When I first fired up DEEMO -Reborn- I was expecting, at minimum, a bare-bones console port of the original free-to-play mobile rhythm game, DEEMO. For the princely sum of $59.95 AUD, I also expected it to include a lot more musical tracks ‘out of the box’ than its mobile counterpart, as well as any extra narrative content. What I didn’t expect, was all of that plus an entirely revamped main game complete with brand-new third-person puzzle and exploration, new 3D cutscenes, a plethora of hidden secrets and full VR support. DEEMO -Reborn- is the complete package, and it’s one of the most captivating and unique rhythm games I’ve ever played.
DEEMO -Reborn- begins, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, with a small girl falling into a mysterious world – in this instance, into a castle belonging to an enigmatic, pitch-black figure named Deemo. Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, the girl quickly finds comfort in Deemo and his love of the piano, and the two soon bond. Without giving too much away, the rest of the game’s story revolves around the girl exploring the castle, uncovering its secrets and its meaning to her, and trying to find her way back home. It’s fairly obvious from the outset that the circumstances around this particular place and its inhabitants are quite tragic. DEEMO’s tale is a dark one, but it provides a surprisingly compelling backdrop for its core gameplay of hitting buttons in time to music.
Progressing through the fantastical castle is done through two completely different types of gameplay – musical rhythm gaming and third-person exploration and puzzle solving. The rhythm portion is undoubtedly the main attraction and the game’s main selling point. This is ostensibly a port of a mobile rhythm game, after all. Where DEEMO on mobile uses a touch interface to (kind of) simulate the art of playing piano though, the console iteration is obviously tied to a controller. This means that rather than having notes scroll down the screen in dozens of possible positions, DEEMO -Reborn- consists of just six – each tied to one of six buttons on the controller. These are laid out in a practical fashion, with the left, up and right buttons representing the three notes on the left and the square, triangle and circle buttons taking the three on the right. In theory, this makes sense. In practice though, I found it really hard to separate my traditional associations with some of the buttons from what I was doing in DEEMO. It’s something I got used to over time, and the optional shoulder button controls in place of ‘up’ and ‘triangle’ helped me get there, but I really wish there was an option to keep the button layout displayed on screen under where the notes land, or even to change the control layout altogether. Alas, there is not.
Once you do get the hang of the rhythm gameplay, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The tracklist is an absolute banger for starters, with each of the sixty-odd tracks on offer representing an eclectic range from soulful piano ballads to bouncy J-Pop and even a healthy dose of dubstep (yes, dubstep on a piano). Tracks come in three difficulty levels, each represented by a number rating, with some tracks being overall easier or more difficult than others. In order to progress the story, players must grow the tree in the main room of the castle by playing songs, which in turn unlocks new rooms as the tree reaches new growth milestones. The best way to add height to the tree quickly is to play songs for the first time, or play them in new difficulties for the first time, so it pays to be brave and try a higher tier for something you’ve already done. Plus, aside from any associated shame you might feel, there’s no fail state and not much of a penalty for doing badly.
The other side of DEEMO -Reborn- is guiding the girl around the castle’s various rooms, solving puzzles and looking for new sheet music to add to Deemo’s repertoire. These parts are surprisingly engaging, with some really satisfying puzzles and a healthy amount of environmental storytelling to indulge in along the way. The rhythm (pun intended) of moving between playing music and exploring to unlock more music winds up being pitch-perfect (pun again intended) and makes the game’s ‘campaign’ truly compelling to play through. The only downside is that, for all it does to make a solid case for its chosen format, the game offers no alternative to those who are strictly interested in the music side of things. DEEMO is a rhythm game first and foremost, and rhythm game fans are its intended audience, so the lack of a music-only mode where songs can be unlocked strictly through rhythm gameplay, seems strange to me. It definitely helps matters that the other stuff is really quite good, and those wishing to skim through it all could use an online guide to make shorter work of it, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.
The blend of rhythm and puzzle gaming in DEEMO -Reborn- works better than I could have possibly anticipated. Though the musical aspect is the clear focus, the supporting framework is incredibly solid. The dark, fantastical narrative and presentation is refreshing for this type of game, and the eclectic selection of tunes is on-bloody-point. The lack of a rhythm-only game mode is slightly baffling, but taken as a whole this is a musical gaming experience that is worth checking out for people on either side of the fence.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher