Review – A Musical Story

Rhythm games are a fickle, evil bunch of titles that I simply cannot stop playing. I was at the front of the line for those Dance Dance Revolution days back in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I mistakenly thought that smashing arrows was the same thing as being able to dance. I tried my hand at Pop N’ Music, Guitar Hero, even a short but shameful foray into Idol Masters, and the results have been the same: I have no rhythm. Maybe I aged out of it, maybe the style has changed, but I suck now, and I keep trying anyways. Still, when a rhythm game also wants to tell a story – such as Deemo, Lost in Harmony, or even Just Shapes and Beats – it clicks with me a bit better, as I feel something beyond just “do well on this song.” Hell, the Ouendan titles on the DS (and Elite Beat Agents) were great because they kept moving forward in a similar vein.

So I respect what A Musical Story is trying to do, full stop. An indie darling from Glee-Cheese Studio (and published by Digerati), A Musical Story is a journey through the life and memories of Gabriel, a musician who is in bad shape somewhere in a hospital and remembering how he got to his current situation. It’s a strange, wordless trip through the snapshots of his life, from humble beginnings in the bean factory with dreams of something greater to his attempts to break out and follow his destiny.

Throughout his journey, Gabriel and Glee-Cheese Studio want you to do more than simply watch and listen: they’d like you to play along with the remembrance, creating chapters of sequences that are call and answer musical numbers. Anywhere from three to seven segments will come at you, and you need to mimic them back with your controller. Not the most elegant style, but, given that you’ll be copying a multitude of instruments and vocals, it’s better than getting several different peripherals that you need to pick up and put down at a moment’s notice.

This next one is dedicated to all the flower children in the audience!

A Musical Story is a game that’s trying to wear two hats at the same time, and neither is totally on point as a result. On the one hand, it’s trying (and succeeding) in telling a tale through a relatively new medium, one that could have easily been an animated short but, instead, becomes a game to help the audience be a part of the world. It’s fascinating to watch the rise and fall of Gabriel through a lens that gives him a majority of the perspective, but doesn’t solely look to him for narration. Instead, we get to glimpse the overall story through a pivoting view, sometimes giving Gabriel’s introspective, sometimes just watching from the outside. It allows the view to be more subjective, and give additional meat to the story.

Replace that guitar with a Gamecube controller and this is college for me.

The audio and visual aspects of A Musical Story are some of my favorites that I’ve seen in recent memory. The artistic design of both the real world and the dreams/hallucinations of Gabriel blend together to create an atmosphere that is saturated in the hopes, fears and utter aspirations that come from the characters and, from my interpretation, the designers themselves.

It’s a visual feast to see a scene slowly get revealed throughout a stage, one snapshot at a time until the full picture is revealed to show the band working through their melodies, crafting connections with their audience and each other, and the stark nature of the highs and lows that naturally come in life, but also the unnatural elements of Gabriel’s drug habits. There’s an uncomfortable contrast that comes from the 50’s style animation of the hallucinations and demons the drugs bring versus the rough but comforting design of the “real world.”

Pictured: an ominous warning from Saturday TV Fun House.

The musical elements are also quite excellent, which you would hope and expect in a game called A Musical Story. Particularly during the good times, players are treated to a full soundscape of 70s inspired guitar and bass, some solid drums beats and some amazing licks that need to be mimicked with pinpoint precision. When the tone of the game shifts into something darker or more emotional, we fully explore the electronic side of things, with haunting synthesizer reverb drilling into the core of your soul to send the message “something isn’t right.”

There’s a beautiful duality in how the game is presented, aurally, in both incredible harmonies and structurally solid music, and then contrasting with deeply unsettling moments that are somehow melodic and also dissonant. There is no doubt in my mind that the musical aspect of A Musical Story is crafted in a way that sets it apart from other musically-driven games I’ve played.

Freebird had just been released, so audiences weren’t screaming for it yet.

