The best rhythm games aren’t just about the quality of the music but the experience that’s crafted around it. Be it a hectic fusion with Bullet Hell or a violent, mind-numbing wasteland of noise, the challenge ultimately lies in providing a reason to play the game instead of simply listening to the OST. Muse Dash artfully manages this through tried-and-true rhythm-based gameplay and some of the most aesthetically appealing visual design I’ve seen in the genre.
If It Ain’t Broke…
Muse Dash’s mechanics aren’t the most intricate, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Players are assigned two buttons: one to jump/attack in the air, and one to attack on the ground. Enemies and obstacles move towards the player to the beat of the music, and you’ll have to time your button presses precisely to get the highest possible score. Do well enough and you’ll automatically get placed on the game’s global leaderboards, which you can scroll through when selecting any given song.
Though enemies change depending on the setting of the stage (which is loosely determined by the vibe of the song), they all serve the same purpose from a gameplay standpoint. Enemies on the ground correspond to lower notes/melodies, while those soaring through the air correspond to higher ones. The only real variation comes from the occasional boss attack (where the antagonist shooting at you suddenly flies towards you directly), and bizarre beat-em-up sections.
In these beat-em-up bits, a mini-boss will fly at you and prompt you to button-mash as much as possible to get a higher combo. The issue is that these occur mid-song, meaning that as soon as they’re done players are thrown right back into the chaos of the stage. It feels like variation for the sake of it rather than because it adds anything meaningful to the game, and the abrupt transition from button-mashing to keeping track of a rhythm led to multiple botched runs.
At the end of every track you’re assigned a grade based on your number of Perfects, Greats, Passes, and Misses. Not missing any hits and avoiding taking damage will result in a Full Combo (one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve felt from a game in some time, particularly on Hard and Master difficulties).
Speaking of difficulty, songs are rated on a scale from 1-9. Easy can land anywhere from 1-4, Hard 3-7, and Master 6-9, depending on the track. Better yet, there are dedicated leaderboards for each difficulty of every song. It’s a thoughtful touch that ensures that players who aren’t particularly great at rhythm games can still play through every track and have a goal to work towards.
Anime, Anime Everywhere!
Muse Dash enthusiastically puts the “anime” in “anime rhythm game.” Upon booting it up, players are immediately greeted by colorful (and slightly suggestive) art of the game’s three young protagonists Rin, Buro, and Marija. The anime aesthetic is everywhere, from the animated character selection screen to the beautiful artwork for each song; even the enemies and bosses have a distinct visual flair to them.
Though you’ll start out as Bassist Rin, each character has a variety of themed skins (e.g. Sleepwalker Girl Rin, Idol Buro, etc.) that can be randomly unlocked through gameplay. More than simply offering special character art, these each come with different abilities and unique animations. For instance, Idol Buro gives you 50% extra XP when finishing a stage, making her a great way to fly through levels. Since these skins are random, however, she might be somewhat useless by the time you actually unlock her.
This uncertainty is part of the overarching feedback loop that’s at the core of Muse Dash’s replayability. While there are 40 songs available in the base game, almost all of them are locked behind levels. The more you play and the better you perform, the faster you’ll level up. Leveling up awards two random items that go towards unlocking character skins, Elfins (little helpers that float alongside you and grant different buffs), and even special character and environmental art. Though some might view needing to unlock the songs as a negative, it only further incentivized me to continue playing my favorite stages to get higher scores and level up faster.
Keep the Good Times Rolling
In case you’re yearning for more head-bopping good times, Muse Dash offers far more beyond the initial 40 tracks. The “Just as planned” DLC is a whopping 10x the price of the base game’s $3 buy-in on Steam and Mobile (it’s all bundled together for $30 on Switch), but it also adds 78 songs for a grand total of 118.
These are grouped into multiple six-song packs with different themes. The Cute is Everything Pack comprises happier, more upbeat songs, whereas the Happy Otaku Pack has slightly more dramatic tunes that you’d typically hear in an anime OP, for instance. The DLC also acts as a season pass of sorts, with the devs pledging to add a new pack every month for the foreseeable future.
Unlike the base tracks, the DLC tracks are all unlocked from the get-go. Unfortunately, this is where one of Muse Dash’s few flaws become apparent. Though this brings in a ton of new songs across a variety of packs, there’s nothing on the selection screen that shows which songs have already been played. If someone wants to go through and experience each of the songs one after another, they either need to have a great memory, marathon them all, or click on each song individually to see if they already have a score recorded. It’s a strange and frustrating oversight for a game that nails so many other elements of its UI.
On the whole, though, Muse Dash is simply a joy to experience. It certainly isn’t for everyone; if you’re put off by scantily clad anime girls or victory screens where said anime girls lightly bounce in place, this probably won’t be your cup of tea. It also won’t stun you with complex mechanics or inventive gameplay elements you might’ve experienced from its contemporaries.
But if you love anime and anime-inspired music (as previously stated, there’s a DLC pack titled “Happy Otaku Pack” for goodness sake), then this should be a no-brainer. Whether you decide to get the full experience or stick with the base version for what’s easily one of the best values in gaming you’ll find this year, Muse Dash comes highly recommended.
Just be sure to play with headphones!