Riff Racer Review

Developer: FOAM Entertainment
Publisher: FOAM Entertainment
Played on: PC
Release Date: May 12, 2016
Time Played (Steam): 2.1 hours
Paid: $5.89 (Multi-game bundle)

Game developers around the world, a word of advice for you.  If you want me to be instantly interested in your game, do the following:

  1. Make it a music/rhythm game.
  2. Allow me to import my own music into the game.

That’s it.  It’s that easy.  I find that there’s something incredibly satisfying about mashing keys to a tight drumbeat, playful piano, or heavy-hitting bass drop.  Games that effectively synchronize with their music can give even the simplest of actions a visceral thrill.  Add to that the ability to import your own music, and you have an effectively infinite game.  This is the reason that I was (and still am) totally hooked on Audiosurf.  In my opinion, it’s the perfect blend of simplicity of design and exciting gameplay, and I’ve spent many hours playing the game with my music library.  It’s an amazing game for turning the lights low, shutting your brain off, and spending a few minutes or hours jamming to your favourite tunes.  It has very quickly become the standard that I judge many other music/rhythm games by, particularly when they try to use similar gameplay mechanics.  Not to say that Audiosurf was the originator of some or any of those mechanics, but it’s the one that I’ve spent the most time with.

So, enter Riff Racer.  A game that in many ways feels like a spiritual successor to Audiosurf.  It’s got the neon-coated tracks generated from your music library (or music included with the game).  The goal of the game is to steer your vehicle down the track while collecting certain items and avoiding others.  However, whereas Audiosurf was designed around simple block collection and avoidance, Riff Racer’s main mechanic is in the title: racing.  You’re expected to hurtle down the track as quickly as possible, going off jumps, drifting around corners, and hitting boost pads to increase your score.  You can even race against the ghosts of other players and buy new vehicles with the in-game currency you earn.

Song: Uprising by Muse

Let me get this out of the way first: the game made a great first impression on me!  I loaded up one of my current favourite songs (Lone Digger by Caravan Palace if anyone’s asking), and set off down the track.  From the moment the song began building up to the first bass drop, I was in ecstasy.  Eyes bulging out of my head, massive grin on my face, the works.  It was so engaging and exciting; I was in love.  I did my best to steer my car around obstacles and over jumps, as the game allows you to move freely around the track.  I didn’t do all that well, but it didn’t matter.  Having my car hit a boost pad and launch off a huge jump right at the climax of the song was one of the best game experiences I’ve had in a while.  There was definitely a moment of, “I have no clue what I’m doing, but it’s FREAKING AWESOME!”

So after those first impressions, I guess there wasn’t really anywhere for the game to go except down, right?  Well, yes and no.  The problem is that throughout all of my playing, I couldn’t help but compare it to Audiosurf, since the two seem so similar.  At the risk of being accused of not taking the game on its own merits, let’s go over how I felt it fared to its more well-known predecessor.

There are a number of things that I felt Riff Racer did as well as or better than Audiosurf.  For instance, the in-game file browser makes it incredibly easy to find the music that you want to play, when you want to play it.  Plus, once you’ve completed a track, there are numerous options available, allowing you to replay the song, return to the file browser to pick a new song, or even play the next song in the folder.  This greatly streamlines the process of picking songs, especially if you decide to play through an album or a playlist that you’ve placed in a separate folder.  It would be nice if there was a shuffle feature to pick a random song from a folder, but I can see why that might be easier said than done.

I find the actual “track gameplay” in Riff Racer to be much more enjoyable as well.  In Audiosurf, the only variation in the track is the hills and valleys generated from the song you’re listening to.  Very occasionally, you’ll hit a corkscrew, but these tend to be limited to one per song.  In Riff Racer, there is a great deal of variation depending on the complexity of the music track.  But trust me, if you throw on something crazy, you’ll know.  Loop-the-loops, corkscrews, boost pads, and massive jumps that send you flying across empty sections of track are all things that can show up, forcing you to adapt to the situation to keep yourself on course.  It really adds to the experience when you’re listening to a crazy death metal song and have to frantically dodge around barricades to avoid plunging to your demise.  Even the extra abilities of your car can add to the experience.  The boost mechanic allows you to punctuate certain parts of the song with a frantic burst of speed, and drifting lets you coast around corners with ease while racking up an even higher score.

