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I’ll be the first to admit, I am a simple man. When it comes to games, I’m perfectly fine with being told what to do. Whether my instructions be as complicated as “roleplay as a spaceman, and I mean REALLY roleplay,” or as simple as “move right and jump,” I like knowing what my goal is while playing a game. So when I’m presented with something as freeform as Sentris, I’ll confess to being a little overwhelmed.
Sentris is a PC game that’s also due for PS4 in 2016. It bills itself as a “musical performance” game that enables “personal expression and creativity.” For the most part, I’d say that’s very accurate. The game’s mechanics are simple enough: a circle rotates to a metronome and you drop “sound blocks” at certain beat intervals to form a song based on which template you chose to play. The game has 20 “songs” you can make, starting with “Block Dropping Beats” and ending with “Kentucky Fried Chernobyl”. You can also choose a “Remix” mode for every song, which allows you to change the tempo and BPM of the level as well as which instruments play from what color of blocks and a whole slew of other custom options that allow you to experience each level in a totally different musical way.
Start menu! Hooray!
If all those options seem complex, well, they sort of are. Sentris is a game made for people who have a general understanding of music and who are genuinely willing to put a lot of time into it, using it to make audio loops which they can import into other music programs. And that begs the question: is Sentris a music game, or is it a loop-making program with the coolest-looking UI ever made?
Based on my experience, I’d go with the latter. Despite generally having fun with Sentris, it was rare for me to really get the feeling, that, yes, this is a game. All the elements are in place for Sentris to be a great music-based puzzler. Each board presents you with marked spaces for dropping blocks, and later levels also require you to match blocks by pitch. But there’s no reward for landing your blocks correctly, and there’s no punishment for missing either. Your end song will just sound different depending on how you place them. Sentris is so ambiguous in regards to gameplay that it leads me to conclude that yes, this is a music-making program.
You’ll be seeing screens like this a lot.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with music-making programs, or ambiguity in games. The problem with Sentris is that by embracing the question of what games could be, it wastes the potential of what it should be. The game has a unique concept at its core, and it presents this concept in a way that looks and sounds great. It’s been a while since I’ve played something I enjoyed visually as much as I did Sentris. The actual, physical act of gameplay feels great too. I found myself enjoying Sentris the most while playing it as a rhythm game, being able to tap a key and drop blocks in time with the beat. But what does it all add up to? Aside from enjoying the process of creating the songs, a lot of self-satisfaction is required to play Sentris; to be able to finish a song and simply say “well, that was neat” before moving on.
Sentris offers you the option to export the loops you make as a WAV file, presumably to share with friends, or to use for your mixtape, or to just keep on your computer as a small digital jewel. At the time of writing however, the game immediately returns to the menu upon “completing” a song, which prevents a loop of the absolute, final product from being made. In addition, the last level, “Kentucky Fried Chernobyl,” presents me with a completely blank wheel with no blocks to drop. So, there’s technical issues.
You can also customize the block colors and backgrounds. Neat!
But even assuming those issues will be fixed, I’m not sure I could recommend Sentris to a regular gamer with a clean conscience. The $20 price tag is a little steep for such a highly conceptual, albeit very pretty game. The game releases from Steam Early Access on August 12th and it’s been in version 1.0 since Saturday the 8th. One of the reasons for choosing Early Access as given on the Steam page was that it would allow the developers to “[include] the community” in order to achieve the “difficult” balance between “puzzle game” and “musical instrument”. I’d say the latter part has been perfectly achieved, but the former is still lacking. I applaud Sentris‘ ideas and ambitions, but so far it still hasn’t quite reached up to them.
Sentris is not a bad game, just an odd one that doesn’t quite stick. Who does it appeal to? I’d highly recommend this game to anyone interested in making music in a way that’s less complex and more appealing than most boring loop-making programs, or maybe someone who’s extremely into conceptual games. However, I couldn’t recommend it to somebody who’s just interested in a musical puzzler. In its current state, Sentris doesn’t meet my expectation for a puzzle game, especially for the price. Sentris may be the beautiful highly experimental/conceptual music maker/puzzle game I deserve, but it isn’t the one I need right now.