When you think “music game”, you probably think “rhythm action”. Well, Stockholm-based indie team Ichigoichie is here to confound your expectations with Backbeat, a funkily fiendish puzzle game about the intricacies of playing in a band.
Ichigoichie’s first game was 2019’s Hexagroove, where they were already shaking music gaming up by mixing dance music creation, DJing, and Gitaroo Man-style track-following rhythm action. The studio’s heritage even goes back, via co-founder David Ventura, to the Nintendo DS classic Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! (progenitor of Elite Beat Agents in the West). And that game’s goofiness of story and characterful overworld map extend their tendrils through the decades all the way into 2023’s Backbeat, too.
Despite its background, however, Backbeat is not a game characterised by performing in time with a beat, or even by playing the right notes. The gameplay, its significant depth introduced over the course of many levels, involves manipulating four timelines, one for each member of a funk band, as they move across a map to reach a goal area. Each move takes a turn, progressing the timeline, while pressing 'B' rewinds, allowing you to rework your potential solution. This interaction happens in parallel across the four characters, and their interactions with the level change the possibilities for their bandmates.
Each stage is bookended by story cutscenes. It’s simple stuff, but gives colour to proceedings and succeeds in keeping a highly technical set of rules feeling light. In short, a young bassist, Watts, is starting out in her parents’ garage in a mid-Atlantic town in the '90s. She assembles a ragtag bunch of misfits and sets them on the unlikely road to jamming funk in the town’s slickest venue. It’s all dressed lovingly in VHS distortion, videotape rental stores, retro malls, and surprise at mobile phones. Coupled with a highly polished graphical style in varied and appealing colour palettes, the visual presentation is on point.
Crucially, the game is just as polished sonically as visually. Each stage is backed by a very simple metronomic beat, which adds not pressure exactly, but a kind of anticipation. As you plan out your characters’ moves, which feels a bit like playing a turn-based strategy game, they start to play snippets of funk from their instrument: bass, keytar, drums, or sax. As your solution builds up, the individual parts meld into a jam session, the completed level ending with a full run-through of the performance as everyone walks to the goal.
Overhearing the gameplay is a delight – it just sounds like a little band in your Switch playing with ideas. Ichigoichie has touted the ability to define your unique soundtrack as you play but, in practice, the logic of the puzzle was the driver of our choices, not the musical potentialities.
Although there’s no rhythm-action, it’s definitely true that Backbeat is a “music game” of a different sort. Apart from the plot and its battle-of-the-bands showdown, the mechanics create an engrossing feeling of jamming as a group. For one thing, the characters’ different moves distinguish them and make sense of their instruments: the drummer makes big, clear movements on the beat, the walking bass and key-tar play off one another to each cover the squares the other can’t, and the sax soloist moves in jazzy triplets – three steps to each beat of the bar. The ruleset constraining these moves requires the regularity of changing direction on the beat, the variety of hitting different beats with each bandmate, and the careful timing of solos to support each other or give space to show off.
By the time the whole range of mechanics has been thrown into the mix, it gets seriously complex – and the process of putting all this together truly feels like refining a composition. We sometimes weren’t sure whether we were making a puzzle solution that was like a piece of music or making a piece of music that was like solving a puzzle. The only slight niggle with the ambitiously complex mechanics and interface is that editing a decision made earlier in the level requires you to undo everything that came later – but it’s not a show-stopping irritation. It’s fascinating that despite this inherent musicality, you could play Backbeat with the sound off. It’s a music game that makes you think about music, but doesn’t actually require you to perform or listen to it.
The lack of action gameplay means you are free to plot out, rewind, and rework your jam session as much as you like – which is just as well because we typically took half an hour or so to finish the more complex stages, and one in particular had us stumped for ages. And that brings us to how Backbeat manages its difficulty. New mechanics piling in with great frequency make the learning curve steep, although it is at least very smooth. However, if you do get stuck, there’s no hint system in the game. Walkthroughs will surely appear online and so Ichigoichie seems to have decided to delegate hints and tips to the internet rather than to control that experience. It’s a bit of a shame because the game world is so smart and stylish that it would have been nice to stay there and get some gentle pointers.
Another side effect of the growing complexity of mechanics is that going back to earlier stages can feel rather odd. There are critical-path stages that must be completed to progress through the game, but there are further sub-stages that unlock alongside the main ones. This means that if you work through the story mode’s key levels before going back to the sub-stages, you will find yourself playing without the later mechanics you’re now accustomed to. It’s testament to how well the advanced rules gel that this feels frustrating, but it does limit replayability somewhat. Replaying to get an S+ Rank is handled well, since your finished solution is saved and you can rework it rather than start from scratch. However, we found that there was rarely much difference in difficulty between just finishing a tricky stage at all and getting that perfect score.
Backbeat stands out among puzzle games for its attractive graphics and constantly pulsing, funky soundscape, but most of all for its impressive depth of mechanics. Juggling phrase lengths, bar markers, alignment, stagger, solos, and special moves – all in interactive levels full of moving parts – is like having a wah-wah pedal hooked up to your brain. Apart from a sometimes-fiddly interface and limited replayability, Ichigoichie has hit all the right notes.