But it’s the game aspect of A Musical Story that causes the wheels to come off the vehicle. The concept, in theory, is straight forward: use the left and right shoulder buttons to do a call and response with the game in a constrained set of notes. Simple enough, and the first five chapters are incredibly easy to do, so much so that you fail to notice the inherent vice of this system. After you get to the sixth chapter and the story really begins, however, the ideology takes a left turn and heads straight towards a ravine.

Needing to copy the music after only hearing it once is something that my standard ears have a real problem doing, and it causes a bit of strife in how the game treats you as a result. Failure to get the notes right means having to do it again, which, when you look at it from a base level, seems like a good approach. After all, the music is as important as Gabriel himself: you wouldn’t abandon the story and move forward without allowing Gabe to say his piece. Likewise, the music wants to be heard, and demands that you hear it.

What’s the tempo What’s the rhythm? Screw you, get to clicking!

However, the approach means that players will rapidly get frustrated with A Musical Story. Missing a single note means doing the whole set over again, and without a moment to breathe or try and see what you missed. It will literally keep playing the same notes at you again and again until you finally get them right, and then you just keep moving to the next set. It’s like a scene from Whiplash, where you’re Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons is the damn game, demanding you do it again and again without pausing for a breath or letting your hands relax. By the time you get to chapter 16, you’re positively shaking with anxiety because a single slipup means the end of everything, and this is where the game turns from unsatisfactory to downright upsetting.

This map also leads to the Lost City of D, but on the other side.

There is a hidden chapter/ending to A Musical Story that is unlocked only by getting perfect scores on all 26 chapters. This means playing through every session, some with upwards of eight verses, without screwing up once. When you played a game like Rock Band or even Tap Tap Revenge, you had a line to let you know where the notes were supposed to be in relation to the tempo of the song. Such a line only exists here if you turn it on or fail the verse multiple times, and turning on the assist line means forfeiting the opportunity to get a perfect score automatically.

So if you’re screwing up a lot, A Musical Story spits at your feet and tells you to get good, while using the exact same note visualizations for drums, guitars, bass, vocals and more, and the same circular track without any sort of distinction regardless of the different tempos, styles and dynamic of the tracks. If you fail to beat this game perfectly, you will never find out what ultimately happened to Gabriel and his band. You’ll get vague platitudes and the sort of open ended finale that I guess makes you think but instead made me fume.

Oh holy crap, no thank you.

There is so much about A Musical Story that is visually and audibly fantastic, and that cannot be disputed. This is a game that really benefits from the social media exposure of the world, as players will be able to see streamers who have sacrificed time and effort into crafting a perfect playthrough for the enjoyment of others. But, from a player’s perspective, it’s a repetitive chore to need to be perfect and memorized, not harmonized, to succeed and to tell the full story. Failure to conform to the developers designs means being on the outside, turning away the very nature of the misfit that Gabriel and his band seek to embrace.

The result? All those laurel wreaths of indie accolades mean nothing in the full scope of it all, because it’s only based off of seeing the end result and playing a portion of the game. Though the total playtime is less than three hours, it could be as little as 90 minutes if the execution was more humane and player-focused instead of posture-based. It’s a damn shame, and I’m sad that it took a beautiful concept and delivered it in the most minor key possible.

Graphics: 8.0

Purposely rough character designs with sharp, cartoonish nightmare moments make for a captivating experience.

Gameplay: 6.0

A simple input concept is ruined by forced repetition and brutal expectations for someone’s bare ears.

Sound: 9.0

The musical aspect cannot be overlooked, and there’s love and effort put into each track.

Fun Factor: 5.0

If I wasn’t so captivated by what the game looked and sounded like, I would have abandoned it sooner.

Final Verdict: 6.5

A Musical Story is available now on Nintendo Switch, XBox Series X/S, Playstation 4/5 and PC.

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

A copy of A Musical Story was provided by the publisher.