IGN Review of Jam Sessions
As far as we're concerned, Jam Sessions is about as far from a traditional "game" as you can get, and as such the title will hit a very specific - but appreciative - crowd. In an industry swamped by Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Elite Beat Agents, some will think to shrug Ubisoft's innovative pocket guitar as a gimmick; something that piggybacks on industry trends, rather than a true innovation on its own. That statement couldn't be farther from the truth, however, as Jam Sessions - despite some obvious flaws - is one of the most innovative projects we've seen on DS thus far.
The concept behind Jam Sessions is simple: It's a pocket guitar. Ubisoft went a very different route with its latest DS offering, moving away from the elements that are all-too-common in "music games," and instead have embraced the world of music almost entirely outside of gaming at all. The program transforms your DS into a virtual guitar utility, showing the sheet music on the top screen, strum string on the bottom, and using the d-pad for different chords. While playing you can also strum while hitting L as a shift button, which converts the eight directions on the d-pad to different chords altogether.
Jam Sessions is an extremely innovative concept, but it also has its fair share of ups and downs, as it's the first of its kind on DS, or any handheld, for that matter. As a huge plus, the game is professionally presented, using real chords, authentic guitar sounds, and actual intricacies that make the experience feel totally authentic. Changing the speed and power of your strums will in turn change the sound, and even little in-between strums used as filler will come off softer and less pronounced, allowing you to really drive the downbeats home, while softly filling in your eighth or sixteenth notes in turn. A downstroke sounds different from an upstroke as well, so in the end you get an audio experience that's truly immersive, literally turning your DS into a virtual guitar.
On the flipside, Jam Sessions is fairly limited in what it can do. There's only one string to strum on the bottom screen, so you'll be held to doing only chord progression and no individual note-picking or riffing. This works just fine when you're looking to flesh out a new song or use Jam Sessions as accompaniment, as you can select your chords, assign them to the d-pad, and strum away; you'll just need to stick with chord progression and leave the individual riffing for a later time. Still, you can record any of your creations and keep them saved to the cart, so if you're on the road or at school and you suddenly become inspired, just whip out Jam Sessions, lay down your progression, and flesh it out when you get back to some sheet music, computer, or actual guitar.
As another plus to the actual "tool" aspects of Jam Sessions, the game is pretty in-depth with what you can do to morph the sound. You won't have anything as complex as foot pedals or on-the-fly distortion switchers, but you can enter the options menu before you begin playing and customize up to six different effects palettes, selecting two different tools to use in tandem. These tools include distortion (drive and mix), low cut (level), high cut (level), delay (mix and time), chorus (mix, depth, and rate), flanger (mix, depth, rate, and feedback gain), and tremolo (rate and depth). Each of these options can be assigned with the touch of the screen, and can be tweaked in the mentioned sections by simply rotating or sliding on-screen toggles, again all touch-specific.
As you can see, Jam Session is a pretty solid tool. But what about the game aspects? To be truthful, they aren't as entertaining as we thought they'd be, so anyone looking for Guitar Hero DS in Jam Sessions is really overselling the game to themselves. In truth, Jam Sessions uses a game element not to just entertain, but actually to teach the fundamentals of guitar. You'll get a track listing, but in reality all it is as note indicators on the top screen that tell you what to play, and when. You can turn on a metronome and stay with the beat, or listen to a midi version of the game in demo mode, but there's no penalty or rating system based on how well you kept the beat or nailed your notes. You take it at your own speed, fix your mistakes along the way, and just learn the music like you would with everyday sheets of notes. When finished you'll get a "Good Job" icon, and then move on.
It's a nice addition to what's already there, but it really shows that Jam Sessions is more about being a virtual guitar than anything else, so while there are small game-like instances, it's more about you exploring the instrument any way you'd like. As a neat add-on, however, there are different modes that can be used with Jam Sessions that add to its lasting appeal. You can put the system in performance mode, disabling the touch icons so that you don't ruin a song as you're strumming, or if you're new to guitar you can do what essentially equates to ear training, having the game challenge you with audio and forcing you to duplicate it with your available chords, training your ears to hear specific strums without needing sheet music in front of you.
And then there are the overall options in the game. Again some are impressive, while others are a bit too shallow for our liking. At any time you can turn on and off a metronome, tab guides, or guide bars that make up the top-screen sheet music. You've also got a decent amount of cosmetic options as well, allowing you to change the visual theme of your system in 60 different background and color templates, as well as eight different strum animations for the bottom screen.
You can also tune your guitar, change the output settings from DS speakers to headphones or guitar amp, and even assign on-screen touch icons that automatically bring up specific options on the fly, effectively making the program quicker for performance situations. All of this is well and good, so long as you aren't expecting more than a virtual guitar tool with some decent depth and true-to-life audio. The voice mode is basic, allowing you to sing along or use the microphone on the DS to pipe your vocals through the system itself, but you can't record vocals onto the system; only the notes you play.
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