Outside of Japan, the rhythm game genre is one that heavily waxes and wanes. When it launched, Dance Dance Revolution was a hit in the west. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were huge hits from around 2008-2011. Since then, it's mostly died down in the mainstream. Games like DJ Hero were flops and Rock Band VR fizzled without much fanfare. But now, a new game has appeared from a small studio. Enter Beat Saber VR.
Using the handheld controllers, players must swing colored sabers to cut blocks, timed to various songs. It’s simple, but that’s one of the things that makes it so appealing. Players are immediately thrown into an abstract world, standing on a platform. In your left hand, a red saber. In your right, a blue one (sorry, fans of Luke Skywalker, there's no green saber for now). Red and blue blocks come hurling at you and must be cut in a specific direction indicated by an arrow. Starting out, there’s a clear separation of these blocks on either side. After a while, you’ll see two of them next to each other or on top of each other, requiring both hands. As you progress into higher difficulties, a lone block may correspond to the other hand, forcing you to fight the impulse to slice it with the incorrect hand.
Like most rhythm games, there’s a counter that keeps track of how many sequential blocks are hit. Consistently hitting all blocks will increase a multiplier up to 8X, increasing the number of points given. Unlike most other games, however, timing is irrelevant. Games like In The Groove will rate a completed note with descriptions like “Good”, “Bad”, “Fantastic, or others. Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band are similar. But according to the developers, Beat Saber scores based on the number of degrees the saber travels and the positional accuracy of the cut. For maximum points, a swing must be started from a completely vertical 90 degrees, then after a cut, it must travel an additional 60 degrees. Up to 10 more points can be gained based on how close the saber cuts are to the center. This is a departure from most other games in the genre, one built around the idea of rhythm. This will be a bit of an adjustment for many rhythm game fans used to scores being built around timing.
Being a room scale VR game, it’s also required to move your whole body at points. There are large blocks that will cloud your vision, preventing you from seeing what’s coming. You must sidestep them, or in some cases, duck under them. There are also bombs that will destroy your streak and possibly cause you to fail if your body or your saber makes them explode. This can be unexpected since the game doesn't display a life meter in the current build, despite having one in videos of earlier builds. This is something that should be brought back in a future build if possible. It can be extremely frustrating to miss a streak or hit a bomb, only to fail seemingly out of nowhere. Dance Dance Revolution, Rock Band, and Guitar Hero all have very prominently featured life bars that will often flash red and have other graphical indications when you're in danger of failing. The score counter could also benefit from being moved. Right now, you have to look down at the ground to see it, which takes time you generally cannot afford to lose. These two should be featured right next to the combo and multiplier meters, as they're just as important to the game.
Beat Saber does require the use of the Oculus Touch or HTC Vive wands to use as sabers. The only button that's ever used is a trigger button to select menus, and either hand can be used for this. It will default to the right hand, but pushing the trigger button on the left controller will switch which one is used for selecting menus. Once you start playing, your motion is all that matters. The tracking was fluid and did not lag, even on an Oculus Rift with only two cameras.
As noted, the game takes place in a dark, abstract environment. There are many free-floating prisms, and the player appears to be standing on the top of a building, with the blocks coming from a bridge. Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive make use of OLED screens, which are capable of displaying true black. On an OLED screen, individual pixels have their own backlighting, so anything that's black is simply an unlit pixel. There will be no light from it, so it really is black. This provides great contrast between the brightest brights and the darkest darks. However, an LCD screen doesn't provide its own lighting. LCD's require a separate light shining through them, which illuminates even black images. Because of this, LCD's cannot display true black. Seeing videos of the game doesn’t quite do the environments justice. There’s a very clear contrast between the environment and the red/blue hues that are used for objects that looks excellent and must be experienced.
At this point in time, the game only has ten songs. They’re mostly electronic/techno or rap. Even if you aren’t a fan of those particular genres, the music is fine to listen to and isn’t an acquired taste. The developer has said that “There will definitely be more free content than 10 songs.”, and that they are actively looking for original music to be put in a future DLC. There is also a mod written that allows players to create their own charts with custom music. While this has given rise to a number of custom charts already, this is a third-party mod that is not supported by the developer. An official level editor is a planned feature, but as of May 11, the developer has delayed it due to "several technical issues".
Because of this, the game can feel short. The Easy difficulty is extremely easy and feels somewhat like a demo of the game's mechanics rather than part of the final game. Normal and Hard do ramp up the difficulty, and Expert does provide a lot of challenge. Most people could probably make their way up to completing the Hard mode difficulty within a few hours. But being limited to the same ten songs without resorting to mods can get repetitive. It's normal for other games in the genre to have well over 30 songs available. Hearing the same ten songs does kill some of the replay value it could potentially have.
Beat Saber Review | Final Thoughts
And yet, despite being limited, Beat Saber is the first VR rhythm game that has felt like an instant classic. Games like Into The Rhythm VR and AudioBeats, while fun, feel like very simple VR takes on Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and various other arcade rhythm games. They weren't made with the idea of room scale movement in mind. Beat Saber is more immersive and forces you to move within the virtual space rather than a static position. If you have a VR headset and enjoy rhythm games, Beat Saber is an easy recommendation. It’s easy to get into, and the latter difficulties provide a challenge even for seasoned rhythm game fans. I can comfortably say Beat Saber is the latest killer app for virtual reality headsets.
Beat Saber was purchased by the reviewer and reviewed using an Oculus Rift. The game is currently available for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and the developer has said a PlayStation VR version is planned.
- Simple to Pick Up
- Great Visuals
- Limited Song Selection
- No Green Saber