Rhythm games are typically a test of memorization and tactile skill. How good are you at pressing these five colored buttons in tune to “Through the Fire and Flames”? If you can’t do it now, keep practicing and memorizing the note highway until you can. The music game genre has typically been built on this premise of matching timed button presses to existing music to clear a stage or earn five stars, and rhythm gaming pioneer Harmonix is no stranger to that formula. With games like Amplitude and Rock Band under its belt, Harmonix has spent years refining the music game. With Fuser, though, Harmonix has set out to change all the rules of rhythm gaming and deliver an experience in free-form creativity unlike any other game in the genre.
Fuser is a game all about being a DJ, but that doesn’t mean you’re slapping buttons and spinning discs in tune to existing jams. Instead, your task is to make the music. Gameplay sees you with a four-slot deck on the screen and a crate full of songs that you can slap elements from into the deck at any time to create a mix in real time. Pop the drums from “Rock the Casbah” in there, slap in the violin from “Call Me Maybe”, and then toss in some Jonas Brothers guitar and the vocals from “Take on Me” and the game will shift the tempo, pitch, and patterns of each piece to dynamically fit together into a wild custom mashup. Most of the time, these dynamic mixes sound genuinely incredible. The magic falters a bit if you combine some harsh sounds or slap four vocal tracks in at once, but if you’ve got an ear for things, you’ll be able to slap together some unforgettable mashups with ease.
This music-mashup technology, adapted from Harmonix card game Dropmix, is a fun little creative sandbox, but it doesn’t exactly have the same sense of progression or challenge that a typical rhythm game would. Fuser attempts to tackle that with a couple of key systems. Firstly, there’s a bit of a rhythm and timing element to all of this thanks to the drop-beat system. There’s a 32-bar beat tracker across the top of your mix deck, and you want to make sure you’re dropping, swapping, or muting discs on every fourth beat to avoid an off-beat penalty. Additionally, the individual elements of every disc have their own unique beats that you can drop them on that don’t always align with the standard 4-beat loop.
Keeping track of this stuff is key during the campaign mode, where you’re earning points for on-beat actions and fielding requests from fans or your DJ mentor to drop in specific kinds of tracks or actions within a time limit. All of these tasks help add some urgency to an otherwise free-form creation tool, but investment and enjoyment in the music mashup experience is still the primary pathway of Fuser. If you dive into the game to just robotically meet each goal and earn five stars, you’ll either grow bored of the disc-swapping gameplay or lose focus of the sounds you’re mixing and fall into some clunky-sounding mixes, or both. The progression and tasks and timing systems are all meant to benefit the creative process more than they are to drive a leaderboard score.
Now, as much as I appreciate the inclusion of this goal-oriented campaign mode, it’s got a bit of a disconnect from the content of the game. The Fuser campaign sees you performing at six different giant outdoor festivals with six unique environments and headliner DJs walking you through each set. The best word I could use to describe these characters is, perhaps, cheesy. The diversity of DJs you meet is refreshing, but when all of their dialogue is so corny, it’s hard to feel cool rising through the ranks of disc-jockey stardom alongside them.
I understand the appeal of these larger-than-life festival settings, especially in a time when the idea of thousands of people touching elbows at a concert is unknowable, but I can’t imagine any of these people paid to come to a huge outdoor EDM festival to listen to me play a mashup of “Mr. Brightsite” and “Party Rock Anthem.” The kind of music you create in Fuser feels more in line with the underground vibe of dive-bar DJ nights or college house parties. It strikes me as odd that Fuser positions you as a fresh face to the world of DJing yet starts you off at the top in these giant festivals, rather than the more intimate DJ settings that also fit the music of the game and are just, generally, a lot cooler than Bignums outdoor ice cream festival.
There are a lot of other distractions to keep you occupied in Fuser beyond the tone-deaf campaign mode, though. Multiplayer modes let you mix with friends in a more casual and surprisingly non-competitive atmosphere, and as you play the game and level up you’re able to buy new songs and a boatload of customization options for your character. There’s a super robust and refreshingly varied character customization system in the game, and it adds an extra layer of addictiveness to be able to dive in and change my DJ up whenever I want.
Harmonix may have missed the mark on the sort of vibe and style that makes DJing cool, but they knocked it out of the park in turning this dynamic mix-making tech into a one-of-a-kind rhythm game that I can’t wait to keep playing.
A review code was provided by the publisher.