When I got my hands on Fuser for just a few minutes back at PAX East 2020, I was blown away. In just one brief gameplay demo, Harmonix managed to convince me that it was on the pulse of the next biggest breakthrough for the rhythm game genre since Rock Band, which, hey, Harmonix also created. I had been a massive fan of the dynamic music mashup technology at the heart of the Harmonix card game Dropmix, but seeing that kind of groundbreaking musical interactivity fade into expensive peripheral-game obscurity broke my heart. Thankfully, the spirit of Dropmix lives on at the heart of Fuser, a flashy festival-focused emulation of DJ and mashup culture that I just got some additional, thorough hands-on time with this week.
At PAX East, I dropped smack-dab into the middle of the gameplay of Fuser, with no other context for why or where I was doing what I was doing. In the latest Harmonix rhythm game, you’re given a crate full of chart-topping hits spanning multiple decades and genres, and there’s a mix deck in front of you with four empty slots. Each of your four controller face buttons corresponds to a different section of the song you’re highlighting with your cursor, and as you place sections from different songs onto your mixer, the game automatically shifts the tempo, BPM, and loop of each to craft a head-bopping banger of a custom mashup.
Whereas Rock Band saw you and a crew of custom avatars emulating the journey of a budding rock star, Fuser sees you ditching the leather-clad foursome for a single, neon-drenched disc jockey who can be customized to an astounding degree. Nothing in the character customizer for Fuser is locked behind a gender gate, letting you mix faces, body types, clothes, and accessories as you see fit. The team behind the game strived to emulate the inclusive, varied culture of the festival scene and developed a customization system that aims to let you be you no matter what. I was blown away by the fact that the skin color selection suite even featured multiple patterns of Vitiligo-afflicted skin.
Whether you’re playing as an approximation of yourself or a seven-foot-tall muscle-bound DJ with nothing but a golden cowboy hat and pink jeans on, you won’t just be a pretty face in the background of uncontextualized rhythm-gaming sessions. There’s a fleshed-out career mode in Fuser that sees you traveling across six different venues, with each of these venue-specific episodes broken up into multiple chapters based on the time of day for each performance. You may start out as a meager opening act during a calm yet cozy 1 p.m. set, but you’ll eventually move up to a packed 10 p.m. closing show with a raucous, roaring crowd egging you on.
As you move along the time slots, though, the difficulty of the game scales alongside the growth of your mixer career. As you play each set, you’ll have audience members requesting you to perform specific actions — play a song from the ’90s, mute all your vocal tracks, drop in some country, and so on. You need to perform track drops on the measured off-beat of your set, requiring you to keep your eyes on the beat indicator, your available songs, the requests from your audience, and the timers for those requests all at once. There aren’t concrete difficulty modifiers akin to playing “Through the Fire and Flames” on Expert in Fuser, but the way the challenge of each set naturally builds as you progress offers more mental gymnastics than the usual reflex and motor-function testing that music games typically present you with.
Having a guided series of story sets to perform and new customization items to unlock presents some much appreciated inventiveness for staying with the game. Still, the heart and soul of Fuser is the mashup action, and if you just want to sit down and mix some beats together, there’s a Freestyle Mode that lets you do just that. While story missions will force you to keep certain songs in your deck, you’re given free rein to pick whatever you want to use in Freestyle Mode. No matter what you put in your crate, the resulting mix is sure to be a delight.
Yes, against all odds, the guitar from “All Star,” the violins from “Call Me Maybe,” the drums from “Old Town Road,” and the vocals from “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” perfectly blend together. The only time I saw hiccups in my mixes was when I tried using the instrument tools provided to me in Fuser. You can open up a window to lay down your own beats on a synthesizer that belts out a custom loop for any variety of instruments, from hip hop drums to grungy guitars. The free-form style of how you input these samples is a little tricky to wrap your head around at first, though, and in the heat of a stacked story mission it often ended up being the one task that severely threw me off my groove.
Regardless, Harmonix’s Fuser is an absolute delight and an unprecedented shift in the culture of music games. For years, the bar for rhythm games seemed to be set at having players simply emulate the keys of an existing song by tapping taiko drums or strumming a plastic guitar or mashing some buttons on a keyboard. With Fuser, though, you’re doing so much more than just testing your motor skills to established hits. You’re flexing creative thinking skills and your own personal tastes to craft music for you, by you, and on the fly. There may be just over 100 songs on the full tracklist for Fuser, but the beauty of the game is that you’ll be using those tracks to create thousands of new songs. It’s that kind of creativity that I’ve simply never seen before in a music game.