This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Furi, from developers The Game Bakers, combines two genres that I have little to no experience with. It’s part super-tough melee brawler, full of timed parries and lightning fast dodges, eager to put players through the ringer until they have learned to react to attacks on instinct. I haven’t played many games like that, but from what I’ve read it sounds similar to the exacting duels of Dark Souls and the rest of the FromSoftware catalog, or even “spectacle brawlers” like the Devil May Cry series and other games by Ninja Theory. But Furi is also part twin stick “bullet hell” shooter, asking players to weave through crazy patterns of deadly projectiles to stay alive. I have even less experience with these types of games, but they seem to hearken back to the design ethos of classic arcade games, with high skill ceilings that entice players to invest time in mastering the game’s intricacies. And on top of that, it’s a “boss rush” game. You know how many games have players work through large numbers of weaker opponents and traverse various obstacles, before facing a final, extra difficult “boss” enemy at the end of the level? Well, “boss rush” games get rid of all of that and just leave the bosses. Furi is a series of extremely challenging duels, and it goes all in on the concept.

I find all of this a bit intimidating. The hardest games I’ve played are classic roguelikes, which at least give me as much time as I want to consider each move. I don’t relish the prospect of practicing timed sequences over and over with a mistimed split-second reaction leading to failure, or learning to dodge insane attack patterns that fill the entire screen. But Furi is enticing in other ways. It has a bold art style, starring some sort of cyborg ninja with a cool red cloak, making his way through a strange world full of bold colors and fantastical environments. All of it is displayed with intentionally low resolution textures and shading gradient effects, such that it almost seems flat shaded a times. It’s striking, and even seeing still screenshots made me wonder if Furi might be the game that would finally convince me to leave my comfort zone and take on these notoriously difficult genres. I could even get two of them out of the way at the same time! And, to top it off, Furi features an original soundtrack composed by a who’s who list of synthwave composers, including names like Carpenter Brut, Danger, and The Toxic Avenger. Oh, all right then. I’ll give Furi a go.

Aesthetically, Furi doesn’t disappoint. It does unfortunately dip into the overused cyan and orange color scheme on occasion during the fights, but overall I loved its bold color style. Our unnamed protagonist begins in a strange prison, where he is regularly beaten — apparently to death, although it seems he cannot be truly killed — by a mysterious jailer in a three-faced mask. That is, until an equally mysterious man wearing a purple rabbit mask sets our protagonist loose, and encourages him to kill the jailer so they can both escape. We soon learn that there are actually a series of jailers that must be defeated, each of them serving as a boss in Furi’s boss rush, and each looking just as strange and cool. I only learned after playing that the character design was done by Takashi Okazaki, famous for the Afro Samurai manga series and its anime adaptation. I am not very familiar with this series, but it seems fans were able to recognize Okazaki’s stamp on the characters in Furi. All I can say is that they look fantastic. Each has little details that I love, like a wide hat supporting a set of veils, which keep their ownder’s face hidden as she darts in and out of the fray. Our bunny-masked benefactor sports bell-bottoms, some sort of shoulder poncho thing, and a few strategically placed purple lights for effect. He also carries something that looks like a cross between a walking stick and an intravenous stand. But my favorite details are reserved for our mysterious cyber-samurai. He walks barefoot. He never speaks, but he does occasionally grimace or appear bewildered. His body armor has accents that light up different colors depending on what’s happening in a fight, with the colors bleeding over to his katana before arcing to the ground as some sort of energy discharge. His white hair is tied back, but seems to float according to its own laws of physics, flitting between frames at a lower rate than the rest of game, like some sort of quantum particle teleporting around its local minimum. I never tired of looking at him, which is good since I spent a whole lot of time doing just that.

His jailers get comparatively less time in the spotlight, but they each get their own unique arenas to round out their style. The prison appears to be a series of floating islands of varying size high above a planet, and each is wildly different. The desolate, rainy floating rock our samurai starts on gives way to high-tech facilities, claustrophobic swamps, desert vistas, and more. Between each fight, the protagonist slowly trudges to the next arena, passing through gorgeous scenery and listening to our aspiring lagomorph’s warnings us about the next challenge. While many players lamented the slow pace and limited interactivity of these sections, I felt they offered a nice break from the frantic duels. Presented from largely static camera angles, they are reminiscent of older third-person action-adventure titles like the Resident Evil series, yet without the menace or danger. Players are free to wander from the main path, but there is little to find except another camera angle from which to ogle the scenery. Impatient players can toggle an auto-walk option, essentially turning these segments into cutscenes, but I liked being able to poke around in these beautiful environments before facing my next adversary. My favorite is a disjointed zen garden, where robotic bridges automatically assemble themselves between the pink sand of each floating rock, and gravity is constantly twisting around (but not for the protagonist’s hair). My reward for besting one of Furi’s tough bosses was a chance to stroll through another beautiful, fantastical locale, and I was happy to receive it.

