Review – Melatonin
Rhythm games are one of those difficult fields to navigate in terms of balance. On the one hand, a majority of the players will want to have the core elements properly presented: good soundtrack, solid mechanics, and an appropriate difficulty curve. There’s a reason that Pop’n Music maintains a good following even to this very day, and it’s fantastic execution of music with reflexes. This is all well and good for arcade releases, but console rhythm games need to also be fixated on what makes them appealing otherwise.
Aspects like plot, characters, or replay incentive need to exist in more than just “because it’s there” finality. I’m not dumping quarters into my Nintendo Switch, so trying to get me to grind out results over and over (such as Deemo might inspire) is less satisfactory. I like feeling accomplished, but my leaderboard is exclusively offline, and I prefer it that way. Thankfully, Melatonin finds other ways to satisfy this desire.
With Melatonin, the development team of Half Asleep has done a magnificent job of firing down the middle, while still lighting up sectors on both sides. Set against the backdrop of a person simply trying to get to sleep, the player needs to navigate through four nights of different dreams that assail them. Each dream scenario involves a different set of buttons that need to be pressed, but it all relies on the L/R buttons, the A button, or all three.
There is no fail state: you simply coast through the dream and attempt to mimic your actions in time, achieving either early, late or “perfect” results. Finish the dream once in practice mode to unlock normal mode, and finish normal to unlock hard mode. Get stars from normal (one to three) as a ranking, and get a certain number of stars to unlock the “remix” final dream of a stage. Beat the remix, get to the next night…you get the picture.
First and foremost, people should be aware that Melatonin is an exceedingly short game. After four nights and one morning (which is just an extended remix stage), the game is done. There are some achievements that you can work on, but most of them are pretty on the nose (get a 100% score, get three stars on all dreams, etc.). It’s the middle of the holiday season, my kids have the week off, so I’m spending lots of time with them, and yet I still managed to bang this game out during a handful of commuting events. If you’re looking for something to rival your Taiko no Tatsujin library, you’re exceedingly far off base. Instead, realize that Melatonin has less in common with Voez and more with titles like Rhythm Heaven.
If you aren’t aware, Rhythm Heaven was and is one of the best quirky rhythm titles, with iterations on the GBA, Nintendo Wii, and 3DS, and I would be stunned if Half Asleep wasn’t at least aware of these games. Melatonin moves forward on vibes that feel incredibly cartoony and relaxing in spite of the stressful moments of concentration and some darker story elements. Even when you’re burning photos of previous memories or working out against an impossibly muscular idealization of yourself, the game keeps a consistent vibe of groove. Instead of becoming hyper fixated on being able to get the precise alignment and synchronization, you’re more intent on bopping your head along with the beats, feeling the connection between shooting aliens, eating donuts, and launching rockets into space.
The soundtrack is absolutely perfect for the aesthetic the game seeks to achieve. Everything about Melatonin wants to align with the low-fi sensation that’s become popularized in the last few years, and you can’t help but enjoy that very notion. Nothing seems to be the exact same type of song, as we intermingle chiptune, ambient electronica and elements of classical/standard instrumentation. Yet every track of each night keeps up with the central theme set forth. If you’re attempting to meditate to get to sleep, the musical selection is more nature based and ethereal. If you’re trying to keep yourself up with energy drinks and failing, the stress of your chemical imbalance comes through with tracks that pluck at your psyche in a more irritating and demanding way. The soundscape is exceptionally cultivated, and it succeeds in making the atmosphere of every track exactly what it needs to be.
Not every interaction is a banger, though. While some manage to craft a masterful blend of sound and reaction, there are a couple of Melatonin tracks that work less than others. The crane machine is the most glaring offender, with there being very little audio indication between sequence one or two, and you needing to react instantly to one or the other. Thankfully, other games of that night (the aforementioned lighter and the Star Wars inspired trench runner) make up for it, so the night isn’t a total stressfest.
Yet it’s the minute issues that keep this game from becoming a platinum star and instead relegate it to a gold one. There are visual tweaks that are supposed to help when you need assistance for reaction timing, but there’s not an option to switch the game from stereo to mono, which is a bit disappointing. While I understand Half Asleep wanted to preserve the pure vision of Melatonin, the fact remains that I’m completely deaf in my right ear.
So I struggled with certain tracks to essentially memorize patterns and go off of tempo, not audio cues, which sucks some of the fun out of the experience. There are easy solutions: I could play with speakers instead of my own personal broadcast, or I could turn on the visual assist to let me know. But I wanted to try and play the game as close as possible to the intended version, so this was a bit of a letdown.
Having said that, I had an absolute blast with Melatonin. The stage designs were exceedingly clever, and I adored the way the progression would sometimes mess with you. I thought the baseball level was already difficult with Portal-style disappearances and reappearances of the ball, but, when the camera zoomed out and I was in a fractal of my own game, I practically giggled with delight. The way the phone would continually tilt in the Tinder-adjacent level was brilliant, and I had more fun because the game was attempting to confuse or frustrate me. The remixes at the end of each night were exemplary, a real inspiration for interweaving the different song’s mechanics into a brand new track, and it only got better when you get to the final remix.
There’s a real good reason that Nintendo’s House of Indies featured Melatonin, and that it reeks of everything that makes a Nintendo game a Nintendo game. It’s taken a simple idea and sharpened it till it can split atoms, and then put it in a visually noticeable package. You could take Melatonin and port it to every platform imaginable, but I’m thrilled that it exists on PC and Switch alone, the sweetest pairing of choice and accessibility. If you’ve got any sense of keeping time and want to munch, flex, fax and swing through a turbulent dream world, then you’ve got to try Melatonin.
The creamy colors and rounded characters are a bit done to death, but they are an excellent match for the unconscious state of the game’s world.
Simple interfacing and short explanations keep the songs fun and engaging, with minor hangups that come from technical and personal imperfections.
Gorgeous and seamless, the music flows between stages and worlds, capturing the sensation of trying to fall asleep with too much on your mind and plenty to sort in the meantime.
Fun Factor: 8.0
Minor irritants aside, I had such a blast with Melatonin that I find my gripes to land firmly on “there isn’t enough” as why I can’t rate my fun level even higher. Get me another night of DLC!
Final Verdict: 8.0
Melatonin is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Melatonin was provided by the publisher.