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Review: Dream Theater’s Ass-tonishing Video Game

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Musicians love turning their art into interactive experiences. After all, if music videos work, why not music video games?

Still, from Journey (1983) to Revolution X (featuring Aerosmith) to Kiss: Psycho Circus to the never-released Ozzy’s Black Skies, it’s been a pretty sad lot. Even Queensryche had a shitty Myst clone based on Promised Land. So of course Dream Theater wanted to throw their hat into that trash bin.

For context, I’ve been a longtime Dream Theater fan – Images and Words is one of those foundational albums for me. Still, it’s hard to deny that they’re very capable of crawling up their own assholes and setting up camp. Last year’s The Astonishing was probably the pinnacle of that, a 130-minute slog with a trite storyline and nary a hook or memorable riff to make the experience worthwhile (although MS contributor Crash Thompson disagreed in his video review). Accordingly, they decided to release a mobile game (for iOS and Android) to allow the fans to live the tedium. Because why not?

Now, a full year after the album came out, we have The Astonishing Game. And the title isn’t inaccurate, exactly. It just isn’t astonishing in the way the band intended – more in the sense that, even after a nine-month delay (it was originally supposed to be released last April), they didn’t find a way to make the game fun, proofread the text, or troubleshoot all the bugs in the app itself. And yes, I know this review’s headline is low hanging fruit as far as jokes go, but if they’re going to make it that easy for me, who am I to pass up the opportunity?

This adaptation is a digital boardgame at its core. You either play the resistance as they take down the evil empire with music or the totalitarian government as they try to prevent that from happening. That epic battle for the fate of the nation takes the form of shitty chess. You have different units with overly complicated stats, which you move across a checkerboard arena to try to smash the opposing team’s bases on the other side of the board. The resistance fights with guitarists, keyboardists, and dancers, while the evil empire has judges and disapproving old women. It’s pretty silly even for a genre that revels in silliness.

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While you’re doing all this, the game blasts instrumental versions of the songs from The Astonishing at you to make you want to finish faster. If you win, you get rewarded with cheesy cut scenes that continue the uninteresting story. Even with the purported story mode, there’s no real feeling of progression. You get more units and different arena layouts, but the strategy basically remains the same all the way through – especially against the AI, which makes a drum machine seem unpredictable. And since there’s no online multiplayer yet, you better get used to playing that AI. There’s a pass-and-play mode if you want to play against a friend in real life, but come on.

It’s not all bad, though. Sometimes you get lucky and one of the unit description overlays gets stuck on the screen and prevents you from being able to play. And, as with all strategy games of this sort, it can be satisfying when you make a clever play. It’s also the only place you can hear those instrumental versions of The Astonishing, so there’s that?

All that aside, the repetitive gameplay means that it’s just not that much fun. The paucity of content right now (six relatively easy missions with the same goals for both sides in story mode, local multiplayer, and custom games against the AI) makes it hard to recommend on top of everything else – even for diehard Dream Theater nerds. The best I can say is that it’s a game that very much captures The Astonishing experience.

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