Harmonix is perhaps best known for pioneering the plastic instrument revolution of rhythm games, plucking along on a plastic guitar to popular songs while making the player feel like an absolute rockstar. They continued to iterate and refine, going from guitars to full bands to DJs, and exploring the broad spectrum of what a rhythm game could possibly be. Their latest is FUSER, and it tosses away the plastic instruments in favor of almost complete control over the music via a controller.
For clarification, FUSER is a PS4 game without a native PS5 version, but I played via backwards compatibility on my PS5. This blurring of the console generation lines allows FUSER to effectively be a next-gen launch title, and one I’d highly recommend gracing your next-gen systems when you get them this week.
FUSER is about freedom. It’s freedom from the note paths and strict structures of rhythm games past. It’s freedom from individual songs, genres, styles, or even ways of playing. It’s freedom to make the music your way, while also harnessing what Harmonix does so well in making you feel like a genuine creator, regardless of talent. Sure, there’s a skill gap in the gameplay, but Harmonix, as usual, makes the onboarding so friendly and fun you can’t help but get entranced by the music, even when a mix hits a sour note.
Imagine you’re on stage at a huge music festival. You’re the DJ, responsible for keeping the crowd entertained. You dig into your crate of records, mixing and changing the music, controlling the rises and the falls, guiding the rhythm and the mix. Control the key, the tempo; even play your own electronic instruments to add some custom flair. Drums from Rage Against The Machine fill out the backbeat while a dancy bass line gives the mix some groove. Suddenly you slap some Brad Paisley vocals over the top of it, using the opportunity to queue up an entirely different set of tracks before setting a steady riser to change the whole thing to something different, faster, but maybe shifting to a minor key.
FUSER Review – What it Means to Be a DJ
What’s so special about FUSER is it manages to still quantify some level of “skill” despite all this freedom. The campaign is all about teaching you techniques to use, a slow ramp of introducing new features that you can then take into free play and multiplayer modes. You’ll start out simple, just mixing tracks and learning how to time it all to the beat. In general, each track is divided into four instruments—typically drums, bass, lead/rhythm, and vocals, though it can vary per song—and, true to its name, FUSER is about fusing these elements together into something entirely new. The one thing that never sounds good to me is making sudden key or tempo changes, even right on beat. They just tend not to flow well. Gradual shifts or those done via the riser sound great through and make for a massive shift in the mix dynamic.
Later campaign levels—under the guise of a series of music festival stages guided by famed fiction in-game DJs—turn up the complexity, but despite a lot of freedom and features to adjust the mix, it never felt too overwhelming. The campaign tasks ebb and flow between having you use these new techniques in practice and allowing you to just do your own thing. Rather than a stringent series of lessons you need to ace, they act like suggestions while you’re just having a blast creating a mix you can groove to, most often adding a dynamic element that really sparks the creativity. And the farther I got into the campaign, the more lessons and techniques I learned, the more I was blown away by how Harmonix had managed to gamify and automate so many of these elements.
The work Harmonix has done to ensure everything just… works together… is incredible. I’ve mixed tracks that I thought for certain would sound terrible, and am instead met with a surprising duet of harmonies between two completely different genres, backed by the thundering drums from yet another. I’ve run a quick dancy dark sounding version of “All Star” by Smash Mouth, backed by a rapid country guitar rhythm. I’ve slowed some fast jams way down to give them a more trance-like groove and feel. Some of the best mixes I’ve made are ones I didn’t really plan for at all.
And FUSER makes it easy to save these mixes too. Tapping up on the D-pad takes a snapshot of the current mix that you can go back and listen to and even slot into future mixes. In fact, while mixing four decks, queuing up tracks, changing key and tempo, and playing virtual instruments might seem tough to accomplish on a controller, Harmonix made it intuitive and easy to do. Again, the slow ramp of the campaign helps a lot with this learning process, and I was constantly impressed by just how natural using the controller to play FUSER felt. It would have been nice to have the option to have a small vibration in the controller on the beat to help time drops, but otherwise, it’s amazing how much of a music superstar I felt like with a controller in my hand.
FUSER Review – Like a Star
That’s really the entire crux of what FUSER comes back to: making you feel like a star. And more than just acing the technical performance of a note path in Rock Band, FUSER manages to make you feel like you uniquely and genuinely created something, because there are virtually no limits around what you are able to do. Want to drop four separate vocal tracks all at once? Try it. Why not? And with how constantly the mix is changing and evolving anyway, a bad mix is never around for too long before it shifts to something else.
Skill plays a role in being able to keep the mix changes on beat, but is never dictated by what exactly you are bringing to the mix, save for the occasional specific campaign task or crowd request. Making a mix is easy. Making a mix interesting gets a bit tougher. And landing those coveted five-star prizes will take a master of keeping the mix varied, meeting crowd requests, and landing perfect timing with everything you do.
Progression is balanced in such a way that unlocks come over time, neither handing you everything all at once nor being too stingy with its unlocks. You won’t have access to the entire track list from the outset, giving you even more reason to play to add that one coveted song to your crate. Customization extends to your avatar and the entire stage setup too, really creating the feeling that this is all your show. And the song variety is immense. It’s not overburdened with one type of genre, instead feeling as rounded out as any good Harmonix game. Not to mention that a solid mix can even make you enjoy genres you thought you hated (looking at you, Country).
Online multiplayer and community aspects round everything out, including special mix challenges that you can upload, share, and vote on for exclusive cosmetic rewards. Trying to make a mix under certain specific conditions can be a thrilling way to stretch your creative muscles and try out songs, effects, instruments, and transitions you might otherwise overlook. Given how highly individualized every single mix is (there are over 100 songs after all, and near infinite ways to piece them together), having community around this aspect really helps elevate the feeling of making something that sounds good.
FUSER is all about player creativity and freedom. It’s less focused on technical recitation of precise button presses and more on how in the groove you can get yourself. For decades, Harmonix has been harnessing the power of music and delivering a feeling of super stardom to players. FUSER puts that directly into the players’ hands more than any game before it. Even with a PS5 and next-gen games in hand, I can’t turn the music off. If you yearn for the days of the plastic instrument revolution, just without all that junk taking up space, FUSER will put you as close to the stage as any music game possibly can.
FUSER review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a PS5. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.