Amplitude (2016) Review: Supersonic Brain Theropy

Harmonix is easily one of my favorite developers in the industry. Infusing my love of music and gaming into one package is something that Harmonix does better than any developer out there. I can’t even believe the sheer amount of money and hours I have spent in the Rock Band series, or how much time I wasted playing Frequency on the PS2 as a kid. When Harmonix looked to the community and their fans to help fund the reboot of their 2002 PS2 classic “Amplitude,” it was a no-brainer for me to help fund the development due to my fondness of the original and of Harmonix in general. Personally, I have never backed a Kickstarter campaign before and Amplitude was my first foray into the crowdfunding platform. After investing money into the making of this project, did I make the right decision or should I have let this one slide by?

Amplitude, at its core, is a rhythm game that plays similarly to several games Harmonix has made in the past including Frequency, Rock Band Unplugged and Rock Band Blitz. The screen is split into multiple colored lanes that each represent a specific instrument included in the mix of a musical track. Using a futuristic ship called a “Beatblaster,” players will use three buttons on the gamepad to shoot notes that travel down the lanes which correspond to the beat of each instrument, making the player feel as if they’re essentially creating the song as they blast their way through the track. In order to give the player an indication of when to switch highways, each note will be connected by what looks like a thread. Once the last note is hit in the strand, this is a good time to swap to a new instrumental highway. In order to keep the track flowing, players must quickly navigate between the different lanes while also keeping each instrument in sync and the overall song intact. Once the player reaches the end of the track, they will be presented with a score, a percentage of the track completed without missing notes and a bar rating that acts as a rank which indicates how well the player performed overall. Think of Amplitude as Rock Band but with less buttons and micromanaging each instrument yourself.

amplitude1New players to the series may have a hard time grasping how the game is actually played beyond its basics. In order to rack up higher scores, more complete percentages and higher bar ratings, the player must manage all of the different note highways presented to them by swapping lanes without missing notes. The most difficult skill to learn is to keep an eye on the highways to the left and right of the lane the player is currently engaging in to attempt to spot and anticipate the next note to blast in a neighboring lane. Taking the easy way out by swapping to an instrumental note highway that has fewer notes or a larger gap that’s easier to continue playing on isn’t necessarily the best way to go. The greatest Amplitude players will swap to highways that include more notes that start as soon as the previous highway ends in order to drive the score higher. All of this can be a little difficult to take in once you start playing for the first time.

In order to help players survive the musical madness, Harmonix included multiple power-ups that have different effects. Earning these power-ups requires the player to identify them on a highway and hit all of the glowing notes associated to the power-up. Some power-ups will allow the player to skip sections of the song while others will slow the highways down to make things a little more manageable. Earning power-ups and the method of obtaining them is similar to earning star power in Guitar Hero or overdrive in Rock Band. Four difficulty levels are included in Amplitude which increases the amount of notes on each highway along with the actual speed of the gameplay. Obviously the highest difficulty is required to obtain scores that are competitive on the leaderboards and require the most skill, but the game’s difficulties tailor themselves well to different play styles that make the game enjoyable to anyone who picks it up.

Unlike most rhythm games, Amplitude tells an interesting narrative in it’s campaign mode that acts as a 15 song experimental concept album. Even though the story isn’t quite spelled out to the player, it delivers an extremely fascinating vibe to the gameplay that I found extremely unique for the genre. From what I could gather, the story revolves around using technology to enter and heal the brain of a comatose scientist who used machines to stimulate her mind in an attempt to unlock higher audio/visual perception. Progressing through each song in the campaign includes dialog from scientists and the patient herself in order to help push the narrative along. Loading screens act as a map of the brain that notifies the player of which portion of the mind they’re entering. In my 28 years of playing video games, I have never seen a rhythm game or rather any game tackle the themes this game explores.

