No peripherals required
The Guitar Hero franchise was quite revolutionary for its time. It single-handedly created a highly enjoyable and entirely unique new game genre, and went on to sell millions of copies across the years. However, the fanfare eventually began to die down, and great spinoff ideas like the DJ Hero franchise found themselves on the wrong end of the trend's lifetime. Developer Harmonix have been creating music-centered games for years, and were indeed the original creators of Guitar Hero. Since then, the company continued to innovate, with games like Dance Central, and of course keeping their own Rock Band series going. Their latest title is Fuser, another incredibly powerful creative tool for mixing your own music, though its traditional gameplay design elements get in the way.
Fuser lets players take the stage as a DJ at a music festival. You're then given free reign over a four-disc DJ deck, where you can drop a variety of music discs, and start mixing them together, to create a unique sound. There are a lot of mechanics involved, so the game introduces them gradually over the course of the campaign. In the campaign, you are given a chance by a few characters to take their spot on the stage as they guide you through a variety of scenarios. There's not much of a story, as you simply go from stage to stage and follow the tips and challenges of each DJ mentor. The campaign concludes without much fanfare as well. There is no sense of progression – the size of the crowd doesn't change between morning and late night headliner shows, and the different stages you go to are all about the same; there's no feeling of starting off as a lowly DJ at a small nightclub and then rising to the top of the music scene.
Over the course of multiple performance sets, you learn all that Fuser can do as a music tool, but at the same time you're also trying to earn up to five stars in each performance. The stars are earned based on how well you interact with the music based on timing, as well as how the crowd is enjoying the show. This crowd meter is the source of the challenge, as well as annoyance. In order to keep the crowd happy, you need to make changes to your mix in time with the beat, and also fulfill specific requests from the objectives tab. The crowd may ask to hear a specific song, a song from a certain era, or a particular instrument. You have a limited window of time to complete these objectives, alongside some random ones that pop up on the center screen. This is the primary way that the campaign challenges you – and makes you start to become very familiar with the music library that's at your disposal.
While the campaign is instrumental in teaching you everything that's possible in Fuser, it's also perhaps the game's most obvious missed opportunity, because it misses one key element – educating the player. In games like Guitar Hero and DJ Hero, you are often simply playing along to songs, with the rare occasions to add your own few notes to the music. But Fuser is a creation tool, so it has the chance to teach players what sounds good, discovering what you prefer to mix, and adapting to the various styles of music. Sadly, this doesn’t happen – only on a few extremely rare occasions does the game tell you to mix specific tracks together, letting you hear how it sounds and helping you develop. The rest of the time, you're blindly slamming discs in, just to complete an objective in time. By the later campaign stages, you don't even hear the music anymore – you just blindly follow objectives from the crowd who seem to have a severe case of ADHD. There are no difficulty settings in the campaign, though the average player should have no issues getting at least three stars on every set. For those struggling, there is a no-fail setting available.
The demands of the crowd can thankfully be forgotten in the Freestyle mode, where you can take everything learned in the campaign and begin to truly create mixes of your own, without any objectives, or time pressure. This is where the game truly shines, and aspiring DJs will be able to finally break free – create, experiment, save their favorite beats, and share them. This is the sort of game that you can literally bring to a party and be an actual music master. Of course it's no replacement for professional tools, but it comes close, and the ease of accessibility is certainly unmatched.
The core Fuser experience is manipulating up to four songs at a time, in a vast variety of ways. It helps that the included songs offer good variety and opportunities for mixing. The selection is classified into eras (years of release) as well as genres – from R&B, Pop, and Dance to Latin/Caribbean and Rock. As you may expect, most of the songs are from the beat-centric genres, from the likes of "Where's Your Head At", "Satisfaction", "Ghosts 'n' Stuff", and "The Rockafeller Skank" all the way to "Can't Stop the Feeling!", "Born This Way", "Moves like Jagger", and "Call Me Maybe".
