I am constantly humbled by the often seemingly effortless genius of indie games. It takes a blend of nigh-disconcerting naivety and a tinge of suicidal tendencies for big developers to allow truly boundless creativity and genre defying mechanics, but if you’re willing to look to indie development you can be privy to those things in abundance.
It hardly makes matters worse that I happen to be a predisposed sucker for nearly everything about Waveform. My appreciation for the slick visuals and score-attack-centric nature of a Shatter or a Geometry Wars borders on fetishism, so the second I saw the title screen fade in I audibly went “yes!” and threw my hands in the air. Give me abstract, pseudo-retro neon nonsense, and my pleasure centre lights up like a Christmas tree.
Waveform tasks you with controlling a sinus curve-like beam which your on screen avatar travels along. You push it together and stretch it out, both vertically and horizontally, in order to pick up points and avoid obstacles. At the beginning of the game, trails of points are conveniently laid in patterns that perfectly line up with your curve when you find the right shape, but, as you advance through the game’s myriad of levels, you’re eventually expected to perform manoeuvres that are more direct, with patterns of points that require continuous and constant manipulation of your avatar’s trajectory.
I blame the way my brain is wired, but it took me quite a while to wrap my head around the core gameplay of Waveform – simple as it may be. The way you interact with it initially feels rather clunky and Photoshop tool-esque. Not unlike how Guitar Hero blossoms on higher difficulties, however, it was later on when the heat turned up that Waveform morphed into something more spontaneous and intuitive. I found that once I started thinking of the curve as an indication of where I was “aiming,” instead of laying tracks to travel along, the game suddenly clicked, and once-awkward mechanics suddenly made beautiful sense.
So, the fundamentals of Waveform are equal parts mind boggling and ridiculously impressive. So much so that it would’ve been perfectly reasonable to expect that to be the extent of its ambition, but it isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s in going for the long haul that the floor boards start creaking a little.
The structure of the game has you progressing by travelling the solar system, beginning at Pluto and ending at the Sun. Each planet offers up 6-9 main levels, as well as a few locked and hidden bonus ones. Your journey is loosely framed by screens of expository text in-between levels, outlining your role and purpose.
Different planets – and sometimes even individual levels – introduce new concepts that are layered on top of the core formula. For instance, some levels have worm holes that allow you to go into them and pop out on a different part of the screen. Others have clouds of dust that slow you down or speed you up, sometimes distorting the trajectory of your beam. There are some with tracks that you lock into, rapidly hurling you ahead, and others with special colour based power-ups, allowing you to “paint” points and then pick them up with score multipliers activated. The upside of this is that you sometimes come across a level that makes your heart glow, because the gimmick it introduces puts an amazing spin on the core gameplay. The downside, conversely, is that the next one may well drop that gimmick entirely, in favour of one that simply doesn’t work nearly as well.
More damningly, they never form a cohesive whole. The game mostly seems occupied with providing enough gameplay modifiers to justify its 100+ level count, and less concerned with truly committing to the ones that are exceptional – the ones that could have built towards an absolutely amazing second half. Instead, with levels across all planets looking almost identical, and a soundtrack that is really good but ultimately spread very thin, Waveform never finds proper momentum. Its joys are irrefutable, but they are somewhat sporadically dotted throughout.
Not to sound like Mr. Armchair Gamedesigner, but the game could have benefited from halving the level count – giving each planet a distinct visual and aural flavour – and being more discerning with its choices of level gimmicks. Allowing them to build on one another, instead of overlapping and sometimes cancelling each other out, would’ve painted a different overall picture.
As it stands, Waveform has an excitement curve as bendy as its core gameplay conceit. A wholly unique experience with brilliant mechanics at the centre, its only misstep is its overreach preventing it from shining as bright as it could have.