I am of an age where most of my school memories are a jumbled haze, except for the occasional trauma nugget that likes to surface at inopportune times. (Everyone has those, right? Right?) Anyway, one of the few concrete recollections I have is that of a music lesson on tone (or symphonic, for the big word fanciers) poems. The concept fascinated me, the idea of using music to not just set tone and mood, but to tell a story, to conjure specific images in the mind of the listener.
Playing A Musical Story made me think of tone poems. One glance at any of the screenshots accompanying this review will make it obvious to all but the most unobservant that the game does have actual images alongside the music, but they're intimately entwined. There's no dialogue and the animated scenes lean on the side of being vignettes, so the music isn't just background noise, it's doing the heavy lifting.
Thankfully, the soundtrack is more than up to the task. If I was going to pick any one part of the game to effusively gush over, it would be the music. Which is probably a good thing, for a rhythm game. It's a sort of lo-fi electronic rendition of cool 70's psychedelic rock that pushes words like "funky" and "groovy" to the forefront of my brain. I've actually been poking around to see if there was some way of just playing the soundtrack so I could have it on while writing this review, but it doesn't seem to be a feature in the game itself and the soundtrack isn't unlocked on Steam at the time of writing. Rest assured, I will be there as soon as it is, even if I have to buy it separately.
This music is ostensibly coming from a Hendrix-esque young man called Gabriel and his bandmates. The story is framed as a series of our protagonist's memories being recalled as he lies in a critical condition in a hospital bed. We're spun a tale of Gabe and chums ditching their dead-end jobs to take a road trip, their ultimate goal being to perform at a festival. While not quite as outstanding as the tunes it accompanies, A Musical Story's animation is also lovely. Similarly lo-fi, it combines a couple of distinct artistic styles to great effect, especially in the later parts of the story.
The game is split into twenty-odd chapters, each chapter is a single track, which is further divided into sections of a few bars, about ten seconds or so of music. You listen to each section and then replicate it using two button controls that were clearly designed with a touch screen in mind. Succeed and proceed to the next section, another snatch of music, another few seconds of animation. Fail and you repeat the section. Over and over and over and over.
Sadly, this is where things start to fall down, as A Musical Story offers a textbook example of what not to do with a musical rhythm game. It plays you a few bars of music while placing symbols showing you which button to press at which time. The music repeats and you have to press the buttons at the right time. Sometimes you have to hold them, sometimes you have to press both buttons at once. Success or failure has absolutely no bearing on the music or anything else, the game just squawks discordantly at you and carries on. There's no room for creativity or interpretation, no real interaction. It's all binary, pass and fail. Pass and you proceed, fail and you don't. On top of that, each section has to be completed perfectly, which means if you make a mistake, you may as well stop trying and wait for the next loop. It's only a few seconds, sure, but it's still frustrating to have to sit and stew in your failure each time.
Still, the user interface is one aspect of the actual game part of A Musical Story that I feel is worth praising, because it's actually brilliant. With a lot of music games, I find that I'm concentrating so hard on the bit of the screen showing the inputs, that I can't really take in everything else that's happening. A Musical Story puts the animation in a circle in the middle of the screen, then has the input prompts appear on a circle around that. It makes it much easier to focus on what you're doing while paying attention to everything else. There's also a progressive assist, that gradually adds more visual assistance the more you fail so you're not purely relying on the music for your input timing. There is an option to turn this on all the time, but this prevents you from getting the perfect score required to unlock the hidden last chapter.
Towards the end of A Musical Story there are some flashes of creative brilliance, mixing up the visuals, UI and basic game mechanics in interesting ways, but it's just too little, too late.
If it were simply a case of the game bit of A Musical Story being a bit rubbish, it wouldn't be a huge issue. I mean, The Artful Escape was my favourite game of 2021 and the button pushy bits of that are kinda naff. Unfortunately, the need for perfection that requires you to repeat the same few bars of music over and over again until you get it right means that the chill, lo-fi beats become droning and repetitive. This isn't helped by large sections of the story being, if I'm being perfectly honest, dull. It's a game about a road trip and the road trip doesn't start until almost a third of the way through. It goes from multiple chapters about the tedium of the protagonist's life, to multiple chapters about the tedium of driving across the United States. There's a whole chapter devoted to refuelling the van! I was playing the game, which took me a little over an hour and a half, in the middle of the day in a brightly lit room and I found myself nodding off with one hand on the keyboard and the other propping up my increasingly heavy head.
It's a shame that my main takeaway from A Musical Story is boredom. It's obviously a labour of love and so many of the individual elements are fantastic, especially the music. Towards the end of the game there are some flashes of creative brilliance, mixing up the visuals, UI and basic game mechanics in interesting ways, but it's just too little, too late. I'm sure there are people out there who will absolutely adore A Musical Story, or at least find that its highs more than make up for its lows - and thankfully, there is a very generous demo available that covers the first ten of the game's chapters, more than enough to decide whether or not it's for you. For my part, I'm looking forward to listening to the music and letting it conjure pictures in my head, without the game getting in the way.