The included music is very strong – but there is a large caveat. You must actually unlock it with earned points, before you can use it. You earn points only after leveling up your player profile, which doesn't happen all too often. After completing the campaign with at least 3 or more stars in each set, and playing a few multiplayer modes, we only had enough tokens to unlock about 2/3rds of the music. The fact that players will have to grind for a long time just to get access to all the songs is a rather shocking design decision for a full-priced title. You need those same music credits to unlock various sound effects and instruments, but understandably you'll probably save up to unlock all songs first.
Each performance only lets you bring along up to 24 songs, 8 instruments, 8 sound effects, and 8 snapshots - all located in your loadout known as the Crate. You can create multiple Crates and fill them however you like, perhaps each with a certain style of music. The campaign levels have a few songs that are locked-in so that you can complete objectives, but the rest can be filled manually or automatically. Each song consists of four individual music tracks – these can be any combination of the bass, piano, guitar, vocals, and so on. These individual parts of the song are what you will be mixing together. Regardless of the instrument, each track is color coded to be pink, blue, green, and red – as you might guess, this cleverly correlates to the color of face buttons on the controller.
When you get into a show, the players are presented with four disc slots on a virtual DJ deck. Each of these slots can be taken up by any disc of your choice, but to make things easier at first, you most often use them as the pink, blue, green, and red discs. Players use the left stick of the controller as a cursor for most of the game, as it lets you navigate the songs at the top of the screen. Once you have a song selected, you simply press the controller face button with the corresponding color to choose which instrument disc you want to drop on the deck. The disc begins to play, and off you go. If you select another song and press the same button, it will replace the current one.
All of the disc swapping is done instantly when simply hovering over a song and selecting an instrument, so in order to make the beat sound more cohesive, there are tons of different mechanics that can be used. Your overall performance consists of a 64-bar loop – so you're not actually working with the entire song, but rather just one verse and chorus, with the occasional bridge, so that it easily and cleanly loops. This also means that all songs are inherently "in sync" as they all run at the same beat setting and their bars match up at all times.
When you're swapping out discs, there are two options to make it sound clean – you can swap out any disc at the clearly indicated beat at the end of each bar set, or you swap a specific instrument at the right point of its sound, usually somewhere in the middle of bar set. This way it makes for a super clean transition and you're not cutting an instrument in the midst of a note, or a song in the middle of a word. With this simple system, it's easy to get grooving to your heart's content, combining the vocals of "Bad Guy" with the beat of "Hot Stuff" and piano of "All Star", and just generally experimenting with music.
But it gets much more complex than that. You do have the freedom to include the same type of tracks – so having all four slots playing the main base from different songs, or having more than one vocal track. By moving your cursor down to the discs, you also get individual options – you can mute the disc, highlight it (mute all others), and eject it. Each disc track can be even further enhanced by using effects – everything from delay, pitch stepping, loop, low-pass filter, and many more others to create completely unique sounds. Each effect in itself can be tweaked even further by moving the cursor within the effect window. Each disc slot also has a secondary cue slot, where you can place another disc, and you can swap between the two. You can swap one at a time, or press L2+R2 to swap all cued discs across the deck. The game also includes a clever Riser option – with discs in cue, you can use this function to have the game automatically perform a swap with a nice effect transition. The Riser can be set to keep the same tempo/mode/key, or adjust it based on what the game feels would work best given the cued discs, or even just randomize.
With so many options to interact with individual tracks, things get even more wild as you can tweak the sound of the entire output. First off, you can adjust the BPM from the low 90 all the way to 157 – which of course makes everything sound very different, but still keeps everything in sync as all instruments always match with each other. DJing at higher tempo makes the clean transitions harder, and it pretty much becomes a series of quick time events – you can even get eye strain from trying to follow the various rather small UI elements. Players can also adjust the Minor/Major mode of the mix, and change the Key between C and D. Those sound effects from individual discs can also be applied to the whole mix instead. The amount of tweaks and potential creativity that can be unleashed with Fuser's music mixing tools is truly impressive.