When it comes to the leaderboards, I appreciate the fact that you can choose to race either the top-scoring player ghost or a “recommended” one that seems to be somewhere around the median score.  There’s even an option to race against your friends, though I wasn’t able to test this.  I swear it’s not because I don’t have friends.  Beating the score of the ghost you’re racing rewards you with some of the in-game currency (which can be used to buy new vehicles), so there’s some incentive to not just bash your face into the wall against the best racer over and over.  One feature that seems to be oddly absent is a spectator mode.  It’s extremely difficult to figure out WHY another racer got 20,000 more points than you when you’re trying to race down the same track as them simultaneously.

Song: Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance

However, I have one major complaint with Riff Racer, which is that the gameplay constantly seems to be at odds with the game’s design.  What I mean by this is that while the game puts a great deal of work into generating exciting tracks that sync up with your music, the main game mechanics of racing completely undermine a lot of the satisfaction that could be gained from it.  See, in Audiosurf, your vehicle moves at a pace which is set by the song.  In slower songs, you move slower, and in fast ones, you start to break the sound barrier.  Regardless, you are always moving at a speed that the game sets for you based on the current tempo of the song.  As such, you always stay in-sync with every guitar strum, drum beat, and bass drop.  However, in Riff Racer, you have control over your vehicle’s speed; you can accelerate, decelerate, and hit boost pads.  This means that it is entirely possible to lose sync with the song based on your skill at playing the game; if you slow down to take a sharp corner, you might miss out on a satisfyingly synchronized jump later on.

To the game’s credit, it takes some steps to mitigate this.  It provides you with a series of bars that designate how in-sync you are with the song.  If you are completely in-sync, holding the accelerator does not make you speed up, instead keeping you in line with the front sync bar.  If you fall behind, it is possible to quickly catch back up either by boosting or just accelerating.  All of the tracks that I’ve raced on seem to have been designed in such a way so that decelerating is not really necessary; every corner I went through could be drifted around at speed with the proper technique.  Finally, the game incentivizes staying in-sync by increasing your score multiplier based on how close you are to the front sync line.

The problem with the synchronization mechanics are that none of them work when you’re boosting.  Whether you hit a boost pad or activate your own manual boost, you will shoot right past the front sync line, hitting parts of the track before you get to that part in the song.  This is extremely frustrating, as the game has a tendency to put boost pads right before loop-the-loops and massive jumps, almost as if it wants to taunt you over the fact that you can’t enjoy the overwhelming pleasure of a well-timed stunt.  Now, I understand why this was done: the whole point of the boost is that it’s a risk-reward system.  While boosting, your score multiplier goes up to 10x, which is offset by the fact that you’re moving much faster, and it is therefore much more difficult to control your car and pull off tricks to take advantage of the high multiplier.  However, it totally ruins the experience for me when I’m getting all excited for a certain part of the song, and suddenly the game throws a boost pad my way and jets me through the track’s climax before the song’s even close.  Something something premature something joke.

Song: House of Memories Megamix by Gingergreen

Riff Racer is a game that I really enjoy.  It’s incredibly addicting, can be extremely satisfying, and is just a whole lot of fun.  As I was finishing up this review, I went back to the game for a bit to take some screenshots and had to consciously stop myself from getting totally sucked into the “one more song” mentality.  In many ways, I love it.  However, it’s because I love it so much that I can’t help but get hung up on some of its glaring flaws.  Seeing the core gameplay mechanics go against everything that the game has worked so hard to create is painful, like watching a master chef create a delicious four-course meal before pissing all over it.  Technically, the creation is still there, and you could probably still pretend it’s as perfect as it wants to be; but it’ll probably still leave a bad taste in your mouth.


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