One glance at your inventory will remind you that Sequence is special. Nestled in your bag are a Flail, three Dead Batteries, a Stripper, and a Comedy Club. According to the game, the Flail is favored among epileptics.
Sequence is too sterile a title for this vibrant game, which will become known as one of the brightest lights on Xbox Live Indie Games. The flagship release from Iridium Studios breathes new life into the role-playing genre, taking inspiration both obvious and subtle from rhythm games.
But its success begins with a willingness to subvert tradition. In the game's single dungeon, a high-tech tower overseen by a colourful cast of Guardians, you advance not by questing, but by crafting. A key is needed to unlock each of the seven floors, and must be made from the spoils of battle. Each monster drops items at random, but in certain percentages shown in a menu. You choose all your battles from this menu, rather than stumbling into them on the world map. Crafting, moreover, costs experience points, so that you must continually negotiate your character’s progression with the larger goal. If Sequence is at heart a grind for loot, it's one that motivates the player anew.
Its revelation is to transform the standard grind from a test of persistence – or patience – into one of skill and perception. A battle in Sequence is a dance, as imagined by Dance Dance Revolution. Across three separate windows, you tap the directional or face buttons (the game is also compatible with dance pads and guitar controllers) in time to falling arrows that correspond to the beat of the battle music. One window casts spells, another gathers mana for more spells, and the third blocks the enemy's attacks. At the game's height, you'll flick nonstop between these windows to maintain your offense while fending off attacks and frantically regenerating mana, all before the song fades and costs you the win. Unlike in other music games, the sequence can't be learned; except for your own spells, the torrent of arrows is randomized.
This is a challenging mechanic. It takes two or three levels of progress to get a handle on the multitasking and button maneuvering. At the midway point, Sequence becomes hard on Easy, while the twitching spectre of Gitaroo Man haunts the higher difficulties. Yet this is also a sound mechanic that successfully builds improvisation into a genre better known for calculation and certain victory. You can't simply accept cues from the game, as it inevitably places spell casting, mana generation, and defense at odds with one another. Constrained only by your reflexes and brain capacity, you will ultimately write your own song – making a snap decision, for example, to take a beating so that you can focus on a powerful life-draining spell.
Sequence retains a sense of purpose from start to finish, surpassing likeminded genre mashups like Puzzle Quest, whose match-three battles outlived their novelty to settle into familiar turn-based drudgery. This is in part due to the far-fetched but authentic, human-scale narrative. The protagonist Ky finds himself trapped in the tower with only a sarcastic girl named Naia as his guide. Their banter is sharp as a jackknife and convincingly voiced. (To Ky’s reasonable "My offense is 5? Why 5? So arbitrary," Naia responds, "Eh … you look like a 5.") And the tower’s premise turns out to be thought provoking.
But most significantly, neither the role-playing nor the music aspect of Sequence calcifies into routine. Where the grind is self-driven, the rhythm game demands that you actually listen to the music to make sense of the overflow of cues. It’s a shame, then, that Sequence’s music falls somewhat short of the game. Beats by DJ Plaeskool lack personality, and YouTube sensation Ronald Jenkees’ compositions have lost something in translation from video to battle screen. This is the unlikely game that improves on its soundtrack, and not vice-versa – the songs may not be memorable, but by the end of Sequence you’ll have formed an intimate relationship with them. Up, down, left, and right rarely meant this much.