But there's more – in addition to mixing existing music instruments together, you can even create your own. The game offers a variety of instrument sound effects, from piano, to synth bass, electro drums, and many others. Each instrument presents you with a grid of sound effects, on which you have a variety of sounds that can be experienced by simply playing them. You can play it alongside your mix, or choose to loop and record that sound, and drop it like any other disc into your deck. The creative potential here is quite overwhelming, but there's no doubting the possibilities behind Fuser. However, again it's worth noting that unlocking more instruments and effects requires currency that's earned only with leveling up your profile, which takes a long time – and you'll probably want to unlock more songs before you start unlocking effects anyway, again limiting the game's potential.
Perhaps one downside from having all these options available is that while the campaign does teach you how to use them, as mentioned, it doesn't really address what actually sounds good together, or indeed how to create a good custom instrument track. It will all have to come down to memorizing how each track sounds, which ones are busy and which don't have a lot of sound, and experimentation. There are no UI elements or indicators on intensity of any given track. When creating your own instrument loops, there are again no indications at all on what they sound like until you actually start playing, and if you find something you like you have to remember where that beat is on the panel. If you're trying to record an instrument loop while a mix is playing, it both helps and hinders the process, as you can't always hear it over the rest of the mix.
When you've got something put together that seems to gel and sound good, you can tap the D-pad to create a snapshot. This is like a preset that you can bring along in your Crate and deploy at any time to get the mix playing right away. But if you really want to share your music with the world, you can simply capture it right in the Freestyle mode. You choose between 8 to 64 bar mix length, and simply record your gameplay/mix live as you're changing things. This is then shared and uploaded to the community.
The multiplayer options in Fuser are commendable. For one, the online community size should remain healthy thanks to optional cross-play between platforms. Under the Social tab, you will find limited time events, where players can submit themed mixes and vote on others, in exchange for visual customization rewards. You can follow specific creators, and even grab their mixes as a snapshot for your own use. If you'd like to mix with others, you can partake in Co-Op freestyle, where you take turns playing one 64-bar mix and can make requests/send reactions while you wait. For those with a competitive edge, there is a Battles mode, which includes a ranking system and rewards. In Battles, you 1v1 another DJ in the knowledge of music and timing – there are multiple objectives, the discs you play have power levels and can't be swapped until they expire, and you can perform power attacks on the other player's deck. In all honesty – it's a very confusing setup that's difficult to grasp under the tight timeline pressure even after multiple matches. And in this mode you absolutely don't pay attention to the music at all, as you simply try to watch the numbers and objectives. It's the least enjoyable mode of the game.
Fuser's art style is fairly simple, and the stages you play on are somewhat creative and over the top, reminiscent of real world music festivals, specifically Tomorrowland. Players can customize their DJ with a variety of clothing items and accessories, as well as their physical attributes. More items are unlocked as you complete the campaign. You can also customize the effects of the stage you choose to play on – there are six stages, and you can change the time of day from morning to night. The stages can be tweaked by adjusting the color of the lighting, the stage effects such as flames or confetti, the color of the fireworks above the stage, and the abstract images on the displays. The additional items can be unlocked through customization currency, which again is earned with each new profile level.
The visuals aren't really technically impressive. The stages are fairly simplistic in terms of their textures and geometry, and the cutscenes before and during the shows have the same camera angles over and over. The crowds have very low quality models, and for this reason are never in focus; environments behind and in front of the stage are equally low quality. You will spend the majority of your time ignoring everything other than the deck and the music selection anyway, but in the moments you look away or observe a cutscene, the lackluster visuals do stand out.
On the one hand, Fuser is a brilliant creative outlet for anyone who’s ever wanted an accessible way to become a DJ and create unique sound mixes. It's an accessible experience that gives you a ton of powerful tools to create something unique. The robust multiplayer options also help share your creations with the world. However, the game misses the mark in its more traditional gameplay design. The campaign teaches you the mechanics, but does nothing to elevate your music mixing skill or show you how to create something that sounds good. It's also highly dubious for a full priced game to lock the included songs behind in-game currency, making you grind to unlock the entire soundtrack. The presentation quality is fairly average, though it fits okay in a music game such as this. Fuser is an incredibly enticing music tool, but as a game it has a few problems that make it work against itself.