When I received the code for Hexagroove: Tactical DJ from Ichigoichie, the developer wanted to set my expectations by stating “Hexagroove is not a traditional rhythm game, but more of an RTS with musical underpinnings.” I can see why they did this, because Hexagroove is a difficult game to pigeon-hole, should you feel the need. It’s definitely not a rhythm game, though it features sections of button tapping and stick waving in time to beats and rhythms. It’s not a game that prioritises score, though it does rate each performance and Hexagroove does feature a lot of tactical elements and forward planning but deeming it an RTS feels like doing the game a disservice.
So, what is it? Well, after many hours noodling about with the game, I don’t really know. I suppose it’s a tactical DJ simulator, but rather than relying on twitch reactions, it asks the player to build songs with layers and thought. For example, in the very first stage of the campaign, I was tasked with playing a set at a pool party – the crowd made not from realistic models, but geometric shapes which pulse with the beat. Playing the set requires you select an instrument from a wheel using the Left Stick and pressing A/B/X/Y to play a loop from that selection. Say you want to lay a bassline over a drum track, each of the face buttons will play a different bassline. This is then replicated with chords and rhythms until you’re playing a House style track.
This is Hexagroove at its most basic – choosing loops, all of which seem to complement each other intelligently, in order to keep the virtual crowd happy. They are, in essence, your guide in music creation. They represent the Euphoria of your set, we want to keep the punters happy after all. If they want a change in the drum loop, they’ll tell you by the icon turning green, meaning it’s time to select a new loop and keep them dancing. In between loop choices the game still keeps you busy by tapping the ‘B’ button to bounce around a beachball, keeping the rhythm and your toe-tapping. Interestingly on harder stages, it’s worth taking time between loop changes so as not to tire out the crowd, Ichigoichie has obviously been to raves where the DJ simply doesn’t let a vibe run.
A life meter takes its place in the top left corner, which is probably best translated as the confidence the crowd has in your ability. Play badly, choose the wrong loops or keep the music at the wrong level of energy and your life will drain causing a game over. Which brings me neatly to probably my biggest frustration with Hexagroove. Sporadically the game will pull the view away from the crowd and onto a separate screen, allowing you to choose upcoming loops all at once. Here, the game gives you very little direction in how to control the crowd. For all the information presented in the main menu screen, it doesn’t do a great job of educating you as you play. There’s only so much I can keep in my head before playing and the info screen is broken down into several categories, each featuring many pages on how to play.
There’s a sense of panic which sets in, because it’s really quite baffling to manage so many intricacies with little guidance. Hexagroove is screaming out for video tutorials to give examples of some of the tricks they talk up or the techniques they expect you to employ. Once this screen disappears, we’re taken to one of two types of ‘minigame’. The first is a simple button tapper, where you keep the beat with two buttons. The other, is probably the worst experience in the game and is sadly used when finishing a song, as well.
In this second iteration, you’re tasked with guiding a cone along a predetermined path. Simply put, you must keep the cone facing the line down the middle of the path. The issues here are many; firstly, if you’ve got Joycon drift at all, good luck. Secondly, there are times when the camera comes in too close and you can’t see which direction the path will take. Third, the pressure to move the left stick is too sensitive meaning I was often swinging wildly off-course. And last of all, if you fail this as the finisher of your set, you have to play the whole set all over again. Some may see this as a blessing, because the game’s campaign is very short and can be finished, even on the medium difficulty within an hour.
Of course, being a music-based game, there’s a freestyle mode which lets you play around with loops until your heart is content. No failing, all playing. Which is a lovely touch purely to get a little more out of the experience, because at the root of the game is a genuinely intelligent music creator. I found myself sat in coffee shops, headphones on, bopping away to techno beats, house rhythms and drum and bass. Hearing the crowd roar as I dropped in a great melody after letting the high-hat tap away above the kick-drum… it’s a blissful experience.
Ichigoichie clearly know how to break down dance music and present it to players in a simple and addictive fashion. The circular menu which holds the loops is intuitive, sparsely quite beautiful and empowering. If I want the crowd to hold their energy, I can play a ‘snowflake’ symbol loop and they’ll simmer away waiting for that almighty bassline to kick in when I bring in the drop. Suddenly I want high energy, so I look for the ‘flame’ symbols instead, get the crowd amped up and hit them with a big finish (if I can stay on the path).
When I get to this point in a review, I like to ask myself a question; “Is this fundamentally a good game?” and thankfully I can answer yes. The basics are covered, there’s plenty to enjoy despite the brevity of the campaign – it’s repeatable and you know you’ll want to beat your high scores – and if you’re a fan of dance music, as I am, you’ll create some genuinely great songs. There’s even a multiplayer aspect to the game, but sadly my friends aren’t fans of dance music and looked puzzled as I tried to teach them how to play. But Hexagroove: Tactical DJ is flawed – from one minigame and a lack of guidance. The problem is, that minigame is a big part of truly nailing a set. It’s a scratch in an otherwise very clean, very good record.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Ichigoichie