Rhythm shooter Rez Infinite offers big ideas and an excellent soundtrack.
Let’s start with the basics. Rez is an on-rails shooter, originally released in 2002 for Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. You travel along a set path across five wireframe levels, and shoot everything that you see. Sometimes enemies drop one of two types of power-up: One upgrades your form, giving you extra protection against enemy attacks, the other lets you auto-shoot everything on the screen. At the end of each level is a boss. Are you with me so far? Good. Rez is an attempt to break down the sensory barriers—a synaesthetic catalyst that wants you to visualize sound and taste feelings. It’s about the art of ancient civilizations, about the evolution of life, about the emergence of AI, about self and consciousness. It’s a metaphor for life, yeah, inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the art of Wassily Kandinsky. You could accuse it of being pretentious, to which the obvious retort is, ‘Yes, and?’
Each level opens to a mostly barren space, with lines scrolling below you. Rather than music, the background is an ambient tone. Soon, basic enemies appear. You can point and click at enemies to shoot them, or hold the left mouse button to lock-on—queueing up to eight shots. Release, and you’ll fire at those locked targets. Are you with me so far? Enemies explode into thematic iconography. The Eye of Horus, or the Lion of Babylon—brief bursts of resplendent color fading into the darkness. Clear a wave, you move to the next subsystem. The ambient tone gains a beat. The scrolling lines take on contours and definition. You don’t fire instantly. Rez is a rhythm game, and it isn’t going to let your desperate bid for survival spoil that. Shots are quantized to the beat of that level’s music—firing off in rhythmic patterns that accompany the beat in often playful ways. This changes the pace and purpose of combat. It’s not just about killing things—mouse controls make that fairly trivial—but also about playing with the music. It’s about protecting yourself from incoming fire, but also creating riffs through chains of kills. It’s part-challenge, part-jam session.
As you move deeper, the lines evolve into roads flanked by complex architecture, and the music builds and gains new layers. My second favorite level, Area 4, starts with a single, driving drum beat, onto which more percussion is added as you progress. It builds in intensity up to the seventh layer, when the whole thing shifts and warps into a single synthesized riff. And then it builds again, growing until you’re fighting a boss made of cubes in the shape of a running man, set to guitar riffs over its drums, and a synthesized voice screaming “ROCK IS SPONGE”.
My favorite level, Area 5, is a poem about evolution set to Adam Freeland’s Fear—a beautiful song that shifts from ambient soundscapes, to breakbeat drums, to a perfectly used sample of Marlena Shaw’s California Soul. I have thought about Rez a lot over the past 15 years.
This PC release features all of the upgrades and options you’d want of a modern PC port, and also brings VR support. I tested on an HTC Vive, and I’m disappointed to say that VR Rez doesn’t do it for me. There’s little sense of immersion—of being in this vibrant, sublime experience. Instead, there was a flatness, like I was playing on a room-sized monitor. But Rez Infinite also features a new level, called Area X. This is Rez for VR, with full freedom of movement and a new visual style. Played out of VR, I found the ability to move something of a distraction. But in VR, with head tracking, it felt natural. The real disappointment is that there’s only the one new level. As it stands, it’s an excellent proof of concept.
If you want to be reductive, Rez is a simple shooter with just a handful of levels. But if you want to be reductive, Rez probably isn’t for you. Accept its big ideas and singular purpose, and it’s like nothing else you’ve played. What Rez does still feels remarkable, but only if you’re prepared to meet it half way.
It’s not just about killing things but also about playing with the music