Much like the career of Vernon Kay (officialvernonkay.com), the rhythm game genre seems to resurface every ten years – although unlike Vernon ‘The Crippler’ Kay, no rhythm game has yet to serve as a spokesman for Beefeater restaurants.
Rhythm games have their genesis in the year 1264 (stay with me on this) when Simon de Montfort captured King Henry III, which meant that any order given by King Henry III (the third in a trilogy is always rubbish) could be countermanded by Simon. From this was derived the parlour game ‘Simon Says’. An electronic version followed a few hundred years later and in 1996 we had a dog rapping about kung-fu onions and the perils of peritonitis. The genre surged again in 2005 with Guitar Hero, a franchise which throttled itself several thousand iterations later with the release of Guitar-Hero: Prague Philharmonic Orchestra which featured four hundred special controllers and a Multitap adapter which could be seen from the Moon.
Which brings us somehow to Amplitude – a sequel to the game…er…Amplitude. Surprisingly, this is not a game about the differences between the extreme values of a given variable (I know, I was shocked too) but is in actuality a rhythm game featuring little or no references to Vernon ‘Crusher’ Kay (host of All-Star Family Fortunes). Before we find out (222 words into this review) whether it’s worth trading in your copy of Cyber Sled (PS1 – 1993) for this amplification of ‘tude, let’s read a poem that I’ve written:
Are you a cool dude?
Not to review you would be rude
With Vernon Kay I’m having a feud
Which may result in us getting sued
The storyline, such as it is, features an unseen patient named Sarah (although it’s never made clear that she’s a person, she could be someone’s pet chinchilla for all we know) and an experiment to raise her consciousness by sending a tiny spaceship into her brain which will blast her with electronic music. While medically dubious, you could read a subtext of the healing power of song into the game. Which is nice.
The quest to enlighten Sarah the chinchilla looks rather like a standard shoot ’em up, but be not fooled gentle reader, the only thing you’ll be blasting here is beats – so many, many beats. There are a few innerspaceships to select and if you’re anything like me (nearly forty, balding, conviction for public indecency) you’ll immediately choose the entertainingly-named ‘Chub’ (oo-er). So off you go in your role of futuristic super-vet, piloting your Chub down a literal and figurative track, using the L1, R1, R2 buttons (or the secret button on the underside of your controller, the one marked ‘Crenshaw’) to blast them beats to bits. Each track represents drums, bass, synth, vocals or kazoo and it’s genuinely satisfying to build each track up layer by musical layer. Unfortunately, messing up doesn’t quite yield the jarring discordance usually associated with failure in rhythm games, something which I always felt was more punishing than a simple ‘Game Over’ screen. Unlike others in the genre, your timing doesn’t have to be microsecond accurate either so you can often get away with having the same sense of rhythm as Michael J Fox playing Dance Dance Revolution. Even so, you occasionally have to be lightning quick when switching tracks.
The front-end is refreshingly minimalist and a mere three button-pushes from the game loading will fling you on your merry way, reliving the white-knuckle experience of being Simon De Montfort (or something). The game yields four levels of difficulty and I romped through ‘Beginner’ and ‘Intermediate’ inside of of three hours, though the game gets markedly tougher from there onwards. The campaign sees you travelling to different regions of Sarah’s brain, in an attempt to do whatever it is we’re trying to do to a comatose techno-chinchilla. Occasionally a disembodied voice will chime in with “We’re losing her” or “I euthanised fourteen cats this morning.”
I’m not sure if this sort of therapy would be for everyone though. If my father ever suffered a serious neurological breakdown, we’d have to zap his synapses with Chris DeBurgh. In my case you’d have to arouse my amygdala with “I’ve Been Thinking About You” by London Beat on continuous loop. Meanwhile: The central conceit of Amplitude is that points are awarded (and energy is retained) by completing sections of a song, rather than just being able to hit three notes out of every four. On the harder difficulty levels, this is not a game you can muddle through because the focus here is on consistency. A little forward-thinking goes a long way too.
Graphically the game is visually arresting and appropriately psychedelic although the shooter genre has seen prettier (Rez) and the rhythm genre has seen crazier (Vib Ribbon).
I suppose that’s the crux of the matter with Amplitude – it all feels a tad unambitious. Lacking a special controller, tracks by major artists, original graphical presentation or gameplay which is particularly novel, this just feels like a marginally more attractive alternative to 2006’s Frets On Fire. Sure it’s fun but the only reason to come back to this time after time, or to choose it over other titles is because you really love the music. Personally, I just thought the tracks were alright, so until Amplitude: London Beat is released, this will go back on my digital shelf to gather futuro-dust.
Vernon Kay was not harmed in the writing of this review. More’s the pity.
Amplitude was reviewed with a download code of the PS4 edition, provided by Brown Betty PR