Nintendad

[Review] Cytus Alpha – Nintendo Switch

  • Developer: Rayark
  • Publisher: Flyhigh Works
  • Release date: 25/4/2019
  • Price: £44.99/ $49.99
  • Review code provided by Flyhigh Works

In my younger days I was a huge Guitar Hero and Rock Band fan. I spent many a night clicking away on plastic guitars and battering a big plastic drum kit. When the opportunity came up to review Cytus Alpha, I jumped at the chance. I was intrigued to experience an Eastern developed rhythm game. On loading up Cytus Alpha I did have a degree of cynicism about the music, as I’m not a huge fan of some of the more “out there” stuff in Japanese games and films. For my money a rhythm game can only get so far on its gameplay alone, but a solid track list is what really keeps me coming back for more. Does Cytus Alpha deliver on the music front? I’ll get to that!

Cytus Alpha is the most recent game from Taiwanese indie studio, Rayark. The studio have previously released a few rhythm games on mobile platforms, before porting some of these to Switch. Cytus was originally released on iOS and Android as a free to play game, with microtransactions used to pay for additional tracks. Cytus Alpha is the definitive version and includes all the content from the original game, plus some exclusive additional content. The game has over 200 tracks, so there is a huge amount to get stuck into.

Instrumental

Having only really played the big Western rhythm games prior to picking up Cytus Alpha I was intrigued to see how the game worked, especially without the use of a big plastic peripheral. I was not disappointed!

The game is intended to be played using the touch screen, but does allow for a controller to be used. When a song begins, you hear a few bars before the gameplay starts. The gameplay area is essentially a white background with a thin black horizontal line drawn across it. This line scrolls up and down the screen in time with the tempo of the music. After the first few bars the notes start appearing on screen. Rather than scrolling down the screen, a la Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the notes stay in the same position. You touch the notes on the screen as the black line passes through them and points are awarded based on your accuracy. New notes will pop up just ahead of the bar, meaning you need to be constantly aware of what is going on and also aware of the placement of your hands to ensure you don’t obscure upcoming notes.

The game increases the complexity of tracks by adding on notes which need to be held for a duration and also patterns of notes in a row which you need to slide your finger along to play. Playing with a controller is a little simpler, with one button controlling notes on one side of the screen and another the opposite side. The slide notes are much easier to manage when using a controller, as all you need to do is hold a shoulder button, rather than tracing a line across the screen.

The note charts are very cleverly laid out, with the placement of the notes on the screen positioned to encourage drum rolls using both hands, and piano like chords. It can get a little confusing at times however, as a song changes from mapping notes to the drum track, before changing to the piano track with a completely different pattern. In games like Guitar Hero, you always know which particular element of the song you are following. Despite the small niggles, the mechanics work really well and within a few songs you will be starting to feel like a musical maestro. I was really impressed with how well the game played on the touch screen and felt the mechanics were something totally different and fresh compared to the games I was used to.

Sometimes a 7 is better than an 8

Each track has an easy and hard mode, with the note tracks becoming much more complicated on the harder difficulty. The game gives each track a numerical difficulty rating to correspond with the difficulty level selected. Easy mode tends to give a rating of 1-4 and hard a rating of 5-9. The difficulty can vary wildly despite two songs having the same numerical rating. The music in the game crosses a huge range of genre’s but tends to have a heavier focus on high tempo electronic music. The game includes everything from Classical to Jazz and Hardstyle to K-Pop. I found that a Hardstyle track with a rating of 9 could often be more difficult than a more straightforward Pop track with more conventional beats and pattens.

At the end of each track you are given a score and rating between F and A, with A being the highest.

Now thats NOT what I call music!

If I haven’t made it clear, I absolutely love the gameplay mechanics in Cytus Alpha. They can quickly make a musically talentless chump like me feel like I’m able to play along with the most complex tracks in the game. Where I feel Cytus Alpha falls down is in the actual music it includes.I can’t fault the track list in terms of its scope or variety. With more than 200 tracks and a huge range of genres there is something for everyone, however the track list is very much catered to Eastern tastes. Many of the tracks sound like the opening credits to some obscure anime series or like some of the crazy Karaoke tracks in Yakuza 0. If this kind of thing is to your tastes then feel free to bump up the score I have given the game, but I think the soundtrack will put off a lot of players.

