Beat Saber review – Blade Dancer

Beat Saber is a stroke of genius. It’s a combination of all the best parts of rhythm games, virtual reality, and motion controls to deliver an experience that’s intense and energetic. At its highest levels, it’ll challenge even the most hardcore rhythm game player, but it’s simple and intuitive enough to accomodate people of all skill levels. And even though it’s not billed as an “exercise game”, it’ll give you a hell of a workout.

Like any rhythm game, the basic premise of Beat Saber is incredibly simple: you perform certain inputs in time to the music, with a chart of note markers streaming down the screen to tell you what inputs to perform when. In this case, those inputs take the form of slashing with a pair of motion-controlled lightsabers, and the note markers are red and blue boxes that fly towards you. The colour of the box tells you which arm to cut with, and an arrow on the front of the box telling you which direction to cut from: a blue box with a downward-pointing arrow needs to be cut from top to bottom with the blue lightsaber in your right hand; a red box with a leftward-pointing arrow needs to be cut from right to left with your left hand; and so on.

With that simple framework, Beat Saber has you standing there in your living room (or wherever your VR setup is), dicing up box after box in time to an eclectic array of tracks.

Things start off pretty easy (unless you decide to dive straight into the harder difficulty levels, of course): the red (left hand) boxes are all on the left, blue (right hand) boxes are all on the right, and there’s plenty of breathing room between them. Box sequences flow naturally from one to the next, so that one motion leaves your arm exactly where it needs to be to start the next—a series of down, up, down, up simply has you swinging your arm up and down.

As you move onto harder songs and higher difficulties, the intensity ramps up from both the sheer volume of boxes to cut and increasingly complex layouts—if the easiest difficulties are the equivalent of a leisurely jog, the hardest ones are a sprint across uneven ground while trying to dodge things flying at you from all directions. Cross-body cuts—where a red box appears on your right, or vice versa—start appearing much more frequently, as do paired red and blue boxes that you need to cut with both arms at the same time, often in different directions.

Other wrinkles come in the form of big, dark blocks that you need to physically avoid, either by ducking or leaning to the side, or you’ll lose large chunks of health, and bombs that you’re not allowed to touch with your lightsabers. Those threats, couples with increasingly complex sequences of boxes to cut, forces you into motions that can only be described as coordinated flailing.

It’s this that makes Beat Saber so effective as a workout game, even though it’s not described as such. With the amount of movement the game demands, it’d be hard not to work up a sweat. I’m admittedly far from as fit as I used to be, but an hour of Beat Saber leaves me utterly drenched—far more than even my most intense workouts at the height of my gym-going days. (That’s not always the most comfortable when you have a VR headset on your head, but putting the headset over a sweat towel or bandana can help with that.)

It’s also just more fun than your typical workout game. Even at their best, they’re always a workout first, with any sort of gamified enjoyment built onto that. Beat Saber, by contrast, directs all your energy and focus towards the rhythm game, whether that’s trying to finally perfect that one song that has you stumped, or taking it easy with something more relaxing; the fitness element is just a side effect of playing the game. That may seem a narrow distinction, but for me—and for a ot of other people, I’d wager—it’s the difference between sticking with a game and getting bored after a week.

It helps, too, that Beat Saber offers a good range of options to customise the experience. You can remove bombs and obstacles, slow down the speed music speed, and even disable failure if you want to just jump into the music without worrying about constantly dying and restarting a difficult track. On the other hand, you can dial up the difficulty even more by increasing the song speed, making the arrows on the boxes disappear before they reach you, or making any mistake an instant failure.

A few tracks even have the option of playing a one-handed mode, but don’t be fooled into thinking have one less lightsaber to deal with makes this mode easier. These are frantic, high-energy beatmaps; the lack of a second saber is more than made up for with patterns that span the full width of the stage, demanding even more agility than usual. They’re like fencing against a shadow. I just wish there were more of them—at the time of writing, only six of the tracks have a one-handed mode.

For players wanting something more objective driven than the standard arcade fare, Beat Saber offers a rather brutal campaign mode. Each level in the campaign asks you to complete a song under specific conditions—sometimes that’s just getting a certain score, other times it’s more complex, like meeting some minimum number of bad cuts without dying, or keeping your arm movement to a minimum. Campaign mode starts easy, but quickly ramps up to some truly unforgiving challenges that’ll take more than a bit of practice to complete. Fortunately, a branching level structure means you often have more than one option for progressing—completing level 1 unlocks both 2A and 2B, either of which can lead you to level 3, and so on.

And finally, what would a rhythm game be without a killer soundtrack? Beat Saber avoids the usual licensed music route, instead coming packed with a decent selection of original tracks. They cover a wide range of genres, from hardcore EDM to metal to rap to slow jams. There isn’t a dud among them, and they all provide a perfect soundscape for rhythmically swinging your lightsabers around. I do wish there were a few more songs to choose from, though; at 18 or so tracks, it doesn’t take long before you’ve played everything on offer, and unlike the PC version, there’s no way to add custom tracks to Beat Saber on PlayStation VR.

That’s a problem that’ll hopefully sort itself out over time, though. We’ve already had a couple of songs added with free updates, and there are plans for DLC—and, considering how much work clearly goes into each track, it seems only fair to pay for new additions.

Even with its limited selection of music, Beat Saber is a fantastic game. A lot of games have tried to combine motion controls with rhythm gameplay, but this is the first that really delivers the intensity and precision of the arcade games that so clearly inspired it. Virtual reality takes that to another level, letting the sounds and visual effects wash over you and allowing the sort of kinetic touch that you’d usually only get from an awkward instrument controller. It’s a great form of exercise, too, but in the best kind of way: as a side effect of doing something that’s just naturally, endlessly fun.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.