Before it made games that just dropped the pretense altogether and used plastic instruments, Harmonix was already the master at turning your average, run-of-the-mill controller into an instrument of musical chaos in Frequency and Amplitude. That same ethos is the engine driving Audica, which seeks to do the same for VR motion controllers. It’s a game with a killer idea, but the execution is just short of the mark.
At its core, Audica is a VR shooting gallery that makes music. In a world where stylishly slicing boxes with lightsabers is the current gold standard for rhythm games, stylishly making music with blasters was pretty much the logical–even welcome–next step on paper. Your instruments are two neon laser tag guns. Colored targets fly toward you to line up with a circle on a specific beat in a song, and your job is to shoot that target on the beat with the correct colored gun for the maximum amount of points. The game does throw curveballs at you–some targets require you to hold your gun sideways, for example. But, by and large, Audica’s premise is simple: make music with laser pistols. Despite this simplicity, though, making beats with bullets feels great in Audica.
Your lasers feel appropriately futuristic; by default, they’re cool, reflective cannons with mirrored blades attached to the barrel that convey a sense of power. That feeling of power is all the more pronounced once you start firing away at targets and get in sync with the ebb and flow of a song’s note pattern. Every successful hit generates a slick, track-specific “thwap!” that punctuates every note.
If, for whatever reason, the default sound on a track doesn’t work for you, you do get the option to customize the effect. That same level of customization carries over to the calibration options, with some extremely user-friendly settings to account for your sense of rhythm or lack thereof. That’s even more crucial in virtual reality, and Audica aces it, weaving the calibration tools in with the beat and targeting tutorials rather elegantly before you even start the game proper. Even with the calibration, the game is extremely forgiving when it comes to perfectly hitting a target dead center, though perfect aim does help achieve the best possible scores on a song. Still, just jumping into a track and firing at will is a blast because Audica is so approachable.
Audica’s big, pervasive caveat, however, is that you better like fast-paced, thumping EDM from the last five years, because there’s really nothing else in the game. Constricting the pool of music causes all of the tracks to bleed together after long sessions. The DLC helps, bringing some bigger star power and at least some element of chill to the soundtrack with songs like Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” and Billie Eilish’s “bad guy,” but these are also some of the trickiest songs in the game, even at lower difficulties. More than anything, those tracks are a perfect showcase of how versatile the note charting and game design can be given a bigger musical palette to work from, and highlight just how much less of that creativity gets a spotlight in the main tracklist.
Also, even by rhythm game standards, Audica is too tricky for its own good. Far too often, notes are there to taunt, trip up, and challenge instead of letting you revel in the music being played. Audica’s challenges often come from deliberately destroying your groove, creating off moments that don’t feel like you’re supposed to get in sync with the music being created by your shots and swipes. It feels like trying to win a dance competition, and every few seconds, someone tosses an orange at your head.
In this case, that orange can take the form of frequent errant notes, targets outside your field of view, or modifiers that you can’t turn off, many of which ask the unnatural–a certain modifier that requires you move your arms an arbitrary amount during the song is probably the most egregious of them. On Advanced and Expert modes, you still get a wide berth to hit the targets anywhere, but it doesn’t matter if those targets appear off the beat and ask more of you than responding to the rhythm. When the game isn’t getting in its own way–and the note patterns are complex, but follow a certain rhythmic logic–it does feel empowering, like you’re in a breezy, futuristic version of Baby Driver. In particular, tracks like KD/A’s “Pop Stars” that flit back and forth between poppy melodies and impactful hip-hop line deliveries lend themselves extremely well to punctuating every note with a pull of the trigger. But this isn’t sustained across all of Audica’s tracks. Obstacles are far too arbitrary too often for that.
Mostly, though, you just can’t help but get the feeling of playing a grand experiment, and it’s a shame that Audica doesn’t land as well as Harmonix’s other rhythm games. There’s a lot that’s simply, innately cool about Audica’s concept, the very idea of using weapons to make music, but once you reach a certain level of proficiency, the enjoyment dries up faster than it should.