There are definitely a lot of good tracks in there, but I felt they were vastly outnumbered by the number of saccharine sweet K-pop tracks and the like. The game doesn’t make it very easy to differentiate between tracks and I often found myself struggling to find specific tracks that I wanted to replay. The game could really benefit by including a way of marking songs as favourites, or adding the ability to see the genre of a track. Each of the songs also includes some artwork which shows on the selection screen and shows faintly in the background whilst playing. Much of this looks like a still from an anime or uses pixel art. Whilst cool to look at, I found it all blended into one eventually, making it even more difficult to differentiate between songs. There are a few absolute bangers in here, but trying to pick them out can be difficult at times.

Never judge an album by its cover!

Outwith the actual gameplay, Cytus Alpha can be quite difficult to navigate at first. The game uses a beautiful looking, but confusing menu system to select songs. Everything is unlocked and accessed through a story mode, which is inexplicably listed on the main menu as “Chapters – Origin”. The main menu also includes an option titled “Story – Debris” which is where you read the story of the game (yep this is a rhythm game with a story). It took me some time to actually figure out how to play a song.

New tracks are unlocked in batches by unlocking new chapters in the story mode. At the start of the game you have access to one chapter with ten tracks. You unlock the next chapter by achieving a certain cumulative score based on your performance. The thresholds seem fairly low for unlocking the next chapter thankfully so it is quite easy to unlock all the tracks, although it can take some time to see everything the game has to offer due to the sheer volume of content. Progressing through chapters also unlocks sections in the “Story” menu, which are essentially short written passages outlining a tale that’s like a cross between The Matrix and an episode of Black Mirror. 

I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the story, especially as I felt it didn’t link to the gameplay in any way. The overall premise is that technology has been developed which allows humans to place their memories and soul into a computer chip, to be preserved and live eternally as a robotic life form. The story progresses to look at how this is used in a time of crisis and goes on to look at the ethics of such a process and the possibilities it presents to society and to big corporations. The overall ideas presented are really interesting, but you can read through all the passages within around five minutes, so there is no real depth to it.

Bonus tracks

The game includes a few different customisation options. You can choose to have the notes appear in “grouped” mode, which essentially reduces the length of time between the note appearing on screen and needing to be hit. The default mode gives a longer lead in between the note appearing on screen and needing to be played, but this can sometimes be confusing during complex passages. The idea behind the grouped mode is that it should make it clearer whether a note should be activated when the timeline passes up the screen or down the screen. The game differentiates between notes with purple/blue denoting that they should be played as the timeline scrolls up the screen and green/orange notes to be played as it scrolls down. In practice it can be difficult to differentiate, but I didn’t find the grouped mode helped me when compared to the normal mode.

The game also lets you add a confirmation sound effect when you hit a note, to help you know how well you are performing. I found this quite distracting and would have much preferred that the actual notes in the track would be missed out if you missed a note. The tracks sound the exact same regardless of how well you play, and with the absence of any ability to fail a track you only have your own perceptions of how well you are performing to gauge your performance until you finish a song.

The game has online play and allows you to select to match with other players on any story track. I was unable to actually find any other players in my time with the game. The main menu includes a separate online mode where you can specific the difficulty range of the tracks you want to match with, however despite setting this to the broadest range (difficulty 1 to 9) I was never able to find anyone to play with. The game does include leaderboards so I was still able to see how I stacked up compared to others.

Each of the story mode chapters has a corresponding bonus chapter which is unlockable and includes a group of differently themed songs. These include a retro themed chiptune chapter and various others. There is also a chapter exclusive to the Switch version of the game which includes music from DJMax, a Korean series of rhythm games.

Final thoughts

I found Cytus Alpha to be a brilliant change compared to the rhythm games I have played in the past. As a Nintendad myself, I also found the ability to play such a game without the need for noisy and messy peripherals to be a godsend. I found that a lot of the music wasn’t to my taste, but if you are keen on electronic music with a heavy Eastern focus then you might get a lot more from Cytus Alpha than me. The game could be improved by making it easier to identify specific songs, as there were some I really enjoyed and will be going back to in an attempt to beat my previous scores and climb the leaderboards.

If you enjoy the music in the game, Cytus Alpha should keep you busy for a long time thanks to the huge track list and online leaderboards.

Pros

  • Brilliant gameplay mechanics make it easy to pick up and play
  • Huge track list
  • Some absolute bangers in the soundtrack!

Cons

  • Menus can be confusing to navigate
  • The music will not be to everyone’s taste
  • It can be hard to differentiate between tracks

Verdict

Cytus Alpha offers a huge suite of tracks and musical styles. Those that click with the music will get hours of enjoyment out of the game. The gameplay mechanics are absolutely solid and show a really unique way of handling a rhythm game using touch screen controls.

3.5/5

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