In recent years, the rhythm game genre has seen some notable ups and downs. While the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band were big hits in the past and inspired numerous imitators, newer entries in both series have underperformed, to the point of the Guitar Hero brand being put on hiatus, and the only known Rock Band release in the future being the downloadable spinoff Rock Band Blitz. Now, Zivix is encouraging players to pick their plastic guitars back up and use them in a new way with JAM Live Music Arcade, a downloadable title with an emphasis on freeform remixing, and while the game may not reach the same heights as the best plastic instrument-based rhythm games, it still offers some neat features.
The game is divided into two modes – JAM Mode and Arcade Mode. The former is the game’s big selling point, and it differentiates from standard rhythm games in numerous ways. First off, you are not given specific commands to input at specific times. Instead, you are given access to individual audio tracks for each song, typically including tracks like guitar, drums, bass, synth or sound effects, and vocals. Each instrument has five separate tracks that can be individually switched on and off, with each one corresponding to the five fret buttons on the guitar controller. Holding down a certain button and strumming up will enable each of the five instruments, while holding down certain buttons and strumming down will enable the individual tracks for enabled instruments.
Players are free to experiment and improvise with these tracks, and while you can’t fail in this mode, you still receive points and score-based medals for switching tracks while keeping the main beat of the song. Assistance for this comes in the form of a metronome in the lower middle portion of the screen, signaling to players the most appropriate time to switch things up. Players are encouraged to get their individual song scores up through the mode’s progression mechanic, which makes players go through individual tiers of songs before unlocking the next group.
JAM Mode is simple, free-form, and almost free of real goals, but it works pretty well as a relaxing way to have fun with music and not feel limited in terms of what and when you input. The charm and personal satisfaction of kicking in new music tracks with each beat is addicting, and the fact that you can record your remixes and input them into Arcade Mode is a nice bonus.
Unfortunately, Arcade Mode is where the game stumbles a bit. Essentially, this mode is more like a traditional rhythm game in that you are given five tracks of scrolling notes to press at the right time to play a pre-made remix. The problem here is that the control scheme is the same as JAM Mode with the manual instrument switching, and on the harder songs, things can become a bit overwhelming with the player having to juggle switching to individual tracks and pressing notes at the same time.
There is also only one difficulty for each song, meaning that those who often play similar games on lower difficulties may be left in the dust. A confusing visual choice also comes in the form of what could be considered your health meter. A bar is always displayed at the top of the screen that serves as a signal; when a note touches a bar, that’s the time to strum it. However, if you miss a note, the bar moves down the screen a bit, essentially squishing the amount of space notes get and slowing their ascent. When you have multiple notes coming at you in a sequence, the overall change in visual position can be very disorienting, and it probably would have been a wiser choice to have a separate health bar on the side of the screen like other games.
Finally, the song selection may be problematic for some. While the game touts having such big-name artists as Fall Out Boy, Owl City, and Modest Mouse, the truth is that the more familiar licensed songs only make up about 1/6 of the overall track list. The rest is filled out by indie artists that general audiences probably won’t know about at all. It’s true that some of these artists’ songs are quite good and fun to play, but players going in looking to play nothing but their favorite songs may be disappointed.
Despite the issues with song selection and Arcade Mode, JAM Live Music Arcade‘s main selling point is JAM Mode, and it works well overall. Players who want the next Guitar Hero or Rock Band probably won’t get that here, but those who want a unique, sandbox musical experience will find some enjoyment with it. Half of the game is what you’d expect from a rhythm title, while half of it is something different, and it’s ultimately the different half that makes the game worth trying out.
This review is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.