Review: PixelJunk 4am

PixelJunk4am

Driving home from work the other night, I saw a bumper sticker on a nearby car that said, “When words fail, music won’t.”  At first that bumper sticker struck me as something akin to one of those bland, generic “Proud Parent of an Honor Student” stickers that every school seems to give out these days, boosting esteem for parents and kids that may not have really done much of anything to earn such an “honor.”  I was ready to write off the statement and continue my drive home, but the simple phrase wouldn’t leave my head.  It kept rattling around.  Music won’t fail.  Fail what, I thought?

While I can’t pretend to be a music scholar by any stretch, I have intentionally exposed myself to music from all around the world throughout the years just to prove to myself that the the typical dreck that is beamed over the airwaves here in America isn’t necessarily the absolute resting place that musicians and artists have devolved into.  Sure, there is probably some technical merit that can be awarded to some pop music and musicians, but listening to more than just pop is something that can awaken parts of the brain that may have not been challenged by the spark of creativity for many years.

Think about it.  Why is classical music still being performed live everyday around the world?  Soaking in the complexities of sound woven together while a conductor leads musicians through subtle nuance to brash bravado, our brains enjoy the challenge of hearing all types of sound and putting memories or feelings to each unique instrument and measured beat.  While not all music lovers will admit to enjoying or understanding every genre that musicians can offer up, time and again I’m reminded of footage from concerts of all types, where the camera pans through the crowd and you can see how the performance is touching and moving people in so many different ways.  Some folks close their eyes and let the music wash over them.  Others quietly bop their heads to the beat.  While others put their full bodies into the music and dance and cavort, or mimic the conductor.  Young or old, music doesn’t fail.

So what if someone made it possible to create your own sounds, your own music simply by flicking your wrist?  Q-Games has long been a champion of unique visual and audio experiences with the PixelJunk series of games.  PixelJunk 4am is the studio’s latest title for the PlayStation 3, combining the simplicity of using the Move to tweak and control music while producing some of the most fantastic visualizations that react in time to the music.  As the game opened, I was again struck by a notion similar to the aforementioned bumper sticker.  The opening credits state, “Art music collaboration by Baiyon.”  Art music.  In every sense of those two words, that is what 4am embodies.  Music is art and the art in 4am is created by the ever-changing moods and modes of the music composed by you, the player.

The setup is simple.  Each of the four face buttons represent a different color on the Move.  Holding down the T button while bringing the Move controller down and across from right to left starts a loop for which every instrument is lit up.  Holding the Move button and twisting the Move right or left changes the tone and intensity of that loop.  Swing the Move left, right, up or down, and additional sounds from that musical instrument briefly play.  Hold the T button when swinging to add that particular sound into the loop.  Holding down the Move button and pulling the Move further away from the PlayStation Eye (or moving it closer) changes the sound in yet another way.  Mix it up by pressing one of the other face buttons, and very quickly the sound field changes.  All the while the music is changing, so too are the visual motifs.  Pulsing colors, dripping splotches, swaying strings, the music and the visuals weave around and into each other for some amazing results.

One of the other great things about 4am is how easy it is to adjust or re-calibrate the Move controller. The game assumes that players are standing and in front of them is an imaginary circle. By keeping the Move within the bounds of the circle, nothing happens. Crossing the top or bottom, left or right of the circle is what produces the various sounds available from within each color of the Move. Bringing up the menu to change the effective area of the circle allows players to not have to reach so far to adjust or add sounds and loops to the music in progress. Changing the size of the circle also allows for players to sit and use the Move without worry. Of course, you might be wondering, why would you want to sit while being a virtual DJ for viewers across the globe? That’s the beauty of 4am. Halfway through a set, if I want to bring down the pace and mellow out for a bit, I can adjust the window in which the Move and the game responds and just chill for a bit.

In addition to being the music creator and a standalone visualizer for your personal PS3 music library, PixelJunk 4am goes one step further by broadcasting your performance to any and all who are currently playing the game around the globe. (Q-Games has even made the live viewer available to all for free.)  Viewers of my music show up briefly on the bottom left corner of the screen.  If they like my performance they can give a kudos by shaking their Move controller.  Getting kudos is one of the subtle hooks that kept me performing. I’ll admit that at times my music has come off like Jackson Pollock took all of the music and just poured it onto the canvas at once, but part of that is why 4am is titled as such.  Chaos and calm collide. At 4am I would expect to be asleep, but some nights sleep doesn’t happen and crazy thoughts and stress keep looping in my head.  The calm of sleep is pushed aside by thoughts that just won’t subside.  Kudos for chaos, and kudos for calm, and kudos for bringing the funk. I’ll admit that 4am leans a bit more on trance and electronic sounds over “pop” or classical, but in the real world being awake at 4am, the brain doesn’t necessarily respond or react to those styles of music.

PixelJunk 4am is proof that music doesn’t fail.  Okay, so I’m being a bit navel gazey here, but I can’t think of a time in my life where music hasn’t lifted my spirits or darkened my mood simply through the emotions and memories that familiar sounds trigger.  Being able to create my own loops and explore the medium just by flicking my hand is pretty powerful stuff. 4am offers players a chance to make music and to watch others make their own music in a truly innovative way.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Quick and easy tool to make your own music
+ Mesmerizing visualizations
+ Live online viewing allows you to watch and be watched while music is created
+ Can be played standing or sitting

Cons:
– Sometimes getting out of a brash cacophony of sound is not as easy as it should be
– Music is mostly focused on techno/trance

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 via PSN (Requires PlayStation Move)
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Q-Games
Release Date: 5/15/2012
Genre: Music
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-2
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.