Developer Trent Garlipp • Publisher Trent Garlipp • Release November 3, 2022 • Reviewed On PC
Developer Half Asleep was wide awake when making this ridiculously captivating rhythm game. Not only are Melatonin‘s sleep-inspired, hand-drawn visuals bewitching throughout, but every tune is somehow catchier than the last. Because of the brilliant way each level drops the typical rhythm game UI, I feel like I’m actually taking part in producing the music as I play — digging each note deeper into my brain. The narrative, though low-key, also stuck with me after rolling credits. It left me examining my own occasional struggles with sleep, hustle culture, and life balance.
Each of Melatonin’s five chapters kick off with an intro cinematic showing the main character on his couch suffering through, and attempting to deal with, insomnia. Night One is an all-too-relatable display of indulgence. A living room dimly lit by a flickering television is draped in greasy fast food wrappers and half-eaten junk. Overcome by the food coma, our pastel-colored hero drifts off to sleep. This clip, like the following nights’ scenes, reflects both waking life and the challenges I’m about to encounter in dreamland.
Chapters contain five uniquely themed levels that all connect to the central motif. In Night One’s case, that means taking on flying pizza boxes, melodically menacing malls, and literal doomscrolling. Being my first foray into this dreamy world, the prompts all focus on one button I need to hit on beat. However, as the game goes on, I get thrown different inputs and musical elements.
Holding a note or switching back and forth from face to trigger buttons keeps me on my toes. And to make things even trickier, only the practice round contains prompt indicators on screen. When the scored section begins, it’s all up to me to take in the music and hit the right thing at the right time.
I love this. Not being incredibly gifted in the music department, I was nervous at first. But having an uncluttered screen to see the fanciful art and focus on the telling cues weaves me into the game like no rhythm game has ever done for me before.
This aesthetic choice is wonderfully backed up with the design. The developer doesn’t just yank the on-screen directions out and leave me to drown. Instead, the game uses color, sound, and visuals to let me know what to expect. In some levels, objects would change hues when it was time for me to step up, like in a baseball-esque dream where a portal shooting a clock at me would turn a different color. But other challenges used sounds to help me out, like choosing to swipe left or right even if my virtual phone was obscured depending on if the tune was going high-to-low or low-to-high.
In order to move on to the next chapter, I need to accumulate eight stars from that world’s dreams. Stars are awarded based on my ability to stay on beat in individual songs. Doing Okay only grants one star, while I grab two stars for doing Great and three for an Amazing run. I only ever got three stars once. That mainly means I have to clear each level with a Great score. While this may require a few occasional do-overs, the thoughtful design made learning patterns simple. It’s also hard to complain about running through a song one or two more times because the music is so fantastic.
When I spoke with developer David Huynh about his upcoming game, he told me his favorite part was the ending. And I think it’s mine too. The narrative isn’t heavy-handed and lends itself to interpretation, but — not spoiling anything — the conclusion is satisfying, even if it’s not explicit. It’s a busy time for players trying to figure out their “best of” lists, so I hope no one misses out on Melatonin.