Frequency is one of the finest games on the PS2.
To start off a review with such statement may be unusual, but it serves a purpose: to get your attention. This is a game which hides a fascinating and often inspiring interior with a functional and sloppy exterior. Because of this, Frequency has been disgracefully ignored. It deserves better.
Man picks up Frequency box. Man gets interested.
We have a box, displaying a blurred background with a proud Frequency logo adorning the front. The usual symbols associated with Playstation 2 boxes, legal jargon nobody reads and an impressive list of names from the music industry, including Paul Oakenfold, Orbital and Roni Size. We also have the standard PR blurb, a list of predictable game modes and an Eight-out-of-Ten quote from Edge.
Man looks at the screenshots. Man loses interest.
Screenshot one: A fluorescent-green zigzag line, a white spot near the bottom and another to the right. It says Scratch at the bottom.
Screenshot two: One transparent thick green line, with the green thinner line returning in a predictable zigzag. We also have a slightly transparent thick purple line and an introduction to a thinner purple line, although this too is predictably zigzag. The screen is split in two; it says Drums twice at the bottom.
Screenshot three: A menu. "Create new Freq from basic Freq".
Screenshot four: The thin-green-fluorescent-zigzagging-line has been replaced by a few green spots. Also shown are some yellow stars and a couple of strange looking blue jewels. This time we have Synth at the bottom.
To explain Frequency is utterly futile. You won't understand, not without experiencing. True, the theory may be grasped, perhaps even the elation it encapsulates, but to understand as to why such a basic gameplay mechanic works so well is beyond explanation.
A leap of faith is required.
Imagine travelling through a hollow octagon in the first-person perspective, following a preset path and constantly moving forward. Each of the eight sides represents a different musical instrument, be it Drums, Guitar, Vocal or whatever. For a tune to materialise, you must 'play' each instrument by using just three buttons, L1, R1 and R2. As you travel along, blue 'jewels' will be set along your path, either on the left (L1), centre (R1) or right (R2). Hit the corresponding button at the correct time and a note will be played.
Think of it as a sheet of music. Correctly play two 'bars' of music without fault and the computer will take over, playing whatever instrument you've selected until the end of the 'page'. After this, you must select another instrument by rotating the octagon by use of the D-Pad and complete another predefined sequence of notes. Eventually, the notes played will begin to resemble a tune, and it's the job of the gamer to keep this tune playing for its entirety.
After successfully completing a section without fault, it is possible to initiate a combo by completing a second instrument without skipping a beat. The reward for the combo is initially a multiplier of two, but this eventually builds up to four if consecutive 'bars' are completed without fault. Make one mistake and the combo is broken. The harder a bar is to play, the more points are rewarded, and so the idea is obviously to build up to the maximum multiplier and then aim for the harder bars to earn higher points. Providing further depth is the use of power-ups, this time in the form of an Auto Catcher, which when used will automatically play the rest of the 'page' for the selected instrument. The item is mainly used as a safety net when a mistake is made, since the combo will be kept alive. The second item is an extra multiplier, which can be used at any time, even in conjunction with the combo system. Used wisely, the item can give you a multiplier of six, although the duration is only eight bars.
The concept may be extremely basic, but the execution is virtually flawless.
When it all comes together, the drums, the guitars, the vocals and the electronic synthesizer, the feeling is immensely satisfying. Every beat that you play connects, it draws you into the experience to such an extent that you begin to feel that you're actually playing a musical instrument. Play badly and the results are distressing: The game begins to sound and feel like a musician struggling. Play well, however, and the results can only be compared to one other – UGA's seminal Rez
Like Rez, when 'in the moment', nothing else matters. The experience is so utterly entrancing that you'll find yourself raising the volume after every go. The hypnotic visuals will slowly draw you closer to the TV without you even realising. No sound is loud enough, no TV big enough. Hours will pass, and you won't even blink.
Unlike Rez however, Frequency lacks the exhilaration to make it a resounding classic; there are no giant bosses or epic journeys that leave you in awe. A handful of the tracks on offer do not suit the style of gameplay, they simply aren't fast or exciting enough to inspire the mind or set the pulse racing, they lack the soaring vocals or incredible guitar solos that the game so brilliantly displays elsewhere. The graphics, although original and basic, are quite messy and surprisingly obstructive during the harder tracks.
Frequency has been sadly ignored by many, even those who usually support such niche games. Sony smartly included a demo with the PS2 Online adapter, and because of this a cult audience is slowly building up. Since the initial release part way through 2002, it has always been possible to play multiplayer (up to 4 people) through a multitap, but now the experience has gone global. The standard of competition is frightening.
Different to others in the rhythm-action genre, Frequency is so much more than the derivative experience usually associated with the genre. The initial Normal mode will be finished and completed without any fuss, but the difficulty level soars when attempting Advance and finally Expert. Contrary to the rest of the genre, Frequency only reveals its brilliance after hours of practice. Initially, just finishing a level provokes excitement, but eventually you'll be aiming for the perfect combo and the euphoria which follows. Even after achieving such a feat, there are ways to further improve thanks to the inspired scoring system; there is always a path through the music which earns greater rewards and higher points.
Frequency begins as a novelty, but it soon evolves into one of the most challenging and exciting tests of reaction outside of the 2D shooter genre. Even after this, it becomes an incredible test of memory, perception and observation.
One of the most addictive and mesmerising games around, Frequency is an audiovisual smart bomb that inspires as much as it frustrates. Rez may offer the better overall experience, but Frequency is the only other videogame to invoke the power of synaesthesia.
A leap of faith is required. Feel it, don't think.