Somewhere amid the thunder and lightning of Frequency’s Expert mode comes a moment rare in videogames – a moment of clarity. At a point of equilibrium with the controller, the sight of the tunnel and the sound of the music, you feel the game’s hand on your heart. ‘Stop thinking. Stop trying’, it says. ‘Stop fighting and see’. The immersion barrier lifts and, suddenly, you feel as if you’re climbing an endless lattice of light, back to where everything begins. Back to where gaming begins.
Not that first encounters make this obvious. Initially, the game resembles little more than a mildly distracting, visually attractive product of the rhythm-action genre: a miscellany of strobes and beats to keep dyed-in-the-wool clubbers tapping their heels in time with their squares and circles. A minute or so of opening FMV revives dire memories of Ebenezer Goode – cyberpunk revelry, overblown DJs and neon imagery to which the passage of time has been particularly unfair. Hardly the ideal billboard for what lies beyond – an experience that pulls together all of music’s power into a modest package before exploding, shaking the gaming landscape with a suitably harmonic boom.
Until Frequency, the ideology of the rhythm-action genre towards its subject fell grossly short of its potential. Music was an inflexible backdrop, vaguely connected to the test of reflexes that typically comprised gameplay, and was largely divorced from the player. An experiment was needed – something to dissect, analyse and exploit the impact of melodies and percussion on the human spirit. Why does good music raise your heartbeat and tighten your skin to goosebumps? What happens, more specifically, when a game bypasses those intermediate devices such as genre and story, and instead aims directly for the sensory core and opens fire? Give me control over he who shapes the music of a nation, declared Napoleon, and I care not who makes the laws. What would be produced, asked Harmonix, if gamers could wield the same creative power via a DualShock as they could via turntables or a mixing desk? What if that were just the beginning?
In providing answers, the studio redefined music as it had previously been applied to games. Frequency takes players inside the acts of both appreciation and performance, plunging its hands into the conventions of Bemani and similar 2D systems, and tearing them apart. Levels are still songs played from beginning to end, but not before they’ve been blown to atoms and sewn back together as a viable gaming canvas. Every major note struck by every major instrument, every major vocal and digital effect is scattered into shimmering tracks of geometric jewels, joined side by side and wrapped into a now-unmistakable tunnel. The jewels occupy three positions within a track like notes on a vertical stave, each mapped to a button on the DualShock controller. There are two configurations, but most will come to respect only one: L1, R1 and R2 – three buttons that quickly lodge in the subconscious like the strings of a guitar or the notes of a piano. Advancing through this tunnel of sound at a speed appropriate to its rhythm, the player must strike notes as they pass beneath a trio of wireframe reticules. A melodic sequence of jewels is a ‘phase’, the striking of which ignites the entire track and leaves it playing until, come a predetermined point, the song reverts to a basic rhythm and the tracks reopen for capture.
It’s the strategy to which this engine is applied that fuels its acceleration. High scores can only be attained by chaining together ‘streaks’ of phases – capturing one before moving, via the D-pad, on to the next, without missing a beat. Succeed and you receive a multiplier; succeed again and the multiplier increases; fail and the multiplier is lost. Capture every available track before they reset and you’ll momentarily have control of the Freestyler – a freeform scratchpad that provides both a bridge for your multiplier and an aural celebration of a job well done. Furthermore, certain phases consist of special jewels that, when captured, grant a power-up to the player. The Multiplier increases your capacity for maximising score beyond its usual limit; the Autocatcher will capture an entire track automatically – essential for maintaining a streak when you botch that first jewel. From the moment a song begins, your path to the highest possible score is always evolving. You can plan the perfect path, bounding from one track to the next while avoiding awkward multitrack jumps, but what if you miss a note? What if the key to achieving a high score involves sacrificing a streak for a distant power-up? Will the path you’ve chosen waste a x6 multiplier on a simple sequence for meagre reward, or gloriously convert the most demanding phase in the song?