If there’s one lesson that 10 years of singing, instrument-playing, and dancing have taught me, it’s that the show must go on. The number of people I’ve seen take “break a leg” beyond pure metaphor, and still soldier on, genuinely astounds me. No matter the error, no matter the number of botched notes, or missed steps, you power through a performance with all you can, for surely the alternative is always worse.
For a game so wrapped up in the power of music, it’s odd to see Klang (developed by the one-man team at Tinimations and composed by EDM guru Jordan Aguirre AKA “bLiNd”) take so much of its ethos to heart, and yet stumble on that one key point.
As the cybergoth-inspired rave warrior, you’ll fight and headbang your way towards defeating the evil Soundlord Sonos in a world absolutely soaked with neon and musical minutia. Levels, many of which feel like they’re ripped from the stages of your favorite rock venue, pulse with each distinctive track’s beat. Streetlamps shaped like clef notes hang above your head as you dash on by. Each track helps to define the rhythm of combat or exploration. Enemies gather around you to lob carefully synchronized attacks, while a directional meter lets you know when to strike it back. Giant soundwave attacks demand you either leap or slide your way to safety, and it all comes together in the game’s later stages to create a beautiful maelstrom of action.
The music is, as advertised, an amazing and eclectic mix of hard-hitting EDM and more tranquil house music beats. BLiNd’s work might not be for everyone (to say nothing of the genre as a whole), but the marriage between Tinimations’ aesthetic and composer Jordan Aguirre’s infectious rhythms are undeniably beautiful. Rather than a simple backdrop, the soundtrack plays a vital role in determining movement during combat and exploration. The heady thud-thud-thud of a classic EDM beat, coupled with a damaging force field that blinks on and off of a wall, dictates how you must traverse upwards using a classic wall jump maneuver. Much like a music aficionado might use a song’s rhythm to guess what’s coming next (think the “drop” in nearly any EDM song), so must the player, learning to duck and leap away from the next attack, or avoid the deadly searchlights of stationary enemies.
The problem begins (and for the most part, ends) with how Klang’s gameplay manages to detract from the success of this marriage. Even for fans of gaming’s most difficult genres and franchises (twitch shooters, Dark Souls), Klang is an astonishingly difficult, often frustrating experience. What issues Klang’s demo had could easily be chalked up to an unfamiliarity with the game’s mechanics, but spread out over the two to four hours of available content, those issues become omnipresent. Even on the game’s lowest difficulty, and employing a “reflex mode” that briefly slows down time when taking significant damage, Klang’s frantic action and occasional one-hit kills proved to be way too much to handle. While the game is great about putting you back in the action almost immediately, you’ll die so often that it won’t feel like it matters, putting you in the position of getting frustrated, and thus unable to concentrate, leading to more deaths.
While taking on one of the game’s bosses, I found myself stuck between his constant attacks, a deadly pit of energy behind me, and a continuous gust of wind that threatened to push me into it. I had already gotten used to the mechanics of leaping and ducking to avoid massive soundwave attacks from this boss, but while the game does give you a fair bit of health, all it took was one mismanaged jump (while also deflecting regular attacks) for me to lose my momentum and get swept into the pit. If it’s not the pit, it will be one of the countless, twitchy “security cameras” you must run by without being spotted once for fear of being zapped. If it’s not the cameras, it might be the rapidly dissipating platforms that only solidify once you’ve executed one of 30 precarious jump-deflect combos. If it’s not any one of those things, it will be some combination.
You will die. Incredibly often. And as beautiful as bLiNd’s music is, as much as I’m dying to listen to it all over again, you will grow so familiar with the first 10-20 seconds of each track that they begin to lose their luster.
Klang almost certainly plays to the kind of gamer that enjoys a ludicrously demanding experience. Unfortunately, the game’s unforgiving nature will likely sour the experience for anyone who doesn’t seek out such a thing. One of the worst things a musician can do is stop their performance after making one, or even many, simple mistakes. Acknowledging and walking back on a commitment always seems less impressive than powering through an understandable, if human, error. You won’t find room for any error, much less human. Beyond the split-second reaction times, its level design is also occasionally flawed. During a boss battle that incorporated cones of vision (and one-hit deaths for being seen), three raised platforms above the boss’ head felt like indicators that aerial attacks wouldn’t work. This turned out to be completely false. Aerial attacks were the only method, but the level design, plus a rapidly shifting enemy cone of vision, plus an unforgiving checkpoint system quickly turned the battle into something as frustrating as it was inventive. Klang’s brilliant soundtrack and unique brand of action platforming would come across as a much more cohesive package if we were able to appreciate it at length and as a whole, rather than gritting our teeth and praying for a checkpoint.
For those who do feel up to the challenge, beyond the normal difficulty setting, beating the game unlocks a “Nightcore” mode (maybe don’t Google that) that allows you to play at an even higher difficulty.
Klang still carries a sincere sense of recommendation, if only based on its incredibly inventive style and incorporation of music. We don’t often get a game, indie or otherwise, that has the courage to tackle music with such ingenuity. Tinimations’ and bLiNd’s passion shows in every single beat, but their own concept gets too caught up in its own noodling to allow for lesser players to enjoy it to its fullest extent.
Klang was reviewed on PC and is now available on Steam.