The late ’90s and early 2000s were an interesting time for the merging of music and video games. Sure, music has always been a part of the interactive medium, but it was the days of the PSX era giving way to the PS2 that we really started to see the two mediums cross. Extreme sports games were including quality soundtracks (the Tony Hawk series, for example) and the PSX and PS2 disks allowed a greater capacity for high-quality music. Rhythm games such as Parappa The Rapper (PSX), Gitaroo Man (PS2) and Space Channel 5 were early pioneers but relied on original music made for the games. Enter Frequency (PS2, released 2001), a rhythm game that used licensed music by well-known bands that also allowed players to make their own unique takes on the songs. A sequel came out in 2003 called Amplitude, which was in a similar vein to Frequency and also hailed by critics to become a cult hit, but it bombed commercially. Even in the age of Kickstarter, it was a surprise to hear Harmonix – the original developers and also creators of Guitar Hero – wanted to re-make Amplitude, and that fans were still keen for more.
The core concept of Amplitude is basically about hitting the right node at the right time with the music while trying to chain as many together as possible. Anyone familiar with Guitar Hero or Rock Band would be familiar with the idea; as they should be, seeing as this game is directly responsible for the latter titles. What makes Amplitude unique is the way each song is split up into its individual elements (drums, bass, vocals, synths, all of which can have multiple layers) that can be played in any order. This means the songs can sound different depending on how you choose to compose them, or how well you play. It’s a simple and incredibly effective gameplay mechanic that somehow feels more involved than simply pressing a button in time. When a bar is cleared it is added to the overall song loop and players need to switch to another “lane” to continue their combo, which can become quite challenging in higher difficulties or fast songs. Most of the time Amplitude is fair in telegraphing where the next note is or allowing enough time to switch and hit the next note, but occasionally you’ll find the next lane is basically off the screen.
The campaign mode does actually involve the semblance of narrative involving an attempt to repair a comatose woman’s brain, conceptually projected as the gameplay we see. It looks at the idea of synesthesia, a phenomenon where senses are experienced as other senses (such as seeing colour when hearing a sound). The music is curated especially for the experience and mixed with vibrant visuals to give the experience the feel of travelling through a fractured yet reactive mind. The story mode requires you to play through each song sequentially with a “boss” type level at the end of each section. Unfortunately once a song has been completed there’s no option to replay it, so in order to improve your score the entire campaign has to be replayed. It’s a massive pain, especially when slogging back through the early or weak songs. The quick play mode makes up for this, but scores in this mode don’t cross over into the campaign.
The music turns out to be one of the few letdowns of Amplitude. Whereas the previous titles relied mostly on recognisable music from multiple genres, the remake has mostly original songs that fall exclusively in the EDM spectrum. A good portion of the track list is top quality, but the amount of underwhelming tracks is disappointing – a feeling that turns to irritation when forced to replay them multiple times. There are over 30 tracks, with over half requiring unlocking through different requirements. Amplitude’s a game that’s fun and easy to hop on for a quick play, so it’s a pain that some huge time commitments are required to unlock a portion of the tracks. A local multiplayer mode is available that wasn’t able to be tested out for this review, and online multiplayer wasn’t developed as the Kickstarter didn’t manage to reach the funding goal.
Amplitude is a solid nostalgia hit in glossy HD and certainly brought me back to the days of endlessly replaying one song on the Frequency demo disk on the PS2. There’s a visceral feeling connecting the minimal gameplay to the pumping audio and visuals that makes the game so fun to play. While it’s hard to be critical when a developer goes to the extra effort of composing a conceptual soundtrack, I do wish there was a wider variety of music available. Apart from that Amplitude is still an enjoyable experience packed with challenge, made even better in a dark room and a killer hi-fi setup.