A City Sleeps review: A rhythmic, heavenly twist on bullet-hell shooters

A City Sleeps is a phoenix, albeit a phoenix that looks nothing like its predecessor. If you missed the story, it goes like this: Harmonix wanted to make a rhythm-based first-person shooter, called Chroma. After running a beta earlier this year, however, Harmonix realized Chroma was maybe too ambitious, maybe too weird, maybe too whatever-regardless, it wasn’t going to get made.

Most of the time the story would end there, but a small group of Chroma survivors got together and said “Well if not a 3D shooter…what about a 2D shooter? A shoot-em-up, maybe?” And thus mere months later we get A City Sleeps, which holds onto the rhythm aspects of Chroma but with a different aesthetic.

Orchestrated nightmares

A City Sleeps is a 2D side-scrolling, rhythm-based shoot-em-up, or SHMUP. What that means is that at any given moment there are about a billion different bullets for you to avoid to stay alive. Seriously, look at this screenshot:

And that’s the first level on the lowest difficulty level.

I’m going to let Harmonix describe the game’s plot because it’s pretty obtuse:

A City Sleeps follows Poe, youngest member of The Silk, an ancient clan of dream exorcists that can enter the minds of sleeping hosts to rid their dreams of demons. When the residents of SanLo fall into an endless slumber, only Poe can rescue them from a never-ending nightmare.”

To be honest, the plot doesn’t matter much. It seems capably written, but it’s all couched in cyberpunk-heavy text notes on the level launch screen. Why did this person turn into a floating heart made out of feathers? Why is this boss an enormous mandibled beast? Who are these ninjas that keep appearing? Who are the people I’m rescuing? I don’t know. I don’t think I need to know.

In any case, it doesn’t affect how you play the game. A City Sleeps feels distinctly old-school, like those text snippets are what you used to see on an arcade cabinet’s video pre-roll while it’s idling. Then you leap into the game itself and the plot sort of falls away in a haze of reflexes.

Controlling Poe has aspects of a twin-stick shooter. The left analog stick flies Poe around, while the right fires her weapon. Get in close to an enemy and that right stick attack turns into a melee move, which charges up Poe’s ultimate weapon-an enormous sword made out of shadows that you control by spinning the right stick in circles. Don’t even ask me about mouse and keyboard controls. I think they might exist, as you can certainly launch the game by hitting Enter when it asks you to hit A, but there’s no glossary of mouse and keyboard controls and all the tutorials assume you’re using a gamepad.

At various points you’ll be supported by Idols, which can house one of the ghosts Poe carries around. Throw the Mercy ghost into an Idol, for instance, and it’ll heal you. On the other hand, the Mercy ghost makes the game “easier” and so using it will incur a penalty to your score multiplier. Other ghosts will fire at enemies or freeze them in place, and you’ll unlock more as you progress through the levels.

It’s a bunch of disparate systems, but they’re all tied together by what Harmonix does best. Remember when I said this was a rhythm game?

It starts with the backing track, which acts as the foundation for the level. From it, you’ll be able to discern the basic rhythm of the level, be able to sense when the action is about to get more intense, et cetera.

The next layer is Poe. Poe’s weapon isn’t just for show. Each shot you fire triggers percussion noises, whether it’s the sweep of brushes across a snare drum or what sounds like two metal rods clanging together. Stop firing and the rhythm section also stops.

When the rhythm speeds up, Poe’s shots speed up. When the rhythm slows down, her shots are correspondingly slow. This leaves you subconsciously listening to the backing track for clues as to how Poe will control at any given time, especially when it comes to the lengthy (and difficult) boss battles. You could play A City Sleeps with the sound off, or without paying attention to the music, but you’re probably doing yourself a disservice.

Luckily, enemies play by the same rules. Enemies appear in bursts of sound, live to add to the soundtrack, and die with another burst. Chimes, synths-enemies are the third layer and provide much of the music’s richness. Seeing the massive onslaught of projectiles a boss releases as a result of a saw synth is impressive, but you’re just as likely to die from a hellish cloud of bullets made up of tiny, non-threatening bell noises.

Idols add a fourth layer, when present, and one that changes based on whichever ghost is in play. Of course, the music is also important for cluing in when the Idols will activate-for instance, knowing when you should be on top of the Mercy-activated Idol to receive a burst of healing, and then flying away before enemy bullets can rip through you.

The way Harmonix ties the music into the visual patterns is what makes this a gorgeous and fulfilling experience. It’s a lot like playing Soundodger but with more thematic consistency, or like playing a more polished and streamlined version of Beatbuddy.

My only sticking point is that there are “only three levels.”

Now, each level comes with five different difficulties, and each difficulty is an entirely different set-up in terms of enemy placement, patterns, et cetera. You’re still experiencing the “same three levels” though in terms of boss battles, backgrounds, and music. Considering how often you’re going to be repeating the content, I would’ve appreciated a bit more diversity.

On the other hand, the game is fifteen dollars. It’s not a huge asking price.

Bottom line

A City Sleeps is a shoot-em-up that can appeal even to people who don’t normally love bullet-hell games. It certainly roped me in with Harmonix’s fantastic-as-usual audio hooks. Could it be expanded? Sure.

But A City Sleeps is a tight, polished experience that’s at times overwhelmingly beautiful-even if, like the archetypal femme fatale, this pretty thing is constantly trying to kill you.