Russian Dancing Men: Too Unforgiving to be Fun

Rhythm games are difficult to do well on a smart device without simply porting over the note-highway interface of Guitar Hero or Rock Band whose ship everyone has agreed sailed about three years ago. Russian Dancing Men (iTunes, universal app) delivers rhythm gameplay aided not necessarily by fast-twitch reflexes, but by truly listening carefully. The problem is it is difficult to the point of discouraging, inside of 10 minutes.

I really wanted to like this game. Russian Dancing Men features a simple gameplay concept, underpinned by charming illustrations and enough cutscenes and story to keep you engaged. You just have to have a serious commitment to old-school try-and-try-again platforming.

In the game you are given four virtual buttons to press to navigate one of four obstacles. Press them in time and you get through the obstacle intact. Press them perfectly in time and you get a points bonus. As you progress through the board, you'll add dancing men to your line, which stand for "lives," or the errors you can make encountering obstacles. When you get to the end of your line and miss the correct maneuver, the show is over.

Except for the tutorial, you will not finish any level on the first try. I suppose this is a virtue, given how coddled we have become by game design of late. My problem is in the game's arbitrary pacing. As you acquire dancers at the end of your line, the camera zooms out to fit them all in. This depth change alters your rhythm, especially when it comes to entering the loop-de-loop obstacles. You can train yourself to hear when, in the beat, you should key the button press. The camera zooms (out and in) and the dancing line's slowdowns defeat this. And when you get behind even one obstacle, like a string of missed notes in Rock Band you're often botching the next two or three until your brain can reset.

That's just for single-button obstacles. Some require two, which is a nightmare to grapple with. As the songs come faster and the mixture of obstacles more varied, Russian Dancing Men too quickly devolves into a give-up-and-forget-it game. At $1.99 (though the price covers a universal application for all iOS devices), that's a bit steep, especially as there's no demo to help you test your rhythm or patience.

The animations, presentation and the music are all first rate (even if the music, after the 17th retry, is driving you batshit crazy). Russian Dancing Men is a good game, but a very strong challenge. I wasn't up to it. Maybe some others are.

Russian Dancing Men [iTunes]


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