This is Backlog Roulette, a series in which I randomly pick an unplayed game from my backlog and play it. This particular entry is also part of the Keeping Score series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
In a surprise move, as soon as I’d finished playing (and writing about) The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, which I had selected at random from my huge backlog of games, I decided to pick another random game from my backlog and play it. Maybe Backlog Roulette is actually becoming a real series? This time, the digital dice picked Bezier, credited to Philip Bak and NiineGames, although google suggests it was basically a Philip Bak solo production. I had no recollection of acquiring Bezier, nor any idea what it was. I suspect I got it as part of a Humble Bundle, because while my terrifyingly organized spreadsheet of games I own indicated that I had Bezier on Steam (it’s also available from itch.io), it also said I had the soundtrack from Humble. So it was probably a Steam key plus digital soundtrack combo. Curious, I installed Bezier and gave it a spin.
The title Bezier, as we all know, refers to a technique for rendering analog curves via a set of digital points. There’s a tool named after it in Illustrator and other similar graphics editing software. I’m not sure why Bezier (the game) is named after this (although Philip Bak offers a philosophical connection in this interview I just found), but maybe it uses the bezier technique to display its many curvy, glowy, abstract shapes? Bezier is a classic 2D twin-stick shooter, putting players in control of a small ship that must fly around top-down arenas and blast swarms of enemies, but it seems to be entirely composed of bright neon shapes and particle effects. These abstract forms pulsate and swarm and explode and fill the screen with a riot of colors, all in impressive coordination with the energetic music.
Twin stick shooters are best played with a gamepad, using one analog stick to move the player’s ship and the second analog stick to fire in any direction, independent of movement. Luckily, I recently replaced my aging third-party gamepads with much newer high quality third-party gamepads (specifically, a pair of 8bitdo Pro 2 gamepads), which worked perfectly with Bezier. I’m relatively unskilled with analog sticks, but happily discovered that the ship in Bezier has a bit of spread to its shots, making aiming easier. It also has an interesting auto-fire function, which automatically targets and blasts enemies but quickly overheats if used for too long. I quickly learned to use spurts of auto-fire against swarms of small foes, switching to manual fire (and the various special weapons granted by pickups) against larger targets or in calmer moments. Feedback for all of this is excellent, with increasing gamepad vibration and a glowing halo around the ship when pushing the auto-fire too far. Feedback is excellent in general, actually, making it easier than it should be to make sense of the colorful cacophony on the screen.
There’s a story, although it’s quite thin. The protagonist announces that he was born inside a computer as if this was the most mind-blowing idea ever conceived, instead of a standard sci-fi trope. Each stage brings another short bit of the story, but really it’s all about blasting a way through multiple stages to help the protagonist escape his digital realm. That’s if the “outside physical” even still exists. The story mode isn’t too long, easily finished in a single sitting, but Bezier is packed with other game modes including an endurance mode and a daily challenge mode. Or simply play the story mode again, because performing well lets players gain levels and unlock various permanent bonuses. I played through the story twice, because I thought there was a decision point partway through, but if there is I messed it up and then didn’t bother going through a third time. I had a lot of fun those first two times, though.
The objective of each stage is to destroy several “shields”, which spawn at various times, before the time limit runs out. It took me a little while to realize that the disembodied voice saying “shield up” meant that a new shield had spawned for me to go destroy, and not that my ship had some new shield defense or something. The arenas are quite large, but an unobtrusive radar in the center of the screen points the way to the shields, as well as health pickups. The ship has a lot of health, making this a more generous shooter than many, and I died less often than I expected. Although taking hits does add to the chaos on the screen and sometimes led me into a death spiral where I kept taking hits because I couldn’t tell what was going on.
Most of the time, however, I was enjoying the challenge of battling the shields. These always have a swarm of defenders, but also some different type of defense that changes each stage. Maybe there are protective barriers around the shields which are only vulnerable from certain angles, and players must thread through them to get a shot at the shield itself. Or perhaps there are smaller orbs that must be destroyed before the shield will take damage, or a sort of fuse that must be traced and blasted in order to make the shield vulnerable. I don’t want to list too many examples, because I was pleasantly surprised at the variety on display, and was only stumped in one stage, although I eventually figured it out. Whatever defenses they might have, the shields can take a good amount of punishment, but pop with an incredibly satisfying explosion when they go down.
Here I must stress just how well all of this is interwoven with the original music, also by Philip Bak. I’ll write more about the music itself below, and what it’s like to listen to on its own. During play, however, each track is an integral part of the stage it accompanies. Each shield spawns at a specific time in each stage, often in time to dramatic changes in the music. Sometimes there are long stretches with no shields, while the player must fight off swarms of enemies as the music explores a set of melodic motifs. Then, a slow crescendo builds, until the announcement of a new shield occurs in perfect time with a triumphant musical shift. Some stages might have shields appear one at a time, the music becoming more intense as each is defeated, but others might drop several shields all at once if it makes musical sense. I often felt as if the stages were built around the music, and that may not be too far off: Philip Bak wrote a game engine called BezierSynth for Bezier, which seems to include some sort of procedural rendering based on the audio engine and player input. I’m not sure exactly how that all works, but the result is an amazingly cohesive experience, where everything in the game feels synchronized. If this didn’t work as well as it does, I’m sure I would have been lost amidst all the glowing effects spread across the screen. Instead, everything just clicks, and I found myself moving through the game almost by instinct. It’s difficult to describe, but quite remarkable to experience.
