Over the last few decades, many developers have tried to deliver music creation tools within the confines of a traditional video game, and the majority of them have failed – writing and performing simply doesn’t translate well to gamepads, and when more intricate control schemes are used, the fact that you’re technically playing a video game becomes rather irrelevant.
Track Lab is the latest game to step up to this challenge, throwing in an intuitive PlayStation VR puzzle game while also offering several different tools for composing your own electronic beats. As a puzzler, Track Lab is a good few hours of fun, but its creation tools fail to make the case for themselves or the game’s use of PlayStation VR.
Track Lab is split into two distinct modes. The first is “Evolver,” a puzzle-based music mode with gradually increasing difficulty. Over nearly 100 levels, the mode tasks you with activating blocks scattered throughout each board by manipulating the trajectory of flying orbs, made possible through several moveable “Optics.” If an orb is moving from left to right, for instance, you can set up an Optic that redirects it up and into the block you’re trying to hit, or you could place one that shoots one orb off in three separate directions.
Figuring out how to make the most of the limited number of Optics you’re given can make the puzzles quite challenging, but as you place them correctly, you’ll begin to hear a funky tune to let you know you’re on the right “track.” When you finally have your “aha!” moment on a lengthy puzzle and see your completed run play out, you can’t help but do a little dance.
In Evolver mode, it’s clear why developer Little Chicken decided to make the game a VR and PlayStation Move exclusive, as you’re constantly picking up and turning Optics in an effort to crack the complicated puzzles laid out in front of you. Being able to quickly scan over the entire board and select a piece cuts down on some of the frustration that inevitably occurs during the more challenging stages, particularly those that make use of more than a dozen separate Optics.
Little Chicken bills Evolver as a teaching tool before heading into Creation mode, and that’s a shame, because Evolver is easily the better of the two. Track Lab’s use of music lends itself extremely well to puzzles, and it would have been nice to have twice or even three times as many different boards to solve. That being said, there are a few times when you’ll likely have to pull off your headphones and hit the mute button on your television, because hearing the same few notes over and over again while you’re stuck on a puzzle is enough to drive you insane.
Once you take off the training wheels and head into Creation mode to make some tunes on your own, Track Lab starts to fall apart. You’re presented with a simple repeating loop that you can expand using Optics to create a custom beat, or you can erase the basic framework and start completely from scratch. Regardless of how you begin, it effectively feels like you’re creating your own puzzles that just happen to play a bar or two of music after you’ve completed them.
That isn’t to say that you can’t come up with complex and melodic tracks on your own. Track Lab provides you with several different instrument types across electronica genres as well as more classic music, and by layering tracks on top of each other, manipulating the tempo, and using special DJ modifiers on the fly, you can create something to get people dancing – especially if you choose to livestream your performance – but the entire Creation mode feels like it’s putting unnecessary hurdles between you and a completed song.
The PlayStation VR integration doesn’t help when you’re trying to produce intricate beats, either, as you’ll likely suffer from eye strain or a headache before you’re anywhere close to done, and even with the digital control panel fully raised, we encountered difficulty reaching certain abilities with PlayStation Move due to tracking limitations of the platform.
Once you do finally complete your Top 40 banger, you’ll find Track Lab’s biggest disappointment: There is no way to save your masterpieces as audio files for use on other devices. With the amount of effort needed to make a worthwhile song, it’s something of a punch in the gut, even for a game primarily focused on performing music in the moment.
It’s certainly easy for basically anyone to craft a simple beat in Track Lab, but someone looking for anything more advanced would be better spending their time in a program like GarageBand. For VR junkies, the prospect of becoming a virtual DJ is certainly appealing, but a game with pre-selected and popular song clips like Electronauts will be a lot more satisfying and a lot less time-consuming.
Gabe Gurwin is a freelance journalist that covers tech and games. Follow him on Twitter for more: @GamingAngelGabe.