Version tested: Xbox 360
Being a platformer controlled with a guitar peripheral, Fret Nice presented me with a unique problem: which one to use? The trusty old Guitar Hero 3 Les Paul? The sunburst World Tour Strat? The limited-edition Band Hero one with metal pegs? Or the ridiculously lifelike Logitech deluxe one made out of actual wood and metal, which I got as a somewhat extravagant present last year? I've got so many of these damned things lying around now that I'm desperate for new uses for them.
I'm glad I didn't pick the wooden one, now, because after three levels of Fret Nice I got so vigorously angry trying to tilt the controller to jump that I actually hit myself in the face with it, which might have resulted in losing my front teeth if I'd been using the Logitech behemoth. Fret Nice is the first game to cause me personal injury since Mario Party when I was 10, which gave me a massive blister on my right palm from furiously spinning the N64's horrible analogue stick in a Shy-Guy-related minigame. This is indicative of how unbearably frustrating Fret Nice's guitar-based control system is. It's a likeable musical platformer ruined by controls that are broken enough to provoke accidental self-harm.
This is particularly disappointing because Fret Nice not only attempts something new, but it does so with artistic flair. Initially, thanks to its attractive aesthetic, the game comes across really well. It has the collage look of LittleBigPlanet, as well as the distinctiveness of LocoRoco and Patapon's blobbly, spindly-limbed, monocular enemies. Collectable musical notes colourfully adorn the cardboard cut-out landscapes, and unusual, vaguely Katamari-esque music keeps you floating along on a cheerful cloud. You guide the Vibrant Chords, a rock duo with extravagant hair, through lovely 2D platform levels either alone or in co-op, conquering strange enemies with guitar solos.
It's a super idea, and the music and visual style give it extra punch, but played with the intended controller it doesn't work on any level. You use the green and yellow buttons to move left and right, which is reasonable, but tilting the controller to jump makes it almost unplayable. Most guitar controllers are a bit fiddly about recognising tilting, especially if they're a little older, but even with a model in perfect working order it's awkward. Like most platformers, Fret Nice involves rather a lot of jumping, and often of the precision kind, so mapping it to a controller function that doesn't always work is madness. If anything it's worse in co-op, where each player's accidental mistakes exacerbate the other's.
Fret Nice also assigns the same actions to different functions: strumming whilst on the ground makes you run, but strumming whilst jumping makes you freeze in mid-air whilst riffing on your guitar. It's necessary to leap into the air in order to solo enemies to death, but you'll often run straight into them instead because tilting doesn't work, even if you jerk it upwards with enough force to whack yourself on the chin. Fret Nice attempts to achieve too much with too limited a control system, leading to some baffling boss battles and impossibly difficult sections. Tilting the controller to pull a lever is cute, but trying to shake the thing continuously for half a level to operate a mine cart whist simultaneously playing riffs to clear enemies from your path is far too much to ask of both the controller and the player.
Fret Nice's initially confusing guitar-solo combat is an unexpected highlight. Enemies have different numbers of eyes, mouths and antennae on their faces, and playing different notes on the guitar corresponds to these features. To defeat a four-eyed enemy with two antennae, for instance, you fly into the air in its vicinity and play the same note four times, then a different one twice. At its best it feels like a fast-paced puzzler, in that you can afford to fudge the features a little, but it reduces bonus points. It would, however, surely have made sense to use the universal language of colour-coding for the combat. Why not make the eyes green, the mouths red and the antennae yellow to make it easier to see how they correspond to the fret buttons?
Most of the time, due to the unbearable imprecision of the control system, the best that you can hope to do in Fret Nice is muddle through, but the game cripples itself further with a medals system that forces you to play through levels again and again for faster times and higher scores in order to unlock subsequent ones. This adds considerably to the frustration. If the game would just let you bumble incompetently through then it might compensate for the broken controls, but to demand speed, precision and high-scores just highlights the already obvious disconnect between the controller in your hands and what you're trying to achieve on-screen. Guitar Hero works precisely because it gives the illusion that you're playing a guitar. Fret Nice shatters this illusion by repurposing the thing as a conventional controller - a task to which it isn't remotely suited - which suggests a profound misunderstanding of why people enjoy playing with them.
There's an easy answer to all of this: just don't play it with a guitar controller. Then Fret Nice simply becomes a music-themed pattern-matching platform game with considerably more palatable controls. But the responsiveness and pace that are intrinsic to 2D platformers remain conspicuously absent, and the medal system is still unnecessarily repetitive. It's not unplayable, but there's so much wasted potential.
It's been a while since I've played a game that's made me really appreciate how essential a control system is. Make a game with controls that don't work, and lovable presentation and playful creativity can't save it. It always hurts to punish a game that tries something different, especially when such obvious care has gone into its presentation, but Fret Nice fails to execute its ideas with competence. With a guitar controller Fret Nice verges on unplayable; with a normal one, it feels like a waste of ideas. Either way, it isn't worth 1200 points.
4 / 10