Those familiar with the DJ Max series back in the PlayStation Portable era will immediately recognise this rhythm game. Superbeat: Xonic is the newest addition to the rhythm game genre by developer Nurijoy. Rhythm games are no stranger to the PlayStation Vita, so how does this one fare?
As with most music games, buttons get mapped to a section of the screen, this time known as a trax. Notes start in the centre and expand to these trax where you must hit the corresponding button at the right time. While it's not all that complicated in theory, the difficulty escalates rather quickly as different note types and the number of trax increases.
In addition to pushing buttons, the analogue sticks are also heavily used in this title; yellow notes with arrow directions indicate that the stick must be swiped or held in said direction. Combining these notes with the buttons is probably the most challenging element to get used to in the entire game.
The tutorial shoves all of these concepts in your face rather quickly, so it might be best to play it multiple times – there's even a trophy for it. There are single notes, hold notes, stick notes, and trigger notes, but the arcade mode does a good job at splitting each of these up by difficulty. Each individual song also has a difficulty rating to help ease you into the experience, and the song speed can also be sped up or slowed down in real time at any point in a song.
That all sounds pretty scary, but luckily, it's not a punishing game – in order to fail a song, you'll need to miss many notes, often in a row. Every time that you miss a note, the 'life bar' decreases, but hitting a note will refill the bar fairly quickly. As long as you can hit some of the notes frequently, you'll usually be able to stay 'alive' long enough to finish a song. Even if you're rewarded with a low rank, it offers the ability to learn songs in arcade mode without putting much stress on a perfect performance.
While you can certainly play by tapping the touch screen, it feels as if the game was truly designed with buttons in mind. Some of the latter difficulty songs require an already insane level of dexterity and speed to complete with buttons. Trying to accomplish those feats with the touchscreen would be nothing short of amazing.
This may sound like good news for PlayStation TV owners, but other issues linger. In order to change DJ Icon, NOTES, or song parameters, you'll need to either use the Vita's touchscreen or the PlayStation TV's virtual touch controls – yuck. Since these aren't often used, it's not a huge deal, but fiddling with the onscreen touch icons to change a song modifier gets old real fast.
The majority of gameplay is found within the aforementioned arcade mode. Here, you can select between 4 trax, 6 trax, 6 trax FX, and freestyle, with the latter letting you play as many songs as you'd like in any order and difficultly. Each of the trax modes contains a set of three different stages – or songs – to complete, and you'll pick a song from a set list each stage. If you complete the stage, you'll be given a letter grade, move on to the next stage, and then the total score is ranked on the final stage according to your performance on all three songs – it's a simple and quick mode that's great for short sessions.
As you can probably guess, 4 trax is perfect for beginners, but if you're looking for a challenge, 6 trax is where it's at. Like the name suggests, you'll have to follow six different trax each mapped to a single button. While adding two extra trax doesn't sound all that complicated, it takes a fast, trained eye to distinguish which notes go where as well as being able to quickly dance around the expanded button set. Since difficulty is based on songs, some players may even decide to start on this mode first in order to build that muscle memory needed for later songs.
Once you reach a certain level, 6 trax FX is unlocked, and while this only adds the trigger buttons to the mix, developer Nurijoy really knew what it was doing by making this an ultimate difficulty mode. Being able to differentiate the trigger presses with the rest of the complex notes is easy, but getting the muscle memory down for the fast pace songs requires true dedication. Combining trigger holds with normal notes, holds, and stick notes is far more intimidating than you'd perhaps expect.
Once you've mastered the controls, you'll find a greater challenge within World Tour mode. Here, instead of just finishing a song, you'll have to complete certain goals and challenges along the way. For example, you might need to get an 80 combo in a three song set in order to pass the challenge. The first few are deceivingly simple, but later challenges will be a true test of your rhythm game prowess. Getting through a four song, 6 trax setlist without missing a note with added additional modifiers that remove your HUD or the notes themselves can be extremely frustrating on a hardware-throwing scale.
Wait, modifiers? That's right – as if this game wasn't already difficult enough, you can also opt to use song modifiers to increase the challenge. There are three small boxes at the top right of the stage select screen that you can tweak, which adjust the timing and visible duration of the notes on the screen. You can toggle the HUD, make notes fade in or out, or even disable the visible note icons all together with these modifiers. Unfortunately, the game does a terrible job of describing each. It takes a bit of trial and error to figure out what each modifier does, but considering the difficulty of this title already, they'll probably be ignored by most players anyway.
As you play any of these modes, you'll earn experience used to level up. By levelling up, you'll unlock new songs, new missions in World Tour, new DJ Icons, and new keynote sounds. Different DJ icons will offer varying beneficial effects such as 100 per cent more life, a 10 hit shield, or an experience boost. Depending on the situation and your skill level, choosing the correct DJ icon can mean the difference between a 'C' rank and an 'S' rank.
Ranks contribute to the DJ ranking leaderboards. Scores are tallied and compared with individuals from your country or globally, and considering the substantial task of mastering this game, climbing these leaderboards should offer some true bragging rights.
There's also backstage mode, where you can review your scores as well any unlocked content. Sadly, however, there doesn't appear to be a music player or photo gallery – features that were often present in the DJ Max games. Minor features, but they are missed.
For PlayStation TV owners, it's worth noting that there's no calibration options. On the Vita itself, it's unnecessary as the audio/visuals are spot on, but using an external display with the PlayStation TV introduces both display and audio lag. Because the game requires very precise input timing, certain setups can cause unfavourable or even unplayable results.
Finally, we have the song selection. While it offers offers a huge range of music genres from cutesy pop to heavy metal, other than the (awesome) Guilty Gear music, none of these songs were really recognisable or all that memorable. That's not to say that the music selection is weak, but compared to some of the other popular rhythm games, it's a little underwhelming at times. Luckily, the huge diversity in genres will mean that finding a favourite song shouldn't be hard for anyone. It may also mean that you'll likely run into a few enjoyable songs completely outside of your musical palate.
While it may be confusing and bizarre at first, Superbeat: Xonic quickly becomes an addictive time sink for fans of rhythm games. The combination of difficulty, sense of progression, and unlockable content can make it a hard title to put down even after your fingers get sore. It's not only a great addition to the Vita's library – it's one of the best rhythm games on the platform.