Harmonix's latest stride in pushing the boundaries of rhythm games works exceptionally well at making you feel cooler and more competent at creating music than you probably are.
It's been about a decade since rhythm games had any major spotlight, but they never really went away. Beat Saber was probably the closest we go to having another resurgence--the VR space now has a bunch of great rhythm-focussed titles if you're willing to splurge on the expensive hardware (a familiar feeling for genre fans, no doubt). Elsewhere, Japan and Korea still exist, and as a result, so do insane beat-matching games for the inhuman among us.
I've noticed a little trend of rhythm games coming out this year that lean on the idea of being a DJ. DJMAX Respect V from Korea got a PC release, which subscribes heavily to the school of Konami's Beatmania series in which DJs are just folks who are really good at smashing out house tunes on a piano. We also have the wonderful Spin Rhythm from Australia, a game that focuses on recreating the analog joys of spinning and scratching a turntable.
But if you think about the idea of a contemporary performing DJ, you think of a person on stage, sitting behind some turntables playing records, and if they're really good, queuing up a great mix of songs, matching beats to create delightful transitions, and maybe even mashing tunes up in surprising ways to get the crowd invested and moving.
That's the experience that Fuser is aiming to simulate, and it does this very, very well. Casting you as a performing festival DJ, Fuser's mechanical crux is the act of mixing and mashing up different records together to create fresh new tracks, in the vein of artists like Girl Talk or 2 Many DJ's.
It's the latest game from Harmonix, a studio synonymous with great rhythm games. Between Rock Band, Dance Central, Audica, the first two Guitar Hero games, Amplitude and Frequency--Harmonix have traditionally been incredibly good at putting out games that make you really feel like you are the one creating the music and performing the actions you're hearing and seeing on screen. I know this because I have personally played an embarrassing amount of their games over the past twenty years and invested thousands of dollars into music DLC--consider this a disclosure.
Here's how Fuser works: You have a turntable deck with four platters and a crate of up to 24 record singles at your disposal. Each single has four discrete musical parts that can be pulled from it, which varies from track to track--you'll typically get something like Drums, Bass, Synth, and Vocals to mix and mash during your shows, which get started as soon as you drop the first, and hopefully phat, beat.
Dropping tracks can be as simple as moving your cursor to your records at the top of the screen, and hitting a button to hot-drop specific instruments to predetermined platters. It's a friendly system that tries to always ensure that your mashups have a well-rounded mix of sounds. For a little more control, you can also drag and drop specific song parts to specific platters if you happen to want something a little more lopsided, like two different drum tracks on top of two different basslines.
But even if you do decide to get a little more creative, it's pretty difficult to make a truly bad-sounding mix because the game will automatically homogenise the tempo, key and modality of every track to suit what is already spinning on the decks. That's really Fuser's greatest strength--it handles all the actual hard work of creating mashups, giving you the fun bits: picking and choosing song parts to smash together.
There are also some more advanced tools that will let you adjust things manually, as well as perform more complex musical maneuvers like soloing tracks, queuing records and then A-B swapping between them, or setting up more impactful transitions between records. But executing this stuff is simple, too--the mental exercise still comes from exercising the cool ways you can use these tools during a show.
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The only place where music creation has the potential to go awry is with freestyle instruments. On top of your crate of records, you have the ability to create your own custom loops using synthesised instruments like a wobble bass or a synth saxophone. They're tuned to help you in creating pleasant, melodic loops that are always appropriate, but depending on how much of a sadist you are you could probably do some aural damage if you really tried--I'm mainly thinking of single-note, high-pitched sax solos here.
But what's clear is that as with many other Harmonix games, Fuser wants to empower you with its tools so that you can feel like a creative genius, no matter your actual musical competency.
That's reinforced by the leniency exhibited when you start to look at how all these tools are actually used in a video game setting--working through a career mode, playing different stages with different requirements, and striving to earn good grades on each. In a lot of rhythm games, there is often an optimal method for achieving a perfect score, usually by hitting all the notes or deploying powerups to maximise score multipliers at an ideal time. In Fuser, there's no one real correct path you need to take in order to achieve the maximum possible score or rating, which is an incredibly refreshing approach.
In career mode, each stage will have a small number of required records you need to bring, but you're free to bulk out the rest of your load with whatever you wish. When you begin a set you'll quickly receive an ongoing series of objectives you need to try to achieve in a certain amount of time. These objectives are rarely "play this specific song;" instead, they're more along the lines of "put down a bass track," "play a little country music," or "give me something from the 90's." There is a notable degree of freedom to how you want to customise your approach to those goals into your personal mix--my 5-star song is not going to be the same as yours.
There are some skill-based mechanics to worry about too, which mostly feel like they're pushing you into making sure your mix sounds as good as it can possibly be. Dropping a new record on the decks will net you more points if you manage to do it either on the downbeat (the steady and persistent accents throughout a song) or by dropping it at the pickup point of the actual record you're putting down (where the musical motif starts). Thankfully, there's an easy-to-read UI element which indicates where the downbeat of each song is, shows a track's pickup point when you select a record, and displays your exact position relative to all these elements at a time. Failing to hit too many objectives or timing cues will cause the crowd meter, which measures your performance, to take a dive. There are other considerations too, like not relying on the same small group of tracks for too long--you need to keep mixing things up with some variety.
Coming from someone who enjoys playing a lot of rhythm-action games at a high level, my only hesitation from playing the demo build (repeatedly) was that I wasn't really able to perceive where this might go in terms of increasing difficulty just yet--the demo only included a beginner and intermediate stage and both were essentially tutorials for various aspects. The most complicated maneuver the game asked me to do was to create a synthesised loop, drop it on the platters, and then solo it on the downbeat for one bar only. Obviously, fast rhythm-action isn't Fuser's primary goal; it's about expressing yourself. That said though, I'm very eager to see what its expert levels have in store later down the line--I've been told that the aforementioned manual adjustments will start coming into play more.
You can still fail a set. But in keeping with the game's goals of expressive freedom, it will never be because you decided to throw Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" into your mix. Rather, you might fail out because of how you did it--say, throwing the vocal track on all four platters for a five-minute acapella sing-a-long.
On top of the Whitney track, Fuser features a good variety of music that spans decades of history and a multitude of genres, with more tracks to be introduced as downloadable content down the line. There are some tracks that I definitely got more excited about seeing than others, but it almost doesn't really matter what I want to see. Harmonix games have always come with the nice benefit of letting me discover and explore music in a different way, and I often enjoy their curation of various songs and styles that I may or may not listen to in everyday life. For example, Rock Band turned me into a huge Rush fan because Neil Peart's drumming felt so damn good to mimic myself. Playing the Fuser demo turned me into a Carly Rae Jepson fan because the string section in "Call Me Maybe" had a killer hook that sounded sick no matter where I threw it (apparently Emotion is a pretty good album, too?). Rhythm games have a way of encouraging you to put your guard down, leave your judgment at the door, and appreciate the music as an artistic creation built from a bunch of amazing parts. Fuser continues to do that. Sure, I'll listen to some Brad Paisley. That guitar riff is pretty good, so why not?
Even at this early stage, the essence of Fuser's mechanics feels incredibly good. It's an approachable, powerful, and intuitive music mixing simulation--you could forget about the game part completely and it would still be an exciting piece of software. In a mid-pandemic world where music festivals are only a dream, Fuser gets you jumping out of your seat with the same kind of excitement very quickly.
Fuser is currently slated for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch during Fall 2020.