The words “on-the-rails” typically send shivers down my spine, but for some reason it becomes less off-putting when controlling a spaceship rather than a person. Combine that with the use of a player’s music library, and Signal to Noise became a more intriguing prospect.
It’s not unheard of for games to base themselves on your music library. In the late 2000s, we had the likes of AudioSurf and Beat Hazard, while Crypt of the NecroDancer is a more recent example. It’s important to note that Signal to Noise does not feature a soundtrack, which is a shame because the title track has potential, so you’ll need music stored on your PC. Alternatively, you can stream music from your phone if you happen to have an AUX cable to hand.
Signal to Noise analyses chosen tracks and shapes the experience based on the dynamics, pitch and tempo of your chosen track. It does so on-the-fly with the level shifting to the beat, and enemies and power-ups appearing based on the music. It’s an interesting approach, but there are flaws in its execution.
It can take quite a while to load a level and it’s never clear why this is the case; after all, the music isn’t analysed beforehand, or so we’re told. Levels are, however, pre-determined to a point. You get a shooty bit, a bit where you dodge obstacles, and a boss battle. If your track is still going, you do it again. This means that the level never heads for a crescendo with an epic boss battle, but can instead peter out at any point when your music finishes.
It’s a shame because there are times when things just click. During Master of Puppets’ slower solo, I was charting my way through an area filled with electrical beams, which was mesmeric. Similarly, during quick songs, enemies sometimes flooded the screen. While levels are psychedelic with flashing colours and pulses to match your music, enemies and obstacles are still clearly visible.
From a gameplay perspective, everything feels like it could be bigger. The boss battle looks like it could be an epic showdown between David and Goliath, but if you shoot first and ask questions later you’ll dispatch it quickly. If you do leave it build to an attack, you get a taste of what could have been, but free from the confines of the tunnel, it’s all too easy to dodge.
The sections with shifting obstacles certainly showcase how levels alter based on your music. They are tricky, but even death is less spectacular than you might hope. In a game packed with psychedelic colours and effects, death is essentially a Pause screen. There’s no flash, no explosion, no spectacle; simply a menu presented over the level that ticks away in the backdrop that offers you the chance to continue, restart, or exit. It’s only if you leave the track play out without selecting an option that you are presented with the news that you died.
This minimalist approach is consistent throughout Signal to Noise’s presentation. The music selection process is quite barebones, there are no metrics or stats about selected songs, and even the main menu consists of few buttons. At the bare minimum, we’d appreciate a hint at how long a track or playlist is, just in case we got a little ambitious or have to factor in level load times as well. Perhaps developer Solanimus wanted to avoid the obvious punchline that there’s more noise than signal if it overdid the presentation, but it has been overly cautious if so.
There’s endless replayability here if you have an extensive music collection with bragging rights to be competed for. Signal to Noise is certainly flawed, but most of its issues could be rectified with updates. The one integral problem that detracts from the experience is the overall level structure. Were songs to end with a memorable boss battle, Signal to Noise could have gone out on a high note. Instead, it’s like watching a band amble off stage mid-set after a rousing hit, leaving everyone a little confused and underwhelmed.
Signal to Noise will be available on Steam from November 20th
2.5 / 5 - Mark O'Beirne