One of the most exciting music games of recent years, but not without its problems.
Putting cards down onto a DropMix board is as close to magic as I’ve felt with a game for quite some time. Part-game, part-DJ deck, this Harmonix-Hasbro mixed media experiment is completely unique, and an absolute joy for anyone even vaguely interested in music – which makes it incredibly sad to say that questionable business decisions in how to release the game come close to crippling its appeal.
The basic concept is simple. Every DropMix card is the “stem” of a song – say, the vocals from ‘Ms. Jackson’, the drums from ‘It’s Tricky’, or the strings from ‘Call Me Maybe’. Put them into one of the game board’s five slots, and a Bluetooth-connected device with the free DropMix app will start playing that stem. Add another card, and the two stems play together, automatically matching their key and tempo.
It’s a very neat system – the NFC chipped cards respond to being placed on the board near-instantly and, brilliantly, the game always knows which card is on top of a stack, meaning you don’t need to remove stems to place new ones. Add up to five stems and you’ll have created a full song, perfectly in sync and, often, good enough to save to the game’s memory to be played back later.
Stems can be vocals, lead melody, rhythm sections, percussion or, best of all, cards that can be any of the four, and reconfigure the entire mix around them after a breakdown – there’s nothing like hearing the “ooh-AH-AH-AH-AH” of Disturbed’s Down With the Sickness absolutely destroy and then assimilate Gloria Gaynor.
It is, frankly, incredible how well all of this works. Harmonix has brought its years of experience with repurposing licensed tracks, and created its most ludicrous, amazing feat of musical engineering yet. With absolutely no skill required, anyone holding a stack of DropMix cards can create genuinely excellent (or at the very least interesting) music.
I’ve turned Evanescence into an electro-pop act, morphed Duck Sauce’s ‘Barbara Streisand’ into an apocalyptic march, and made Ed Sheeran sound close to likeable. It’s a discovery tool of sorts, too – for instance I’ve found out that every song in the world is made better by Sean Paul’s vocals from ‘Temperature’. That’s just a fact in my head now.
It’s not just a fancy toy, however. Alongside a Freestyle option, DropMix comes with two game modes, Clash and Party. Party’s the simpler of the two, allowing up to five players to play the most distractingly cool game of Go Fish ever conceived. The game calls out elements of cards – card colour, type of instrument, or invented ‘power ratings’ – and the group has to check their hand to meet that request as quickly as possible. You’re playing co-operatively for a high score (all tracked by the app, thankfully), while making a single, evolving track in the background.
DropMix is at its best with Clash, though. A 1v1 or 2v2 competitive game where players construct or use pre-made decks in a race to earn 21 points. You do this by placing new stems, filling empty card types and taking over the full board, while attempting to stop your opponent from doing the same.
It’s a simple game complicated beautifully by a couple of factors. Effects cards can be played anywhere on the board, and can change various elements of your hand, existing stems or points totals. Alongside those, players can swap one of their two actions per turn to smack the pleasingly chunky DropMix button, a risk-reward measure that spins a roulette wheel that /could/ force your opponent to discard cards (and points) on the board – plus frees up the canvas for an entirely new mix.
You could feasibly play this game without any music, but the feeling of “owning” the mix – or having to pause the game because your Frankensteined-together, cross-genre banger is simply too good to ignore – adds a brilliant reactivity to just playing cards. And the more cards you own, the better the game gets, with players able to construct decks that allow for cascading card combos, not to mention outlandish mixes. That’s where the problems set in.
The starter set comes with 60 cards, constituting four themed decks (essentially: hip-hop, pop, rock and electronic). Don’t forget that you already need an iOS or Android device to play the app and, if you want decent sound, some speakers with a 3.5mm output, because the board’s hogging your Bluetooth connection. That’s not cheap, particularly outside North America, where the starter set’s price has been jacked up considerably.
It offers a decent number of cards, and will keep you going for some time – especially if you start deck building – but chances are you’ll begin to want more. That’s OK! Harmonix offers four more pre-made, 15-card decks along the same genre lines as the starter pack, all of which offer some of the more interesting Effects cards.
But even buying all four of those won’t complete your collection. DropMix also offers two ‘series’ of $5/£5 blind booster packs, featuring cards that can’t be found in any pre-made decks. Disappointingly, full mixes of songs have been deliberately spread across all three means of getting cards, purposefully fuelling people’s desire to buy more blind packs.
Put it this way: imagine if this was a video game, and these cards were DLC. Imagine if an RPG gave you a helmet, and told you the rest of the armour set was DLC – but the chestpiece was in a DLC expansion, and the boots and gauntlets were found in loot boxes. Now imagine, instead of armour, it’s the four constituent parts of The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’. You get it.
It makes DropMix a complicated recommendation. At the centre of all of this is a game I’ve never seen before, and that I don’t think any other developer in the world could replicate – DropMix, as a concept, is a triumph. But it’s surrounded by a tangle of money-motivated decisions that not only lock off content that makes playing the game and your music better, but actively tries to hook you into paying more, possibly for duplicate cards.