This is going to sound incredibly entitled, I know, but reviewing video games can be very stressful work -- especially in the case of a new console launch, where you're given more games than you'd normally play in a year and asked to absorb them all in a week.
Under conditions like those, it's easy for panic to set in; playing games can feel like work, and you're constantly worried that you're not playing when you're writing, and not writing when you're playing.
The PlayStation Vita launch game Lumines: Electronic Symphony, despite technically being part of this hectic situation, has had nothing but a restorative effect on my mood. My time playing Lumines has been the only time in the last week during which I wasn't panicking. I come out of a 45-minute session feeling rested and kind of euphoric. How's that for an endorsement? The core game remains, of course, the arrangement of two-by-two (or more) squares of the same color, which are wiped away by a "time line" that moves at the tempo of the song playing. However, mechanically, there is some new stuff to be found in Electronic Symphony. Your (unlockable) avatar comes with a different powerup ability in single- and multiplayer, unlocked by tapping the character. These range from slowing down the arrival of the next block to randomizing all the blocks on the screen, usually to your benefit. Once you've used this avatar move, you can recharge it either by getting bonuses or by tapping the rear touch pad -- something I found myself doing when I got into the rhythm anyway.
Unlocks are now tied to an XP system that award you experience for everything you do in any mode -- be it a user-made "Playlist" of skins ("skins" in Lumines, for the unindoctrinated, are visual themes matched to a looping song; these change the look of the game drastically from skin to skin), a "Journey" of a predetermined sequence of skins, a harder "Master" mode, or the time-limited Stopwatch Mode.
Since everything you do counts toward an unlock, you are then free to do whatever you want. Everything you do also counts toward a "World Block," a giant cube that every player worldwide chips away at by making blocks disappear, only to be refreshed every day. I can't wait until other people are online to help me with this -- at which point I'll be able to follow their progress on a friends list leaderboard that's prominently displayed in the main menu. This kind of asynchronous competition isn't exactly a substitute for online multiplayer, but it is still a cool way to interact with friends. In terms of multiplayer, there's a local-only duel mode ... and nothing else.
You have the choice of any combination of d-pad, analog sticks, touch screen, face buttons, and shoulder buttons for the simple actions of moving and rotating blocks. This is the best kind of customizability: it's all active, so you're free to discover your own blend of controls. I could conceivably see someone swiping to move and using a button to rotate, or using the analog stick instead of the clicky d-pad for maximum quiet.
Anyway, all that stuff's important, but what really matters in Lumines is the interaction between visuals, music, and puzzles. Electronic Symphony (which has a very Euro feel this time, partly due to the electronic soundtrack, and partly due to design work by ex-Psygnosis design firm BUILD) uses its combination of thumping soundtrack and flashy, beautiful imagery to draw you into the game. The music continually built up in response to my successful play, and I got a satisfying mini-rush when I had to quickly get my bearings for a new song and new skin. You wouldn't think polygonal puzzle cubes would be a good idea, but they're totally lovely to look at, and developer Q? Entertainment didn't ruin the game by moving the camera around to show them to us from different angles.
The bombardment of musical and visual stimuli actually helped me focus on the game by forcing me to ignore everything else. I very quickly fell into a "flow" state (without the use of electrodes, thank you!). I won't go so far as to use the cliche of calling it "hypnotic," but I will say Lumines makes you care less about what's going on in the outside world.
This review is based on retail copy of Lumines Electronic Symphony, provided by Ubisoft.
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