Shield the Beat is likely to confuse many who take a cursory glance at the game on the Xbox indie game marketplace. From screenshots, the game could easily be mistaken for a Star Fox-esque space combat game. When actually playing the game, that couldn't be further from the truth. Shield the Beat is a rhythm game through and through. I worry that those first impressions will scare off the game's true target audience, which would be a shame if rhythm fans missed out on this original indie take on the music game genre.
The space combat visuals provide context to the rhythm gameplay. The game's title is quite literal: players control the shield of a ship in the center of the screen as four enemy ships fire projectiles in time with the music. When at its best the gameplay the music and gameplay work perfectly together, as I flicked the analog stick to catch beats, often spinning in half circles around the ship to protect from streams of enemy fire. Two additional ships can also be unlocked for play, each of which has its own health and shield coverage area. Ships with smaller shields also provide big score multipliers, so skilled players will be rewarded with higher scores for their accuracy.
It is actually possible to use both analog sticks to maneuver two shields simultaneously, but it seems my brain couldn't quite keep up with that. I have no problem playing first-person shooters or twin-stick shooters where you move with one stick and aim with the other, but moving two objects at the same time with both sticks is beyond my abilities. Any attempt on my part to use both analog sticks resulted in more missed beats than when I was only using one. This meant I was left out of the hardest difficulty setting, which pretty much requires both sticks to survive, and two of the game's modes that revolve around using both sticks.
The first of those dual stick variations is the two color mode. Normally all of the beats are blue, but in this mode beats come at your either blue or red, and you must match them with the appropriately colored shield. The beats come in the same pattern, but since matching the wrong colors means taking damage, this mode requires players to pay much more careful attention to which analog stick is being used. The other variant is mirror mode, which mirrors the regular beat pattern for each song. So, for example, if there is normally a beat on the left side, in mirror mode beats would appear on both the left and right side. Thankfully, these dual stick modes can also be completed with a second player, which makes them far more manageable and fun.
Aside from the unique rhythm gameplay, Shield the Beat is set apart from other Xbox indie games by its licensed soundtrack. Though I can't say I recognized all its eight tracks, certain songs like "Up the Walls" by PT Walkley and the game's showpiece, Franz Ferdinand's "The Fallen," stand out as familiar tunes. The merging of indie games and indie music seems like such a natural fit, and yet seldom actually occurs. Kudos to Shield the Beat and its developers for putting the extra effort into securing quality music for their rhythm game.
Now, Shield the Beat isn't necessarily a perfect rhythm game. I already touched on my own personal difficulty managing play with both analog sticks, so this is a definite try before you buy type of game. Aside from that, the other quirk that popped up from time to time was the occasional odd camera angle. As you move the shields to block incoming fire, the ship will fly through space trying to avoid the attackers. For the most part it adds some nice visual flair, but sometimes the ship will take a sharp turn, making it difficult to gauge where enemy projectiles will hit. It only happened in two or three of the songs, but it did cause me to miss a note I would have otherwise shielded. Practice solves the problem as you learn each song's beat pattern, but it shouldn't have been a problem in the first place.
Despite my dual analog stick conundrum, I found Shield the Beat to be a fun and rewarding rhythm game. When it works, it works tremendously well, and since all songs can be played with only a single stick the game is perfectly playable for those of us whose right and left brains don't get along. If you're a fan of rhythm games, and want something new from the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, then Shield the Beat is a refreshing change of pace as the music soars through space.
A copy of Shield the Beat was provided by the developer for purposes of this review. All songs were completed on Easy and Normal difficulty settings, as well as a few attempts at the two color mode and mirror mode.