Making music is hard. Ask any budding music producer and they’ll tell you that learning the intricacies of Reason is more challenging than trying to platinum Dark Souls while blindfolded. PixelJunk 4am, the new downloadable title from PSN stalwarts Q-Games, attempts to erode that learning curve by transforming the PlayStation Move motion controller into Lady Gaga’s infamous disco stick. But does it achieve its lofty ambitions?
Yes, to an extent. Making music in PixelJunk 4am feels delightfully freeform, with no rules or objectives restricting your creativity. Of course, that also represents the game’s main caveat, as those in pursuit of score multipliers and leaderboards will be baffled by 4am’s avant-garde approach to gameplay.
But it would be unfair to criticise the title for being something it’s not, and thus PixelJunk 4am is an intriguing package. Using the PlayStation Move to pull samples from the space immediately around you is one of the most satisfying implementations of the controller yet, with the tactile response of the device really accentuating its advantages compared to Kinect, for instance.
Actual music creation is limited, but dense enough for casual producers. Each set is arranged into tracks consisting of different loops. Tapping each of Move’s face buttons allows you to switch between different musical elements, including drums, rhythm, bass and synth. While the game doesn’t include a traditional user interface or HUD, it provides much of its feedback through the controller itself. Switching between the aforementioned tracks changes the colour of the device’s orb, communicating necessary information in an innovative way.
Once you’ve settled on a track, you can pull loops onto the stage. Each track has four different loops, which are located in the space around you. The best way to explain is to imagine there’s a square directly in front of you – each corner of the square contains a different sample. The controller will rumble to notify you that a loop is nearby, allowing you to grab it with the trigger and drop it onto the soundstage. The speed with which you release the trigger will adapt the amount of fade applied to the loop as it joins the rest of the mix.
You can then apply a number of effects to the loop in order to make it your own. Holding the Move button unlocks the effects palette, allowing you to shape the sound by moving the controller in different directions. Pushing towards the screen adds reverb, while twisting the controller allows you to experiment with EQ filters. Pushing up tweaks the sound’s pitch, while side-to-side adds delay effects. The gestures have been really well thought out, and actually make logical sense. Reverb, for example, provides a method of moving a sound deeper into the overall mix, so pushing towards the screen feels extremely intuitive. Meanwhile, actually moving the controller to have an impact on the sound is super rewarding. Even accomplished music producers will get a thrill out of using the device to adapt the music, as it offers a much more involving experience than twiddling knobs or playing with faders.
All of PixelJunk 4am’s music is beat matched and pre-mixed, meaning you can have a reasonable tune playing within minutes. You don’t need to know anything about keys or scales, and while that limits the potential of what’s possible for hardcore players, it also significantly lowers the barrier of entry for casual musicians.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t provide plenty of creative options for more experienced users too, though. Throwing the controller downwards, upwards or from side-to-side allows you to trigger one-shots, which change depending on the current track you’ve got selected. One-shots include short audio motifs, or beats, which allow you to add texture to the pre-recorded melodies. Brilliantly, you can loop these one-shots by holding the trigger as you perform, allowing you to build up your own samples on top of the pre-recorded ones. Building your own soundscapes before introducing any of the pre-recorded loops is challenging, but one of the most endearing elements of the game, and with practice even the most casual of musicians will be able to achieve this.
What’s particularly neat is that you can record a one-shot (a bass drum for example) and then layer a completely different sound on top. The loop keeps playing as you perform, allowing you to slowly build it up over time. It’s hugely reminiscent of the performing style of solo artists such as Imogen Heap.
You can also record effect patterns on top of the samples. For example, if you want to create the illusion of a pulsing side-chain on your bass track, you might want to record filter effects in time to the beat. To do this, you hold the trigger and Move button simultaneously, and then twist the controller in time to the music. Release the trigger, and the game will remember your inputs and apply the required effects in a looped sequence. Again, it’s super satisfying.
Unfortunately, keeping control of all these elements can be hard. As you start to build up your track with effect patterns and loops, it can be difficult getting them all to work in the way you want. This is one area where the game’s lack of HUD lets it down, with multiple complex button presses required to keep you in control of the action. It gets more complicated than advanced Marvel vs. Capcom combos at times, and while the game includes all the commands you need, using them becomes a test of dexterity. There’s a reason faders are used on mixing desks, and PixelJunk 4am’s double-taps just don’t cut it when you’re performing live and need to match the timing of the music.
Still, with a good range of songs and samples, there’s plenty of opportunity to get creative. Of course, no matter how much you manipulate your sounds with effects, your music is going to sound largely similar to the original creative vision – but that’s just a restriction of using looped samples in general. Short of pulling out a keyboard and programming the synthesizer for yourself, you’re not going to get much more individuality out of the audio.
One way the game does enhance your creative range is by allowing you to play with two Move controllers. This is pitched as a co-op feature, but for hardcore musicians it really is the only way to play. By using both controllers you can manipulate different tracks at the same time, as well as hit one-shots in much quicker succession. Building up drum rolls with two controllers is outstanding fun, not to mention it simply feels cool dual wielding two wands.
As you perform, your music will be broadcast to other users on the PlayStation Network to listen to. Brilliantly, Q-Games has made this component of the experience free for players to download, so your potential audience is not limited to other performers. Building up a crowd is one of the most fascinating and rewarding elements of 4am, and it’s enhanced by the fact that listeners can give feedback (or kudos) to let you know they like what they’re hearing. Receiving kudos is one of the most empowering feelings on PS3, and it encourages you to make every minute of your set as good as possible.
Unfortunately, the loops themselves are a bit of letdown. Q-Games has teamed up with media mogul Baiyon once again for PixelJunk 4am, and his output is destined to prove divisive. The problem with 4am’s music is that it tends to rely on texture, rather than strong melodies. Sure, it’s chilled out and it suits the mood of the game well, but it’s just not going to appeal to everyone’s personal taste. That’s not to say there aren’t some good sounds in there, but when you’re working with loops, the quality of the material has to be exceptional at all times, and sadly it’s not.
It doesn’t help that the game doesn’t communicate how to unlock new sets either. Presumably Q-Games didn’t want to detract from the freeform nature of the experience, and that’s admirable, but it’s a bit frustrating not knowing what you need to do in order to unlock new songs and samples.
Thankfully, the visualisers themselves don’t disappoint. These are what occur on-screen while you’re playing 4am, and they really suit the game’s laidback vibe. Cleverly, the game also works as a music visualiser, allowing you to play the audio stored on your PS3’s hard-drive through the game and enjoy the graphical effects. If you’re getting tired of the console’s pre-packaged visualisers, then 4am might be worth the price of admission for that feature alone.
PixelJunk 4am is a really ambitious package that provides some of the best implementation of the PlayStation Move controller to date. Those with a passing interest in music production will get a lot of entertainment, but it’s important to note that the unrestricted design makes it more of a tool than a game. Some control niggles limit what is feasibly possible, and the quality of the samples isn’t always great, but the ability to perform live over the PlayStation Network is one of the most exhilarating and innovative ideas to grace the platform in years.