The best rhythm games feature tight and precise controls with timing that allow the player to carefully master the patterns in its songs, beat for beat. They also offer the opportunity to devolve into a panicked button-mashing frenzy as a supersonic jumble of notes threatens to fail you out of the song at any moment. When put together, these two vaguely paradoxical aspects make for an adrenaline rush of an experience that can be challenging and even frustrating, but never unfair. Muse Dash, a rhythm game that moved onto the platforms of Steam and the Switch eShop on June 20th, definitely aspires to pull this off.
Despite this recent release, Muse Dash is not an entirely new game. Publisher X.D. Network (also behind the cross-platform release of ICEY and the mobile port of To the Moon) first brought the PeroPeroGames title to iOS and Android a year ago. Surprisingly, however, the Steam release passes the first basic test for a port of a mobile game—it doesn’t feel like it would have been more at home on a small touch screen. Unlike some of the most popular phone rhythm games—the excellent Cytus, for example, or the veteran Tap Tap Revenge—the basic system of Muse Dash feels completely fluid on a keyboard or gamepad.
The gameplay is built around side-scrolling running and jumping, not unlike the indie icon Bit.Trip Runner, but Muse Dash avoids complicating the platforming elements in order to hone in on the rhythm ones. Muse Dash is fundamentally quite simple. One button performs a regular ground attack to hit incoming enemy notes, and another offers a jump strike to take care of the upper note path. The small number of more advanced moves—holding notes, hitting both upper and lower paths simultaneously, and spamming boss enemies with rapid attacks—build on these two basic ones. The simplicity is unsurprising, given the mobile origins, but it isn't a bad thing in any way. The challenge of the game comes from the rhythm itself, not from building the muscle memory for a convoluted control scheme.
Each song initially unlocks with an Easy and Hard difficulty, and unless this is your first rhythm game, there’s no real need to try the Easy ones. As soon as you get the hang of the game, there won’t be any worry about failing out of the Hard attempts. Muse Dash ranks difficulties on a scale of one to ten, and the game gets more intense once you reach songs where the Hard options clock in at a six or above. Beyond that, clearing Hard attempts with enough accuracy to receive the top grade of S unlocks Master level versions of the tunes that add even more sophisticated flurries of notes and rhythms.
These more challenging options are where Muse Dash truly begins to shine. The aesthetics are excellent, with vivid colors and snappy, fluid movement that helps both your eyes and inputs stay on track as the game ramps up. The different girls you unlock to play as each offer unique animations and individual abilities that can help buff your specific playstyle. Not every song is perfect on the highest difficulty, as slower options might feel more properly mapped with less notes flying by. On the whole, however, the song selections cater quite well to rhythm gaming frenzy, with strongly-defined beats and melodies that are addictive both for listening and playing. It’s not unlike the style of library you might find on a Japanese rhythm arcade cabinet, although bereft of any famous Vocaloid or anime songs (barring a few notes from “Senbonzakura” that appear rather shamelessly in one tune).
For the entry price of only $2.99, Muse Dash offers 40 songs, unlockable through a generally fast-paced progression system. It’s easily more than enough for the price point, but things get considerably more expensive if you find yourself wanting more. On Steam, the full library of DLC songs is bundled into one take-it-or-leave-it season pass that asks $29.99 for 13 packs of six songs each, with the promise of an addition every month. Nonetheless, it’s still fair pricing. When Cytus, for example, made the leap from phones to the Switch, it dropped its free-to-play option in favor of a $50 complete package with no alternatives, a significantly worse option for the consumer than what Muse Dash provides. It would be nice for the game to have individual DLC options, even if they cost more to buy one-by-one, but the package deal is fair.
Aside from a hiccup where my first play session held off on giving me in-game achievements (if the starting progression seems a bit slow, you may want to relaunch and see if you receive a bevy of rewards), I don’t have much to genuinely criticize with Muse Dash. Of the several different stage designs that encompass background and enemy art, one appears by far the most frequent among the early songs and can get a bit repetitive, but it's still nice enough to be of little bother. If you’re a true rhythm veteran and want something where songs are hard to even pass, the leniency of the grading system might not particularly appeal to you. It’s also certainly not a truly transformative title—there’s no likelihood of the game acquiring some future legacy like Rhythm Heaven, osu! or Beat Saber. But it’s undeniably a good game at a very good price. Barring the steepest discounts of digital sales, you aren’t likely to find this much fun for three dollars elsewhere.
Ben reviewed Muse Dash on Steam with a review code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on the Nintendo Switch.