Soundodger+ is proof that creating a fun bullet hell is hard to pull off. It only takes one or two lapses in gameplay design to derail what would otherwise be a great experience—and, sadly, Soundodger+ makes a few too many of those mistakes.
Soundodger+ is a 2D rhythmic bullet hell where each level is based on a particular song—like most rhythm-based games—and plays out within the confines of a circular arena. Right outside the edge are spawners that move along the circumference and shoot bullets into the arena for you to dodge.
You play as a tiny circle that’s controlled using the mouse. I’m a big fan of this, as one of the main reasons I hate traditional bullet hells is the lack of movement precision (or my lack of skill?) when using directional keys.
Bullets mainly consist of one-directional triangles that are fired individually, in quick succession or in shaped groups, usually to the beat of the level’s song. But occasionally you’ll have to deal with cubes (which chase after you) and spheres (which are also one-directional but much bigger).
You have no health and you can’t ever lose. If you get hit, the song and bullet pattern temporarily fast-forwards, then returns to normal and you resume playing. At the end, you’re scored based on how much of the song you actually played. No hits? 100%. One hit? Maybe 97%, or 94%, or 89%—it depends on how long the song is and how much of it was fast-forwarded when you got hit.
Soundodger+ is simple and easy to pick up, mainly because the only thing you actually do is move around with the mouse. The only thing that changes between levels is the number and speed of bullets and the difficulty of patterns.
First of all, I love the music in Soundodger+. I’ve played through every song and I enjoyed every single one, which is a major plus for a rhythm-based game where you’re inevitably going to hear songs over and over and over again as you try to top your previous scores. Seriously, it’s the kind of music I’d tune into on Spotify—mellow beats, downtempo, chillstep, trip hop, and more along those lines. There’s a good mixture of styles, and best of all, it’s all original music.
I also like that you can’t lose. In most rhythm-based games, you have some kind of health bar that diminishes when you miss notes, and if you lose too much health, the level ends and you have to start over. Soundodger+ only has the one fast-forward mechanic, which means you always get to play through the entire song no matter how much you suck, thus allowing you to learn the song’s entire pattern even when you fail. It’s a mistake-friendly design, which makes it more approachable for those who aren’t die-hard bullet hell fans.
Soundodger+ also provides another optional difficulty modulating mechanic: you can hold down the mouse button to slow down time. You lose some score when you do this, but not as much as you would if you got hit by something. I think it’s a clever addition that doesn’t hinder the experience for hardcore players (just don’t press the button if you don’t want to use it) but further increases accessibility for casual players.
While the graphics are minimalistic—perhaps too much so, to the degree that this could be misconstrued as a Flash game—the bullet patterns are downright beautiful, starting from the very first level all the way to the last. It’s mesmerizing, and dare I say even artistic.
Soundodger+’s first big issue—and I admit that my perspective is a bit colored here because I come from a competitive gaming background—is that there’s no way to know the behavior of a bullet based on its appearance. When a spawner fires a bullet, you can’t immediately anticipate its movement at first glance. You might see two orange triangular bullets, identical in appearance, but one of them is aimed at you while the other is aimed at the arena’s center. And then you might see blue triangular bullets with the exact same ambiguous behavior.
What I mean to say is, the only way to know how a particular bullet behaves is through previous playthroughs and experience—and that sucks. An orange bullet should always act like an orange bullet, and a blue bullet should always act like a blue bullet. In a reactive game like this, that kind of continuity is key, otherwise it ends up being frustrating because you can’t make smart decisions in the moment.
The second big issue is random behavior. Sometimes a spawner will fire a cluster of bullets where each one has a randomized direction, and sometimes even a randomized speed. You can imagine how annoying this is, especially when it happens toward the end of a level and you have to dodge five randomized clusters, only to realize you ended up in a spot with no escape. RNG has no place in a skill-based game like this.
The third big issue is the ridiculously infuriating mechanic in some levels where bullets slow down, rewind, or jitter back and forth. See the clip below to see it in action (example at 0:53). Does it fit alongside the game’s other mechanics, where time speeds up when you get hit and time slows down when you hold down the mouse button? Sure. Is it fun? Heck no. And to make matters worse, there’s no way to anticipate a rewind/jitter is coming unless you have previous experience playing that level.
Unsurprisingly, the songs that are most fun to play in Soundodger+ are the ones that don’t have any of these issues—unfortunately, most of those songs are the ones you encounter at the beginning. The more you play, the more frustrating the songs become, and by the end there’s little fun to be had. Whatever you do, do not try to 100% songs in Soundodger+ unless you are a masochist (although you probably already are if you enjoy bullet hells).
Lastly, performance is disappointing. Even though it’s a simple 2D game with a max of 100 simultaneous sprites on screen, the input is sluggish and some levels can get choppy. My 2015 iMac isn’t a cutting-edge gaming rig, but it’s passable—there’s no reason a 2D game should lag this much.
Soundodger+ is like most other rhythm-based and bullet hell games: mastery is based more on multiple playthroughs and pattern memorization than real-time, adaptive skills. It’s somewhat expected of the genre, but I personally hate it.
That said, there are two final features worth noting.
Soundodger+ has a built-in level editor, where you can load a music file and create your own bullet patterns for it. The editor is flexible and advanced, and you’ll have to consult the tutorial series to unlock its full potential. It was a bit overwhelming for me so I don’t have any levels to show, but I love it when games include full-featured level editors because of the added value.
Auto-Gen Mode allows you to load any music file on your system and play a dynamically-generated level based on its tempo, beat, etc. The resulting “patterns” are hit or miss, but the good ones are actually quite enjoyable, especially if you prefer reactive dodging over pattern memorization.
Overall, Soundodger+ is fun but may quickly lose its appeal due to frustrating gameplay elements. It’s difficult to recommend for the average gamer, but if you like bullet hells, you’ll probably like it.
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