While Rayark deliver a title full of interesting ideas that sadly don’t come together to make a cohesive whole, there’s still fun to be had with their emotional deep rhythm game.
World-building & Story
Deemo takes place in an unfamiliar world – the story begins right in the middle of the action, with an un-named girl falling through the sky into dark room with just a piano, a small tree and the titular Deemo around her. From here the world-building begins, as you explore this strange new place as the girl through a series of point & click style scenes.
This world is intentionally presented as an unfamiliar place – dark, claustrophobic and uncomfortable, poking around the cramped areas allows you to get a bearing on what’s happens and discover that this is the game’s main mechanic – Deemo can play the piano and this causes the tree to grow. The central zone with the piano and tree remains your beacon of hope – as the tree grows taller you get closer to being able to escape this area and find your way back home, and as such it’s presented in much brighter, optimistic colours with glimmers of light shining from above.
The actual story involves peeling back the mystery regarding this world the girl has fallen into as Deemo plays more and more songs and the tree continues to grow. The payoff is rewarding – the story isn’t what it appears to be and there’s some surprisingly deep themes in here, which is definitely a refreshing change of pace for a rhythm game.
Unfortunately, the story moves at a glacial pace and there are long periods where not very much actually happens – it’s a very broad group of set-pieces leading to a final reveal. While the journey is enjoyable, I always felt like I was going stretches without anything significant happening; only to be met with a cursory cutscene showing nothing in particular. There’s a sense of whimsical wonder throughout, but it’s not enough to hold the whole package together.
Presentation & Sound
As previously mentioned, Deemo is split between the animated cutscenes, adventure-style scenes and rhythm sections, which are generally presented extremely well, although some areas remain much more impressive than others.
Beginning with the animated cutscenes – these are universally beautiful, almost Studio Ghibli-esque in their whimsical nature and style. They often feature no spoken words but instead use music and animation to explain what’s happening, a nice touch alongside the general theme of using music to convey emotion throughout the game.
On to the adventure-style scenes, which feature a more hand-drawn art style compared to the cutscenes. The environments generally feature a lot of detail in them, and are quite beautiful to look at – each is like a mini-painting; you’ll find yourself wanting to take many screenshots of these as each scene changes based on your actions.
Finally, there’s the rhythm-gameplay segments. These are by far the most aesthetically dull parts of the game, pretty much a blank canvas showing the music – although whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your interpretation (having too much happening on-screen can be a distraction in a game like this where focusing is important). Personally I wasn’t a fan – considering the beautiful artstyle of the other parts of the title, the rhythm sections felt significantly lacking.
Of course, sound is an area where the game picks up. In terms of voice acting there’s very little – the main character is voiced but rarely speaks (basically only if you interact with her during the adventure-style scenes) while everyone else remains silent. VA is fully Japanese, but I noted nothing particularly wrong with it.
Soundtrack is full of ups and downs, everything from k-pop to techno to classical music, although the theme throughout is piano – each song represents something Deemo is playing, which is an interesting way to tie everything together. The sheer volume of music present means that there’s going to be tonnes of stuff you’ll love listening to and the genre variety certainly keeps things entertaining – I found myself whistling some of the melodies long after playing.
Gameplay & Content
So gameplay is what it really boils down to, and unfortunately Deemo stumbles here. As previously mentioned there are two aspects to gameplay – the brief point & click style sections which have you interacting with the environment; and the rhythm sections which make up the bulk of the game.
To begin with the adventure sections – these are quite minor, but do a good job of broadening the experience beyond what you’d normally expect from a title like this. You can flick through various lightly-animated scenes depicting the world the girl has fallen into and interact with objects in them, which will normally lead to a comment from the girl such as “these books are too heavy for me to lift”. Occasionally you’ll stumble upon an item that will give you an in-game song as a bonus for clicking on it, but this just leads to you randomly clicking on every item in the environment in the hopes of finding a song.
So the bulk of the game lies in the rhythm element and while this contains some interesting ideas, it doesn’t quite come together. To begin with, the entire game is played through the touch screen (menus included) – all inputs are done by touch. The rhythm gameplay is handled by notes falling from the top of the screen down to a line at the bottom of the screen, requiring you to press the screen at the location of the note once it’s on the line. Keeping with the aforementioned theme, this is supposed to emulate playing notes on a piano – but in reality it didn’t pan out this way for me as I found myself pressing them all with two fingers as I liked to hold my Vita in my hands rather than place it on a flat surface, which made things a bit awkward.
While there are various different types notes you’ll come across, there’s a limit to what you can actually do – you’re either pressing the screen or holding the screen, meaning variety isn’t the game’s strong point compared to other titles with button inputs. The gameplay is serviceable though, and once you get into a flow things will start to click making the experience more enjoyable.
Key to any rhythm game is timing, and Deemo is no different here. You’re judged based whether you hit the notes at the right time- get it spot on and you’re rewarded with a ‘charming’ hit (the note turns orange); get it close enough and you’re given a green hit which still counts towards your combo; miss entirely and you get a blue hit and lose your combo. This is tallied up at the end of the song and you’re told how many ‘charming’ notes you hit and how long your combo was – both count towards your completion percentage which needs to be over 65% to count as completing the level.
Content is an area where the game shines – there’s over 100 songs available here (more with DLC, though you’ll need an Asian PSN account for these if you imported a copy like me) each with multiple difficulty settings and multiple speeds. In addition there’s an ‘after-story’ new to the Vita version which is unlocked after completing the main game.
Unfortunately the way the content is delivered throughout the story is extremely frustrating. You’re rewarded with new songs at certain milestones the tree hits while growing, but to make the tree grow you have to play new songs. It’ll grow around 0.2m when you’re playing a song you haven’t played before (or on a higher difficulty); but around 0.09m when you’re repeating a song you’ve played before.
In reality this means that the game turns into a bit of a grind – you’ll either have to play songs you don’t like on difficulties that are too hard for you just to unlock further content, or you’ll have to repeat the same songs a lot which becomes tedious. Alternatively you can attempt to get ‘perfect’ runs (get a full combo or all ‘charming’ hits), but I found this an incredibly frustrating experience (constantly restarting songs whenever I lost a combo).
Ease of understanding
(Edit note: This review was written from an Asian-English import copy before the western release happened).
Just a quick note on this – the game is available in a fully English version that you can import, but even without this the game should be extremely straight forward to understand. With that said, the English version is clearly a google translate job, as you’ll often read sentences that make sense but don’t read quite right, which shouldn’t impact your enjoyment of the game but is worth noting.
Deemo isn’t a fantastic rhythm game, with simplistic mechanics and an un-necessary grind to unlock content. Underneath the mechanics, however, there’s a genuinely touching story which is absolutely worth experiencing.