Most stages end with an appearance from the main antagonist, which puts the player on the run. These are brief, but once again seem scripted to match the music. After the bravado of the rest of the stage, the music transitions to tense and dangerous melodies and unsettling rhythms as players flee helplessly before the main villain. These segments are a great way to build up enmity for the big baddie so players are primed for a final showdown, but the bad guy’s taunts also serve as a way to further the story. There’s still not much of a narrative, but it was cool to see some of what the villain said in early stages recontextualized after I’d been through the whole story mode once.
I was very impressed with Bezier, although I should state that I’m not the most experienced at twin-stick shooters. Lest shooter fans wonder, Bezier does not abandon the genre’s conventional score chasing, with score multipliers awarded for chaining kills, but I never engaged with this much. It’s probably good, for those who like such things? More importantly, I’m not qualified to compare Bezier to other genre standouts. In fact, I suspect that the abstract art style and musical integration may be similar to some other famous indie shooters that I’ve heard about but haven’t played: Geometry Wars and Rez (although looking at screenshots for Rez just now, it looks pretty different). And there are probably others I don’t know about. I can tell you that I had a lot of fun with Bezier, and I suspect many players will stick with it even longer than I did, diving into the endurance mode or daily challenges. It’s a great game to play in short sessions between other games or activities, and I found that the fusion of music and action put me in an uncommonly focused state, my mind fully engaged. That meant Bezier was an excellent way to clear my thoughts and left me ready to tackle other tasks. Do check it out, either on Steam or itch.io.
The Bezier soundtrack is also composed by Philip Bak, and contains 22 tracks, with a runtime of over 80 minutes. Sixteen of these are the musical tracks that accompany each playable stage in the story mode, nearly all of which are exactly four minutes in length to match the timed duration of each stage. They all have enigmatic titles like “Dwelt By a Church-yard” or “No Music in the Nightingale” that do not seem to have any connection to the game itself. The music fuses programmed beats and synthesized melodies with an orchestra (also synthesized, I believe, but with high enough fidelity that it resembles the genuine article) or other instruments like electric guitar. Some tracks drop in surprise flourishes like a brief electric piano solo or an acid house riff. Several have vocal elements too, either wordless or in a language I do not recognize. In the same interview I linked above, Philip Bak talks about intentionally mixing live instruments and digital sounds to match the game’s premise of humans who now live inside a computer simulation.
This gives the music an interesting feel. Many tracks might be described as progressive breaks, with the distinctive energetic drum patterns layered over a pounding 4/4 beat, but the strings and brass give them a different feel. It sounds quite different to, say, Hybrid, who also combine progressive breaks with an orchestra. Hybrid’s music uses a live orchestra, for a fuller sound with a lot of slow swells that augment the synthesizer melodies. In Bezier’s music, the strings are louder and sharper, dominating the melodic lines, and the blaring brass comes in when things need to feel more bombastic. Which is often.
A lot of the music doesn’t really fit the progressive breaks moniker anyway. Many tracks, like “Do Good To One’s Enemies”, ditch the thumping electronic beats for the drums of a military marching band, or typical orchestra percussion instruments like timpani and cymbals. The opening track is notably slower and calmer than most that follow, and some later tracks change up the tempo too. “Brought Drunken Forth” slows the beat down and leaves room for a prominent solo string instrument that I can’t quite identify (perhaps it’s actually a violin but slowed down?) to play the plaintive melody. This is followed by “I Know She Lies” which keeps the slower pace but adds a funky bassline and crunchy, fuzzed-out guitar to create a mellow groove. As far as I can tell, the tracks are in the same order as they appear in-game, which makes the entire soundtrack feel like an intentional piece. During play the stages follow one another without any hard breaks, so the music tracks flow into one another as well (although there are brief pauses, it’s not a continuous mix). Melodies recur throughout the whole soundtrack, themes reemerging in new contexts. I’m not sure I even noticed that when playing, but it’s just another factor adding to the cohesiveness of the game.
But it is a little weird to listen to the soundtrack all the way through. With so many tracks of exactly the same length, it can start to sound repetitive despite the variety. Not as bad as, say, listening to a collection of remixes of the same track, but a similar sensation. I like the music here, to be clear, but I suspect I’ll enjoy it more as an occasional track popping up when listening to shuffled music, rather than intentionally putting on the entire 80+ minutes straight through. The final 7 minutes of that, by the way, is taken up by six shorter tracks. These include two tracks that are exactly 56 seconds long; given that one of these is called “It Is Accomplished”, I think they accompany the ending of the story mode, which implies that there are in fact two endings to find. Then there’s the music that plays on the title screen, and the music from the game’s trailer. There are also two tracks of narration, one collecting all of the story bits that open each in-game stage, and a second with the ending monologue.
If you like the music you hear while playing Bezier, you can pick up the soundtrack either as DLC for the Steam version, included with the itch.io version if purchased for $3.74 or more, or separately from Bandcamp. The Bandcamp version has an extra track titled “Credits” that wasn’t included in my copy; I’m not sure if this is also included in the Steam or itch.io versions of the soundtrack.