverse movement input accordingly, or additional challenges being added like jump pads that can either help launch you over an obstacle or throw you into a spike.

DubDash_3

While the first few levels ease you in at a fun and evenly balanced incline, the difficulty quickly escalates to extreme levels of die-and-retry tedium that loses its balance of skill-based challenge in favor of punishing trial and error, made all the more annoying by a poorly executed checkpoint system. Upon failure, you can restart the track over from the very beginning and attempt to reach the end on a single try (yeah, good luck with that), or you can spend a life to respawn at the most recent checkpoint portal you passed through, saving against the need to do a full restart. Unfortunately, only 15 lives can be stocked at any one time, and the only way to refill the retry pool is to replay random stages in a separate challenge mode. Each time you complete a stage in challenge mode, you gain five lives. But you do have to complete the level–failing during a challenge level means restarting with nothing to show for your effort.

Now 15 lives may sound like a lot, and for the early stages they provide more than enough cushion to progress. However, as the levels grow harder it becomes easy to blow through all 15 lives within a matter of a minute or two while trying to complete an especially tricky section of a track, which means ultimately more time is spent on tedious challenge mode replays to restock lives than on actually advancing through the main level progression of nine songs. Case in point, I’ve played for over four hours, and I’d say that at least half of that time (probably closer to three-quarters) has been spent on refilling lives or playing practice runs to study the trial-and-error patterns before making an official attempt.

DubDash_2

Yes, each track is playable in a practice mode which grants unlimited lives so you can continue endlessly from each advancing checkpoint. But even in practice mode, which replaces the current level’s title track with a generic, looping beat that is the same across all practice levels, some of the latter stages can eat up dozens of attempts, even cracking into the hundreds. Even after completing a practice run and knowing the lay of the land, 15 tries often still isn’t nearly enough to get all the way through a song–and boy is it disheartening to reach the final leg of a track and run out of lives at like 95% completion, only to then have to return to challenge mode, spend half an hour refilling lives, and restart the track again from scratch. The whole process just feels so counterproductive and unnecessarily punishing, especially considering that the challenge mode levels become more and more difficult as the main levels increase in difficulty. Making matters worse, the heavy reliance on die-and-retry challenge means that the game’s excellent electronic music wears out its welcome faster than it should, because it doesn’t matter how cool a particular song is if you have to listen to it through dozens of retries in rapid succession.

The much more entertaining multiplayer mode does nothing but rub your face in how much more fun the game could have been. In multiplayer, two to four players compete in a split-screen race to earn the highest score. Each player’s score steadily increases for as long as they remain alive and is banked at each checkpoint. When a player dies, they are temporarily sidelined until another player reaches the next checkpoint, at which point crashed players are revived and given the opportunity to make a comeback. This is a lot of fun.

DubDash_4

I don’t understand why the same score-based format wasn’t used for the single-player mode. Instead of having a limited number of lives to beat a level, the game would be so much more fun (and replayable) had it utilized a scoring system coupled with unlimited lives, with your final score on a track reflective of the number of lives used during its completion. This would have balanced the game out so much better (unlimited lives don’t make the game easier, as evidenced by how hard it is to finish practice levels), as it would have allowed skilled players to compete for top leaderboard honors (yes, a scoring system would have opened the possibility for leaderboards) while also making it possible for the average player to complete the full level progression at their own pace and then think about replaying levels to up their score. With the way the game is set up now, there is no “easy to learn, hard to master” carrot dangling on the end of a stick to keep you motivated. You aren’t replaying levels to improve your high score but rather simply to survive. Instead of feeling empowered by a sense of accomplishment for finally completing a difficult track, you’ll more likely let out a sigh of relief at just surviving and then immediately dread the thought of having to endure the same process again for the next song, at an even harder challenge to boot.

I’m all for super-challenging games, but in this case a harsh difficulty curve incompatibly coalesces with level design that increasingly relies all too heavily on trial and error pattern memorization over skill and a checkpoint and lives system that only serves to make the game more tedious and frustrating the farther you get. It’s a dubstepping shame, too, because the core gameplay has an interesting variety of mechanics and a smooth, rhythmic flow that feels very satisfying when you get into a groove. The music and visuals also harmonize beautifully to provide a psychedelic dance club vibe that explodes on the screen and through your speakers or headphones. With some tweaks Dub Dash could rock the house, but sadly right now it is way more aggravating than enjoyable.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Snazzy music and visuals
+ Steady evolution of gameplay mechanics through each song
+ Smooth, rhythmic gameplay feel

Cons:
– Replaying challenge mode to refill lives sucks out all of the fun
– Limited lives plus extreme trial and error is not a good combination
– No scoring system or sense of accomplishment

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Steam, also available on Android and iOS
Publisher: Headup Games
Developer: Incodra
Release Date: 2/16/2016
Genre: Rhythm/Runner
Players: 1-4

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam

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!