Screenshot from Fortnite Festival, taken by author. (Use protected under Fair Dealing: Criticism and Review)
“Fortnite has a new game mode I think you’ll like,” said my brother to me last month. This was a sentence I would have never expected anyone to direct my way.
I soon found out he was referring to Fortnite’s latest game mode, ‘Fortnite Festival’. As my household’s resident rhythm game player, I was duly elected to beat my brothers’ friends top scores on his Friends List leaderboard. My sacred duty having been laid out before me, I hunkered down before his RGB mechanical keyboard, placed his headphones atop my head in what was arguably the second most significant coronation of 2023, and loaded up the game.
Fortnite Festival, at its core, is not a particularly original rhythm game experience. It resembles the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero franchises of games, or Musynx/Deemo/osu!mania if your taste in music is better located in East Asia than North America. Given that the spinoff was developed by Harmonix themselves (the developers of Guitar and DJ Hero), its use of the scrolling highway format comes as no surprise.
Nevertheless, what FF lacks in gameplay originality, it makes up for in the interesting twist that you can select which instrument you play within any song, out of four possible tracks: lead, drums, vocals and bass. Selecting a different instrument will change the mapping for any of the songs on offer, meaning there are four separate maps to master for each difficulty level, for each song. Difficulty levels include the standard range of Easy, Medium, Hard and Expert; the former three involve playing with four input keys, while Expert ramps up the challenge with five.
Once I was transported into Fortnite’s very own concert venue, the first task ahead of me was selecting a song. Songs are on daily rotation, with the exception of some Epic Games original tracks: ‘OG (Future Remix)’ and ‘Show Them Who We Are’. These come across as an attempt to imitate League of Legends’ virtual bands (K/DA and more recently, Heartsteel), but that’s about as far as any similarity between them goes. It’s hard to find the words to describe these songs, so I’ll let some of the lyrics of ‘Show Them Who We Are’ do the talking:
“You can't be the light, through the night, through the fight, for lies”
“Can't lose, can't do like "who's next?" / Splash to the past in this cash net / If it ain't his bad batch, stack my dough and that bread”
“The deep end makes a shadow faint of heart / You follow who you follow, I'ma load on my wave, bruh”.
What happened in the writing room should have stayed in the writing room. Luckily for me, a few other songs were available, including ‘Counting Stars’, Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’, and ‘Dirty Little Secret’ by The All-American Rejects. Clearly spoilt for choice, I selected DNCE’s ‘Cake By The Ocean’ after much deliberation, at which point I was all set to make my debut at a far-too-high-capacity venue for an amateur band.
I load in on lead guitar and I’m joined by three bandmates filling the other roles: a mechanical llama as our singer, a ghostlike cartoon character with a Friday Night Funkin’-esque face on bass, and a girl with pink hair behind the drums. The animations and camerawork on and around the stage resemble those of Fuser, a DJing game also developed by Harmonix, which was first released in 2020. An army of robot-looking creatures is watching my band from across a field, which is how I imagine Glastonbury might look fifty years from now. A massive psychedelic eyeball, for whatever reason, peers at us from the top of the stage, which gives our performance that extra Orwellian touch.
With Big Brother watching — and my younger brother still waiting for me to set some high scores — the song began. In terms of gameplay mechanics, the rhythm aspect was fairly straightforward, with an Overdrive component which works in exactly the same way as Star Power does in Guitar Hero: collecting certain coloured notes to charge a meter, which you can then activate by pressing the ‘space’ key.
However, it quickly started to bother me that certain key features present in most rhythm games were either rearranged or absent entirely, such as a timer to see how far into a song you are, or the fact that the very thin, light blue Overdrive bar is located at the bottom of the note highway rather than the side, making it difficult to keep track of while focusing on the approaching notes. When Overdrive is activated, the sides of the highway turn a glowing orange, which can also obscure the notes on harder difficulties, which — being purple on a purple background — are already hard enough to see.
However, none of these largely visual gripes were the biggest offenders, when faced with the single most irritating feature of the game: there’s no ‘restart’ functionality, even in single-player/no-fill mode. Coupled with the fact that there’s also no pause button, this makes it immensely annoying to attempt songs again in the event that your hand cramps in the middle of your setlist, or your brother decides midway through your Expert run of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ that it’s a great time to start loudly singing Bohemian Rhapsody. In which case it sucks to be you: you just have to exit all the way to the lobby, refill your setlist, and load in from scratch again.
This is a shame, because gameplay can be surprisingly addictive. The friend leaderboard keeps things competitive, thankfully not locked behind a paywall as it is in other games like osu!, and the varied multi-difficulty, multi-instrumental maps for songs can feel satisfying to master (‘Cake By The Ocean’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘i’ particularly come to mind). The band’s animations as they move and play their instruments are impressively synced throughout the song, especially for vocals, where characters lip-sync and dance accurately to each tune. There also aren’t many games out there which let you throw down TikTok dances to Seven Nation Army (via the Emote function), which deserves some form of recognition.
The launch tab for the festival promises more songs, stages and features to be added to the game soon, which is also cause for excitement. That being said, they can’t come soon enough. The game’s replay value is undercut by the fact there just aren’t enough songs to choose from in a session: you get nine a day, of which two are by Epic Games, and the rest have to be purchased with 500 VBucks if you want to play them — an extortionate amount roughly equivalent to £3.50. Meanwhile, the ‘Festival Pass’ — which thrillingly offers you three more Epic Games exclusive songs as you level up — is rendered a useless pursuit by how long it takes to progress through. Even after trumping all of my brother’s friends’ high scores on all of the songs he had available that day, I was still only halfway through level one.
Overall, Fortnite Festival has its moments of greatness, but these are few and far between compared to its flaws, at least in its current iteration. The features I’ve mentioned likely aren't high on Epic’s list of priorities to tinker with, since I’m sure no one loads up Fortnite exclusively to play its rhythm game — but at this rate, no one will. For now, there are just too many better alternatives out there, which offer you more songs, more immersive stages, and even ‘restart’ buttons.