Platforms: HTC Vive (reviewed), Oculus Rift, and Windows Mixed Reality

I have a confession to make: I like VR, but I’ve never loved it. As long as the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have been around, I’ve considered VR as a novelty, a diversion. There are some mildly interesting VR experiences out there, but very few titles I would consider meaty enough to consider a full-fledged game. I’m sure there are those that will disagree with me, and that’s fine. My point is only that, for a long time, no title was interesting enough to pull me in to the VR craze.

So why the personal exposition here? Because I want to make one thing very clear up front: Beat Saber was the tipping point, the game that transitioned my opinion of VR from being a fad, to believing that VR gaming has the potential to become mainstream. I enjoyed playing Beat Saber for this review so much, that I finally went out and bought my own personal HTC Vive (Beat Saber is also available for Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality).

Move to the music

Beat Saber is a music rhythm game, and the first VR game from Hyperbolic Magnetism, a small studio from the Czech Republic. When I say small, I mean, really, really small. For many years, Hyberbolic Magnestism was a two man team that made mostly mobile apps before being joined by Jaroslav Beck for the sound design and music of Beat Saber.

The concept of the game is fairly straightforward. In the gamespace, the left controller is replaced by a red glowing laser sword, and the the right side a blue sabre (this is my biggest gripe with the game; “right red” would have been an excellent mnemonic for the directionally challenged). Notes, in the form of colored blocks, (red and blue, corresponding with the saber colors) fly toward the player from VR front. The player has to use his swords to strike through the blocks, in the direction indicated by an arrow on the front of each block. Blocks will occasionally have a dot instead of an arrow, which indicates they can be struck in any direction. There are also walls that will fly at the player, which must be dodged, and bombs, which should not be hit.

These elements combine for a simple, but highly engaging formula. Slash blocks to the beat, dodge the walls, avoid the bombs. Do this, and you’ll sword-swing your way to victory. Miss too many strikes, hit too many bombs, or spend too much time with your face inside a wall, and you’ll fail the song. There’s also a leaderboard, and the game will award additional points for combos, (where no notes are missed) strike accuracy, and follow-through, basically, the measure of fluid movement after connecting with a block.

In the main solo mode, there are 10 songs included, which is one of the main marks against the game, but we’ll address that later. Each song has four levels of difficulty: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert. Each song seems to have a movement “theme” to it. Higher difficulty levels stick to that theme, but have more notes that come at the player faster and faster.

Beyond the regular Solo mode, there is One Saber mode and No Arrows mode. All game modes share the same set of songs, but have different “beatmaps” (a term the community uses to describe the layout of blocks in a track) to suit the requirements of divergent modes. One might think these would be easier, but they certainly are not. In one saber mode, the player has only the blue saber at his disposal, and all the blocks are blue. However, One Saber tracks are all at expert difficulty level, and there are no less blocks to make up for the lack of a second saber.

While the need to hit blocks at a specific angle is one of the game’s challenges, it’s also one of its concessions. The pattern of arrows in the default tracks helps the player plot a route through the blocks for his sabres to follow. In No Arrow mode, the player gets none of these hints, and so must do all this planning unassisted, which is much, much harder than it sounds. Also, while No Arrow mode tracks are available at all four levels of difficulty, these tracks have some additional tricks thrown in to keep things challenging.

While Beat Saber may have only shipped with 10 pieces of music, when you account for the different layouts and challenges of the different modes, there are closer to 30 unique experiences to master, assuming a player only ever plays on expert difficulty.

Impressions

One of the truths of VR is that no one looks cool playing it. However, when you’re strapped in to your HMD of choice, hacking away at Beat Saber’s note blocks zooming in from all different angles, it’s hard not to feel like a badass.

Beat Saber’s 10 launch tracks, which were composed by the aforementioned Jaroslav Beck, are unrepentant EDM/Techno songs, all of which were composed specifically for the game. Each has an emphasis on very prominent, bassy beats, which, unsurprisingly, works well for a game that is largely about keeping rhythmic time. If you don’t like that style of music, well, that might be an impediment to truly loving the game, but this is universally the kind of music that inspires one to get up and get moving.

As someone who does thoroughly enjoy this style of music, I have to say Beck did an outstanding job. My three favorites are the eponymous "Beat Saber," "Country Rounds (Sqeepo Remix)," and "Escape" ft. Summer Haze. These three share a more upbeat, almost flighty sound, whereas most of the other songs feature relatively more intense, darker beats. Lvl Insane has more of of a rock influence, with some prominent guitar riffs and what feels like a traditional drum line. Alternatively, "Legend" ft. Backchat and "$100 Bills" would work flawlessly as stand-alone mainstream rap songs. These outliers go to show that while Beat Saber knows its core is always going to be electronic dance music, the concept works with pieces from other genres, so long as they feature a compelling rhythm to craft a beatmap around.