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Unfortunately for the story mode, Amplitude is a rather short ride. The game includes 30 tracks while only half of them are played within the actual campaign mode. The rest of the songs must be unlocked by earning more bars across the library of music available to the player. Some of the game’s best tracks are tucked away into “Quick Mode” that lacks the cool story aesthetic that makes Amplitude stand out. Speaking of the music, Amplitude’s soundtrack consists of mostly in-house tracks created by Harmonix themselves. The good news is that these tracks are mostly fantastic with a few standouts including “Dreamer,” “Magpie,” and “Decode Me.” Harmonix was able to get some guest artists to contribute tracks to Amplitude as well, including Boston techno favorites Freezepop, Danny Baranowsky (Crypt of the Necrodancer) and the music team at Insomniac Games (Ratchet & Clank). Most of the contributing tracks are pretty solid too.

As a whole, the music is comprised of indie techno/trance music and lacks the pop music found in the original Amplitude, which is the bad news for some. I personally love that the game has an original soundtrack that makes playing Amplitude feel a bit more special since I’m engaging in music that is completely fresh and original. The audio design is stellar and is a real treat to play with headphones. Utilizing the 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the Dual Shock 4 envelopes the player into the experience even more.

Playing Amplitude is a visual treat on the eyes. The game takes a very 80’s and early 90’s era virtual reality art direction similar to something found in Tron or The Lawnmower Man while also making the game feel as if you are soaring through brainwaves inside the human mind. The best way to describe the visuals are to imagine yourself participating in a drug-infused Rave party while on sensory overload. One could describe Amplitude as one musical head trip with some scientific intelligence sprinkled in. While the game certainly fails to push the hardware, we do have to remember that this game isn’t aiming to be a AAA experience either. The texture work on the various beatblasters are very nice and the game is aesthetically pleasing on both the eyes and the ears and that’s really all we need Amplitude to achieve.

Controlling Amplitude is simple but wrapping your head around it at first may create a small learning curve for first time players. The analog stick will maneuver the beatblaster between various musical highways while shooting musical notes will require the player to quickly alternate between the L1, R1 and R2 buttons. Since the notes are displayed side by side in a row of three, the fact that the R2 button being thrown in as the far right note can throw players off. Multiple button configurations exist to help aid players who are perplexed by the default scheme but I personally found that using the trigger buttons is the best way to go for speed purposes. One complaint that players of the original Amplitude may have is the analog nature of the R2 trigger, which can make rapid hits feel strange compared to the digital R2 button on the PS2 gamepad. The small flaws in the control scheme really do not come into play until the player ramps up the difficulty, but legacy players may wish they had more options in customizing the controls. I found after playing through three or four songs the game starts to click regardless of your control scheme.

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The campaign mode in Amplitude can be finished within a couple of hours and unlocking all of the available tracks could take another few hours tops. The real meat and potatoes of Amplitude is the competitive nature of climbing the leaderboards and perfecting each track. Each song has a separate leaderboard that compares your score to friends and the community as a whole, so attempting to beat your buddies’ scores can be a lot of fun. If score chasing isn’t your thing, Amplitude won’t hold a spot on your hard drive for long. A 4-player couch co-op mode is included in the game too that allows each player to feel like they’re contributing to the music creation while also competing to see who is the better beat zapper, but the lack of online play hurts the cooperative mode. Thankfully, experiencing the whole fascinating campaign mode again along with enjoying playing through my favorite tracks will keep Amplitude on my list of relaxing games to play for quite some time.

Amplitude is a great successor to the PS2 classic that brings a whole new vibe to the table,  making the game feel very fresh even though the gameplay is very similar to its predecessor. Harmonix took a very cool neuroscientific approach to the single player campaign that makes the experience unique and memorable while including some awesome music that drives the aesthetic home. Even though the game isn’t chock full of content, you get enough to keep yourself busy for the $20 asking price. I personally love rhythm games and revisit them often so owning Amplitude is an easy decision for me, but that may not be the case with some people who lack the desire to be perfectionists.

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Josh Faulkner

Josh is a native Ohio-an who grew up in a small town that had very little for kids to do. As a result, Josh picked up video games at a very young age. Video games played a huge part in his childhood and continued to do so in his adult life. Starting out on an Atari 2600 when he was 3 years old, gaming has sort of grown up alongside with Josh and continues to be his biggest hobby. As an IT technician by day, Josh is an aspiring gaming writer by night who founded a few websites including 16 Bit Heroes and Too Busy Gaming, while also dabbling in retro gaming YouTube videos and live streaming events.