DubWars is a twin-stick schmup where you don’t control your own guns — they instead fire to the timing of dubstep wubs and drops. It’s a very fun concept where you’re meant to learn the timings of the drum claps, bass, and what have you, and best position yourself in these moments to deal damage. Thought and care was put into timing the various weapons for each stage and corresponding music track, and it’s cool to anticipate the big WUBWUBWUB sound that means the big laser cannon at the front of your ship is coming. In practice, though, most stages come down to shallow twin-stick skill more than anything like strategic rhythm or musical memory.
You can upgrade health and weapons on a stage-by-stage basis, and these bonuses persist when you beat the stage and replay it on the next highest difficulty setting. I tend to like this kind of thing, where games give you one “easy” mode and then unlock higher-level challenges as you go, allowing you to tackle them with upgrades obtained on the lower modes. The choice of difficulty setting to play individual songs on comes from various rhythm games like DDR or Guitar Hero, of course, but I’ve rarely seen it with the ability to take upgrades forward from one setting to the next (I guess Theatrhythm Final Fantasy did). It makes me think of games like FTL or Defender’s Quest, where I find it fun to “grind my way up” to hard mode rather than it being a question of whether I’m good enough to play on such a mode from the outset.
The ten included tracks are from professional EDM artists — though, admittedly, I had heard of only one of them — but if the audio selections were mine to make, I might have prioritized less predictable tunes (especially in later levels). Rather than having the game get difficult with an increasingly maddening bullet hell pace, I think it would suit the musically-minded gameplay better to only swarm players when they messed up the timing and thereby missed the opportunities to finish off their enemies. I actually do like this kind of music, but I didn’t really hear any tracks that I thought I had to save to a playlist. The drops were aggressive, and good enough as accompaniment for laser beams, but still plain. Rather than some club-like beat from “Nezzo & Summer School”, I would have liked to hear some stuff more in “glitch hop” territory. Something like Vulpey’s Sever would have made for some very engaging sequences. Everyone’s going to have their own preferences, of course. Judge for yourself. I kinda liked Synergy, for one.
I actually don’t think it would be outside the realm of possibility to automate this kind of thing and play with your own music library — games of the sort, like Audiosurf, do exist — but for the computer to decide that your broadside guns should fire on every snare drum hit and how much damage for that to deal on every particular stage would be quite a challenge. In any case, it would be beyond the talents of the developers of DubWars.
I think the main problem for DubWars is an amateurish execution. From the menu buttons to the looks of enemies and stage backgrounds, the game begs for the touch of a graphic designer. The use of color in some stages is a rainbow of vomit, with no “language” to tell the player what’s safe to touch and what will destroy them; very much the sort of thing that’s taken for granted until it’s missing. Each stage is only a static box that you must survive within, but more could have been done there. There’s also a concept called “game feel” which is a kind of nebulously articulated nonsense, but it’s the kind of thing that often makes the very obvious difference between “babby’s first Newgrounds flash game” and “indie darling of the year”, and DubWars doesn’t have it at all. The absence of sound effects to compete for attention with the music may actually be a big part of this, but I don’t think it’s only that.
DubWars was certainly worth the $1.09 I paid for it, just for realizing the basic premise of a different kind of musical game. I think there’s a lot of room to innovate with games that use “things happening in time with music” as a central mechanic. Some very polished games play with sound in dynamic ways, but there’s a whole uncharted world when it comes to having the timing of a tune affect the game world or abilities of your character, even irrespective of rhythm-based action (like Crypt of the NecroDancer). I imagine not only shooting beams, but moving to music; blinking across gaps and warping space, or seeing profound visual effects like daylight turning to night on a big note. The impact of such a thing could be very beautiful and moving.
Dubwars is just alright though.