Like pretty much any rhythm game, you get more out of Beat Saber if you put more into it. For example, I remember playing lots of Rock Band and its sequel’s back in my teen years. I did better when I stood still staring at the screen, and tapped away on that plastic guitar with savant-like focus. But I had more fun when I leapt around my living room, head-banged to the music, and generally summoned up all the heavy metal bravado an awkward high schooler was capable of.

So too is Beat Saber far more enjoyable when one is willing to make a fool of themselves, to be a little “extra,” if you’ll pardon the colloquialism.. It’s probably far more effective to focus on precise, hyper-efficient cuts that waste no movement or energy. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve been too busy pretending to be a Jedi Knight extravagantly slashing through a horde of battledroids.

For example, the various incoming walls in some of the tracks can usually be dodged simply moving the players HMD out of the way, but that’s taking the cowards way out. The real challenge is to treat your whole body as being present in VR space, and thus you have to physically leap out of the way of obstacles. By the same token, the most conservative slices are rarely the most fun. Add blade flourishes for style, advance forward to obliterate isolated notes, retreat back a step against an onslaught, jump up to strike the highest blocks, think about your stance, infuse yourself into the movement and the rhythm, and let it flow through you in turn.

Slash. Strike. Dance. This is how Beat Saber is best enjoyed.

On the (Modding) Scene

The community at large has two very valid criticisms of the game: That the limited variety of tracks at launch could potentially quickly grow stale, and that the game’s focus on in-your-face electro isn’t for everybody. Fortunately, the community has already self-remedied both of these issues with a burgeoning mod scene.

While typically mods and mod tools are seen as auxiliary in the game review process, mods for custom songs will prove vital to the lifespan of Beat Saber. The game has a simple formula that lends itself to potentially thousands of songs and music from many genres, and expanding the library of available tunes would very well keep Beat Saber relevant in rhythm game circles for the foreseeable future. This is why I am choosing to digress from a straight review of only what comes “in the box.”

Already two unofficial modding tools have been created for custom song creation, as it turns out the much of the data for a Beat Saber track is stored as an editable .JSON file. One tool allows the editor to place blocknotes in 3D space. While a 2D editor also exists, we didn’t look at it prior to the publication of this article. It is apparent that Hyperbolic Magnetism also understand the importance of community-created songs for its game, as they have also announced a track creation tool, though it has yet to be released.

Players interested in downloading custom songs don’t have to look very hard. A website, beatsaver.com, has emerged as a central repository for fan-made songs, and already has dozens of tracks for download. The site itself is currently in an early state, and is missing many useful features. Songs haven’t yet been sorted by genre, or tagged for filtering in any meaningful way. Still, the site offers a tool for players that allows access to the beatsaver.com library in game, meaning you can download and play new tracks without even taking off your HMD.

The quality of the songs themselves varies greatly, as the community is still going through some growing pains as it figures out what constitutes “fun” versus “frustration.” A common complaint is custom songs tend to be too challenging, which makes sense. Those most rabid to make new content for a game also tend to be it’s most passionate and skilled players. Many tracks throw dozens of notes directly at eye level, which make it hard to see the next set of blocks. Others feel less like dancing or swordplay, and more like relentless drumroll. Encouragingly, however, a few authors have cracked the code and released custom tracks that are as entertaining as the original ten that ship with Beat Saber. For example, I’d highly encourage anyone who picks up the game to download this rendition of "Midnight City - M83," which was beatmapped by “bennydabeast.” There’s also the Ducktales Intro, for maximum meme value.

What might be most impressive is how quickly all of this has happened. Two mod tools, a focal community website, and a day’s worth of fan made content, all developed less than a month after Beat Saber’s release. It speaks volumes that this game has already inspired such an active and passionate modding community. If you’d like to try your hand at making your own Beat Saber tracks, there’s plenty of information to get you started on the Beat Saber Mod Group Discord.

Beat Saber Wrap Up

If you’re looking for a reason to buy into the VR craze, I can’t think of a better reason than Hyperbolic Magnetism’s Beat Saber. This is the type of rhythm game that gets you up, gets you moving, and gets you feeling awesome. Like most music games, Beat Saber is at its best when you just lose yourself in the music.

The game does suffer slightly from the variety of tracks at release. Beat Saber comes with ten original compositions made specifically for the game. They’re all very good, and you can play each song on several modes and difficulty levels, but, admittedly, hearing the same beats over and over will eventually get repetitive. Also, all 10 songs are very much electro music, which might be off putting if that’s not your thing. However, a rapidly growing custom-song community has already release dozens of fan-made tracks, which should alleviate both of those issues.