Review: Dyad

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Before I talk about Dyad, I want to talk about Kaboom! for the Atari 2600.

In Kaboom!, you were tasked with blocking various bombs being thrown from the top of the screen, from hitting the bottom. It was one of the paddle control games, so no typical 2600 joystick – you used this palm-sized wheel-and-button thing to crank the Breakout-style blocker-sprite back and forth across the screen. (An analog controller at the time was pretty neat, although we didn’t call it that.)

Anyways, I really loved Kaboom!, because for some reason I played it a lot and became  pretty good at it. It was like a rodeo ride. Hang on as long as you can, before the sheer speed of the game overwhelmed you.

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What I noticed way back then playing Kaboom! was that I seemed to get much better with practice, but none of it was based on any sort of conscious decision-making. You didn’t play Kaboom! and think “ok left, right, left, ooo more left” etc. It was way too fast for that. You had to just let go, not tense up but in fact relax, and let your brain do it’s thing. Near the end, I would play Kaboom! at berserk speeds and almost marvel at what I was doing – it looked like a goddamn computer playing itself, probably, to anyone in the room not bothering to notice that I was still attached to the Atari.

Dyad is one of the only games I’ve played since Kaboom! that gives me that same feeling.

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The feeling, the only feeling, in a way. Flow state, whatever you want to call it. Very consciously reaching for the subconscious. Because Dyad is too fucking bonkers, too preposterously over the top in it’s presentation, to be taken seriously by the parts of your brain that, say, decide what to say next in Mass Effect, or what half-wall to duck behind in Uncharted.

It relies on the plasticity of your mind to do it’s thing.

Much talk has been made of the synaesthetic nature of the approach, a word poorly-misused in recent years, sitting on the special hipster wordbench with skeumorphism and biomimicry. I don’t know if Dyad is properly synaesthetic or not as this is a condition of humans. I do know that it uses a lot of colours and pattern-recognition, and shapes that are tuned to sounds. It’s noisy as fuck; not incoherent, but just very very …. splashy. Bloomy. Like driving fast at night in the rain. There’s extra processing you need to do, but the sensation of immediacy adds to the enjoyment.

My first review of this game was pretty short. I sent it to Dan:

“Quite good. You’ll like it a lot. Tempest + Gyrus + Rez”.

This is a shitty way to describe a game, as the sum of various other game parts, but I do not mean it in a shitty way. It’s just my natural nerdbrain instinct to try and quantify the various moving parts in a condensed fashion, for the sake of brevity. (As you can tell that part has been wrestled into submission for the purposes of this review.)

From this we can gather: you fly down a tube into the z-axis; it’s very colourful; it’s very abstract; it’s very arcade-like; the music is more than set-dressing, but offers textures and cues, much in the same way the colours and shapes of the enemies and power-ups do. You are propelled forward by pressing the X button to “hook” a node, which yanks the (I guess we’ll call it) dyad forward. This central mechanic is built-out from the initial levels, adding wrinkles and twists across a great many stages to follow. Once hooking is introduced, you learn to hook in pairs of coloured nodes. Once pairs are introduced, you learn to graze the nodes while not hitting them, to gain energy. Once energy is introduced, you learn the lance power, which propels you forward very quickly. And so on.

One gets the impression that the final assembled Dyad experience would be nigh-unexplainable without this type of progression. It becomes a cacophony of input. A huge chunk of the game is iterative tutorial, in order to get to the point where the player is comfortable with several different constructs and visuals, none of which are labelled. (And as a side note, I know this for a fact, as I was thoroughly baffled when I played it at PAX East earlier this year, starting on one of the later levels without the initial context.) New goals are set on each sub-stage to keep things fresh. Some encourage deliberate goals, some ask for breakneck speed. Each stage has a star-rating from 1 to 3, with extra Trophy Levels added upon gaining a 3-star completion of the regular level.

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There’s no story here. Not that kind of game. I don’t know what a Dyad is, and it doesn’t matter. The various enemy labels (mines, blockers etc) are only there for convenience sake. Even the menus set the tone and challenge the player at the same time: beginning stage, 2.76 TeV. What is that? I don’t know. It goes up to 14.0 TeV. You now have all the information that I do. Teraelectronvolts. Ok. Doesn’t matter.

tl;dr Dyad is a game to lose yourself in. The downsides are as follows: I can’t play it all the time, and I’m not as good as I want to be. It will rest easily amongst the handful of luminary downloadables this generation as a true classic.

Ryan Hewson

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