As someone who owns a PlayStation Move and is a fan of electronic music, PixelJunk 4am’s (PJ4am) premise was intriguing. Available now for $9.99, the PSN title is largely a blank canvas. There are Trophies, but no actual goals, or even fail conditions. After the 280MB install and subsequent update, PJ4am will ask you to adjust your screen and calibrate your Move controller (you can use two by the way), both of which just take a few seconds. From there, a tutorial mode teaches you the controls over the next ten minutes, but I found myself having to refer back to the tutorials or the controls picture in the pause menu on several occasions. There are over a dozen techniques, and to get the most out of the experience, it’s pretty important to know them all.
Where the hell did I put my glow sticks…
It’s not that the control layout is poor, but keeping things straight was more of a challenge than I anticipated. The breakdown would include tapping the sides of a virtual rectangle for a drumming sound. For Effects (volume fading, flanges, etc), press the Move button and move the controller left, right, in, out, up, down, or rotate your wrist clockwise. Loops and Dubbing are controlled by holding the T button and doing a diagonal movement from any of the four corners of your screen, and then dragging back to the center. Face buttons correspond to bass, drums, synth, and rhythm, while Select changes your visual canvas and Start brings up the menu. You can tell which of the four inputs you are controlling by the color of the orb on the controller (green for synth, red for rhythm, etc).
It all sounds pretty straight-forward, but I think it was the lack of any on screen indicators and cues that made enjoying 4am an uphill battle. I appreciate the HUD-less design, but at the same time I felt like I was flying blind. Some kind of practice mode, something that could give me feedback, would have probably helped, but that could be asking too much for a ten dollar title. As is, I felt like PJ4am just gave me a 101 class and then never came back, if that makes sense. Left to my own devices, it was up to me to create some appealing music — not just for anyone on PSN that might listen in, but more importantly for my own enjoyment. Perhaps years of listening to this kind of music from the pros has me spoiled, because it was a tall order to find or create anything that I actually wanted to listen to.
This is also probably the first motion game I’ve played that just didn’t give enough feedback. Whether it’s cross-hairs or warning messages, other motion games tend to give you constant feedback on your positioning and performance (especially music games). So when something didn’t work — i.e., pulling in a loop track, for example — I didn’t know if it was because I didn’t perform the motion properly, or what. I understand that the moving visuals represent different components of your mix, but I had a hard time making any sense of them. My favorite one reminded me of how streetlights on a highway look as you zip by them, but the I have seen look like screensavers. Of course, regardless of what things look like on screen, you’re going for great sound. What constitutes as great is up to the player, so your tolerance and interests could certainly vary from my own.
So, once the tutorial is over, the Play mode opens up. Here, you take what you have learned and, well, what you do from there is up to you. More canvas open up the more you play, but, there’s no structure that I could quite tell on when these appear. The second canvas popped up after about twenty-five minutes of in-game time, so I don’t know if it was from that, the fact that a few people listened to my performance — who knows. The lack of structure in Play is not something I am accustomed to, and in a way, I found it a little intimidating. Kind of like an MMO, in that there really is no start or end, no closure or way to know that yes, you have ‘beat’ the game. Clearly, this is more of an artistic piece of software than a traditional game, though.
In 3D, I bet this would look pretty trippy.
Two other modes available include Visualizer and LiveViewer. Visualizer takes music on your PS3 hard drive and gives you a full screen visual rendering of them. I don’t keep music on my PS3 so I didn’t get much out of this, but LiveViewer is cool. LiveViewer connects you to the PSN to watch realtime performances of other PJ4am players. There were always at least fifteen live sessions in my testing, with players hailing from Spain, the US, Brazil, and other locations. You can view the player’s handle, what canvas they’re on, their current Kudos (i.e. user rating), and how many other people are watching/listening to them live, all from the Cover Flow inspired selection screen. When you hover over any session, a live snip of their music plays, helping you decide if you want to “click-through” and watch their performance.
If you like what you’re hearing, you can Follow the user with a couple of button presses or shake your Move controller to give them Kudos. Similarly, players can do the same for you. It’s pretty cool starting up your own session and then seeing the quick and subtle HUD graphic pop up indicating one or more people just chose to listen to your music. You can promote yourself with a quick message that shows up on the crawler at the bottom of the selection screen, and there is also Twitter and Facebook integration included to get your message out that way, too.
To the summary…