Way back in 2003, Harmonix put out a little game called Amplitude on the PlayStation 2. Building on the rhythm-action framework they’d crafted in their previous title Frequency, Amplitude impressed with its eclectic soundtrack and fast-paced gameplay, which earned it many stalwart fans, if not really making much money for its developer.
Having since been at the forefront of rhythm action games for the last fifteen years, with the creation of both the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, Harmonix saw the opportunity to return to one of their earlier properties by turning to crowd funding site Kickstarter to get a new Amplitude title moving. This release is the fruit of their endeavour.
Amplitude’s campaign mode hangs a light story upon the game’s rhythm-action mechanics, which sees you tackling an infection within a patient’s brain by travelling from the prefrontal cortex through to their limbic system, purging the disruptive elements along the way.
You do so by piloting your Beat Blaster ship across sequences of beats and notes, which are laid out in separate tracks, including drums, bass, synth and vocals, and blasting them away using one of the three corresponding buttons. You attempt to have all of these tracks playing concurrently by successfully hitting all of the notes from a sequence, which amounts to the same effect as spinning multiple plates, rushing backwards and forwards using the D-pad as you try to keep them all going and maintain your multiplier.
Fans of Harmonix’ previous work will find much to recognise in the layout and gameplay, while newcomers who encountered last year’s Rock Band Blitz will be able to see just how much it cribbed from the original Amplitude. There’s actually a control option that allows you to use the Blitz layout if that’s what you’re more accustomed to, while the traditional set-up remains in place for fans of the original.
You can also acquire power-ups by completing particular note sequences. These range from Cleanse, which eradicates a whole section for you, to Sedate that slows down the song for a period of time and gives you more time to react. As you reach the higher difficulty levels these often become integral to making it through a particularly challenging section of notes.
In the campaign mode, each section has a final ‘boss’ level that requires you to carry a score multiplier through memory barriers placed at points during the song, with failure to do so causing the fictional patient irreparable brain damage. It’s really just a slightly more dramatic and exacting way of you failing a song you losing energy and failing the song.
The final sections of the campaign mode are sadly somewhat ruined, firstly by the ‘Synesthesia’ effect, which is supposed to indicate the patient’s increased awareness but only serves to rob much of the drama from the excellent Dalatecht track. That’s followed by unlocking the final bonus song Wayfarer, which has to rank amongst the worst in the game, sounding like the musical equivalent of a particularly nasty migraine, and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Successfully completing the campaign unlocks Freq mode, which long-term Harmonix fans will revel in, with the single plain of tracks replaced by a continuous tube. Though you’ll still approach the game in the same manner, trying to maintain your streak as you blast sequences, it does flow a touch better then the core mode, if only because there’s less hopping from one end of the tracks to the other, but that’s tempered by the reduced ability to see upcoming notes.
Fundamentally, it’s in the music that a rhythm-action game will be measured, and while there are some stand-out moments to be found here, there are too many forgettable tracks to balance them against, particularly in the campaign. There are too many meaningless elements that simply never gel into an actual piece of music, and they hugely detract from the better pieces around them.
It’s telling that some of the finest tracks are found beyond the campaign, with fan favourites Freezepop contributing the excellent Phantoms, alongside Darren Korb’s Impossible – from Supergiant Game’s Transistor – and Symbion Project’s Synthesized, which appeared in the original Amplitude and makes a welcome return with a fresh remix. Within the fifteen song campaign, opener Perfect Brain is an immediate highlight, though it’s likely to set you up for disappointment from a number of those that are to follow, despite tracks like Recession and Energize that lift proceedings.
One of the most notable shifts from the original game is the overall lack of variety to the music, where the original featured acts as diverse as Garbage, David Bowie and Slipknot alongside the electronica, here it’s largely all dance and electro-orientated, outside of a few notable and highly enjoyable tracks, particularly the 1930’s jazz infused Unfinished Business taken from Autumn Games’ Skullgirls and Insomniac Game’s autobiographical Crazy Ride.
While it’s understandable that big-name acts couldn’t be afforded on a Kickstarted game’s budget, there’s no reason that smaller rock, pop and metal acts couldn’t have been included, especially as many would have undoubtedly loved to be involved with the project. What is here then is largely similar in flavour, with a mixed level of quality at times. Hopefully we’ll see more tracks being added in coming months, particularly from other game makers.
Tracks unlock as you progress, with online leaderboards providing replay value as you test yourself against the rest of the world. You’re only going to reach the upper echelons by cranking up the difficulty and the game becomes increasingly brutal, despite its relatively minimal control scheme. Equally, the beginner mode is ridiculously easy, so you’ll probably be better served jumping straight into the more involving intermediate mode as you set out on world domination.
You can also embark on any track and the campaign in local multiplayer, joining forces to successfully reach the end of a track which is a pleasant if inessential addition. It would have been nice to see an online multiplayer option, whether co-operative or versus, but again the constraints of the budget probably put paid to that.
The visuals are almost inconsequential, given how much you’ll be concentrating on the lines of notes and sequences, but they are suitably hypnotic, with some futuristic structures occasionally making their way out of the visualiser-esque surroundings. The only times where anything felt low-rent was in the craft fly-by when you complete a portion of the campaign, with everything suddenly looking like it’s at a much lower resolution. It could just be a visual filter, but it’s definitely jarring given how crisp the rest of the presentation is.
Overall Amplitude’s return is an enjoyable one, though the game’s campaign set-list has just as many tracks that would clear the dancefloor as fill it. Thankfully, the additional tracks that you unlock through play are much stronger, and will particularly appeal to fans of indie game soundtracks and their composers. However, fans of the original will likely still hanker after more variation to the included styles and genres no matter how hypnotic the action is.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4