NOTE: This is a review of a game in Early Access, meaning it is under active development and subject to change. Aspects of this review may not reflect “Rhythm Doctor” upon its completion.
“Rhythm Doctor” is the sort of game people who know nothing about game development dream of making. It’s one of those games that sounds great on paper, but would be a logistical nightmare to even think about coding. And yet, nine years after it was first created as a Flash game, 7th Beat Games’ rhythm game for PC is real. And for a game that unfurls into something ambitious, it starts simply: All players have to do is press a key seven beats after an audiovisual cue.
But “Rhythm Doctor”’s simplicity in its basics budgets in its complexity everywhere else. The game’s hit timing window is unerringly strict, a difficulty curve within itself. Once players climb that hill, “Rhythm Doctor” throws them new mechanics on almost every level—some nicely explained and prepared for, others missiles launched directly at the focus-holding part of the brain. To write about them would be to ruin them; The game’s stunning surprises crack open the medium of video games, attempting to pull players away from the game with complete originality.
Only then does the true challenge of “Rhythm Doctor” reveal itself: it’s fun to stay focused while the game slings the most interesting distractions in games at you over and over again. The most challenging part of the game is also its most exciting and rewarding. It takes the viral Stepmania modchart and amps the creativity to 11. It’s unfortunate that “Rhythm Doctor”’s story fails to push players onward, a message that shoots high but ends up oscillating between half-baked romance and early-pandemic applause for hospital shift changes. But its originality from level-to-level more than picks up the slack. “Rhythm Doctor” must be seen to be believed.
But if a game is powered by the player continuing to see new things, then it’s powered by novelty. It’s good, then, that the alternate-form “Night Shift” levels pick up where the difficulty of the main campaign left off to challenge players further. It’s even better that an incredibly powerful level editor is available from the start, offering ludicrous difficulty and creativity for players who seek it. Some fan-made levels have even been adapted into the official release—while “Rhythm Doctor”’s campaign is enough for most players to begin exploring the game, its powerful custom levels created by its community are clearly what it leans on to keep its heart beating through the years.
But it also means that “Rhythm Doctor” is a live-stream game, the kind that will produce infinite YouTube clips of wild reactions in place of a story. The easily frustrated, flashing-light sensitive and less rhythmically inclined may have a better time watching “Rhythm Doctor” than they would have playing it, as repeating levels to earn the B+ grade required to move on in the campaign or the A+ required to enter the “Night Shift” might not be worth the reward (or worse, be physically dangerous), no matter how ingenious those rewards are.
The campaign’s length will vary wildly depending on how experienced players are with rhythm; I finished both the campaign and the “Night Shift” after a little more than three hours, as I have quite a bit of rhythm game experience. But those three hours were still sufficiently mind-blowing, and will likely prove to be longer for players new to the genre and up for the challenge. It turns out ambition, creativity, and dedication are enough to build an inspiring video game, even if things like story and patience for players need to be thrown out to do it. — Quint Iverson
Photo: “Rhythm Doctor”’s first boss level, “Battleworn Insomniac”, has players clinging to the seventh beat of a rhythm designed to make them feel like the game is glitching. (provided by 7th Beat Games presskit)