Hands-on: Rhythm Game ‘Audio Beats’ is a Hidden Gem That Plays to VR’s Strengths

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At SVVR 2017 this week in Silicon Valley, Chinese VR developer organization VRCore brought a range of content to the show representing some of the VR work happening in the West. Among that content was Audio Beats by developer Famiku, a SteamVR game for Vive and Rift with surprising polish and compelling gameplay.

We’ve seen a number of rhythm games pop up in the VR space which rely largely on existing tropes from the genre in a new VR setting. I was impressed with Audio Beats in the way that it plays effectively to VR’s strengths and fosters gameplay mechanics that are unique and only possible in VR.

Photo courtesy Famiku
Photo courtesy Famiku

The foundation of the game is a virtual futuristic drum instrument which has four floating panels which you can strike with your virtual futuristic drumsticks. The instrument is as simple as a real drum—hit a thing with another thing… make noise—making it instantly playable at a basic level, and yet the game’s smart mechanics make it clear that there’s abundant overhead for challenge and mastery (see some gameplay in the video heading this article). As you might suspect, given the fursustic instrument, the music for now mostly falls into the electronica genre, underlined with deep beats.

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Much of the gameplay mechanics are about striking the right drum at the right time as a pulse of light travels down a note path to one of the drums; pretty basic stuff as far as the rhythm game genre is concerned. Of course, a real drum pushes back against your stick when you hit it, but a virtual drum cannot. Audio Beats doesn’t apologize for this, but instead embraces it with mechanics that only make sense in VR.

Among the various beat mechanics are occasional arrows which will come down the note path. To hit these correctly, you need to swing your drumstick through the drum in the indicated direction. For instance, if there’s an up arrow, I need to hit the correct drum with an upswing (coming from underneath) to land the note correctly. That means that I’m now not only thinking about timing and which drum to hit, but also the direction of my swing. The result is an effective mechanic that turns a limitation of VR into a strength of gameplay.

In addition to the basic beat and arrow beat mechanics, there’s also sustain notes, another well trodden concept in the rhythm game world, where instead of just striking the note once you need to hold it down for the duration in order to hit it correctly. But again Audio Beats goes smartly one step further in a way that takes advantage of VR. In the game, the sustain notes will shift in location as they proceed down the note path, meaning you have to not only hit and hold the correct starting location, but you need to move your hand around to stay in line with the stream as it moves from place to place, which can sometimes be from one drum to the next, or all the way across a gap between the furthest spaced drums.

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VRCore founder Pinshan “Rebecca” Liu plays ‘Audio Beats’ at SVVR 2017

And of course all of these mechanics will be thrown at you simultaneously. Keeping your eye on the moving sustain note with one hand, while the other hand is busy jumping back and forth between drums during a complex string of notes is extremely satisfying. So too is nailing the arrow notes and combo notes as they are intertwined with the rest of it.

The gameplay really involves your body and your ability to multitask your limbs; real drummers will definitely have an upperhand to start, but while the outside-of-the-box mechanics might be outwardly based on drums, the gameplay could not be achieved with a real drum set or drum peripheral (like you might find with Rock Band). This unique-to-VR design is what makes VR games great, and why I came away very impressed with Audio Beats.

The game launched in early 2017 for $10 and although it isn’t specifically listed as an Early Access title, it appears the developers plan to grow it over time, with the Audio Beats Steam page noting, “This version contains the core gameplay for players to experience. The official version will have more songs and game functions will be updated regularly.” The game recently added Rift and Touch support (on top of its Vive support) and leaderboards to keep players competing for high scores.

Presently, it appears there’s only six tracks available (each with three difficulty levels, though I promise you won’t be able to start at Expert), and as above, the plan is for the developer to add more over time, which I very much hope they do.

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