That’s because defeating Furi’s dastardly defenders is not easy, and battling them will take up the majority of players’ time. I spent a good while battling each, failing many times but learning their patterns and slowly improving my technique until I could (often barely) emerge victorious. These bouts can easily frustrate, but in many ways Furi is surprisingly forgiving. For players who don’t fancy a stiff challenge, there’s a “promenade” difficulty setting, making everything easier so players can see the sights (although I did not try this). But even on the higher difficulty settings, our cyber-samurai has three “lives”, and each boss has several stages, indicated onscreen beneath their health bar. Succeeding at one of the stages not only recovers all of the protagonist’s health, but also one of his lost lives, giving him a chance to try and fail at the next stage since losing a life only restarts the current stage. In addition, successfully parrying a melee attack will recover a bit of health, and health pickups can drop during bullet hell sections too. But when bosses often have as many as six stages to fight through, even these features can’t prevent the crushing feeling after a loss on the final stage, with the prospect of going through the entire fight again. Many times I’d learned enough to pass through all of the early stages but was struggling in the later parts of the fight, which meant a lot of frustrating repetition. Often the best way forward in those situations was to take a break from the game and come back fresh. This last criticism may be unfair, though, since Furi does offer a practice mode which can isolate specific stages of boss fights to help players learn them. I’m not sure why I never dipped into it, but I’m guessing it’s a combination of stubbornness and the need to exit to menus and select a separate game mode. With a more seamless way to switch into practice mode I might have given it a try.

To properly describe Furi’s fights, I need to get into the details a bit. In addition to his katana, the protagonist has a pistol which fires some strangely slow energy projectiles. Players control the protagonist’s movements with the left analog stick, and fire his pistol in whatever direction they please with the right analog stick (hence the “twin stick” shooter moniker). Mouse and keyboard controls are supported also, and while aiming shots with the mouse is more precise, the lack of analog control for movement using the keyboard is a huge drawback. A gamepad is pretty much required for Furi. Melee attacks follow a simple four-hit combo for repeated button presses. Incoming attacks can be parried from any direction with the press of a button, provided it’s timed correctly, and perfect timing will even stun the enemy and allow a special cinematic attack sequence complete with cool camera angles. The protagonist also has a dodge move, which is like a short range teleport that can be optionally charged up in order to dodge a grater distance. Melee attacks and pistol shots can also be charged up in order to unleash an extra-powerful attack, although these are used only in very specific circumstances.

Much of the time, players are free to have the cyber-ninja run around the whole arena, shooting his pistol and dodging around. Pistol shots don’t do much damage but they do chip away at the boss’ health bar. Bosses are usually unassailable in melee except at the right times, usually after they have launched a series of melee attacks of their own. If players can parry, dodge, or otherwise weather the series of attacks, then the boss will be vulnerable to a melee counterattack. At certain points in the fight, players will be drawn into a close range duel, unable to move away from their opponent and unable to use their gun. These segments tend to involve parrying a series of attacks and/or dodging away from telegraphed attacks which hit the majority of the circular dueling area, leaving only a sliver of a safe zone to dash into. As before, making it through the gauntlet gives the opportunity to counterattack with some vicious katana slashes.

I found I got the hang of melee fighting fastest. There’s a quick animation and sound that precede incoming melee attacks, and I soon learned how to parry on instinct when I heard or saw them. I also found it easy to get into a rhythm, since each boss uses a few set attack combos. I could anticipate these, block them all, and then launch into my own attack. I had more trouble with the bullet hell segments, though. Navigating a screen full of projectiles while still aiming my own shots — either to damage the enemy or to clear a path for myself — took some getting used to, since it’s actually a much calmer and more careful activity than the split-second timing of melee. Weaving between the screen-filled bullet patterns requires methodical movements, often much smaller than one might expect, while trying to track what’s happening across the entire screen all at once. The real challenge, though, is dodging. The jailers are fond of firing off waves and rings of energy that can only be evaded by dodging through them, and the toughest parts of Furi involve strings of teleports to tiny safe areas in the middle of a malestrom of intersecting lines of death. I always had trouble with these sections, no matter how much practice I got, and since they were often reserved for the final stages of each battle, every victory was hard won.

Playing Furi certainly involved some frustration, but I kept returning because I wanted to see (and hear… more on that later) whatever was coming next. Furi’s world and story are intentionally mysterious, and I enjoyed working out just who my cyber-samurai was, and whether I could trust my rabbit-eared guide who had an uncanny habit of appearing ahead of me without ever seeming to move. The jailers are interesting too, with different motivations for taking up their posts. One battle in particular was masterfully tied to the larger story, delivering an emotional gut-punch by being easier than the fight that preceded it. And I loved Furi’s ending, which I will not spoil.

But it turns out I liked the challenge more than I thought I did, too. When I finally finished Furi and was informed that I’d unlocked the “Furier” difficulty setting, with the message “at last a real challenge!”, I scoffed. I’d just played through an extremely difficult game and barely achieved victory, the last thing I wanted to do was play through again on an even harder setting. So I moved on and played other games instead. But then, weeks later, I found myself hankering to try my hand at Furi again. I was curious to see if the Furier setting really was much harder, or if the skills I’d picked up along the way would let me make short work of the first few jailers. At first I wasn’t intending to play through the whole game again, but when I did do pretty well against the first few bosses I found I was enticed to complete the rest of the game on the Furier setting in spite of myself.

Part of this was due to learning advanced strategies. Furi’s controls are not freely configurable, but there are several sets of button assignments to choose from. When playing on the Furier setting, I learned to play with the dodge and parry functions assigned to shoulder buttons in addition to face buttons. This meant I could parry melee attacks and dodge around while still shooting. That makes a huge difference. Being able to dish out damage even as I blocked an attack combo meant I could put an end to an onslaught that much sooner, and in some cases could even skip over particularly troublesome parts of each fight because I took my adversary out before they even had a chance to launch their toughest attacks. On the Furier setting enemies often don’t let the cyber-samurai get his full four-hit sword combo in, so I learned to use partially charged attacks by holding the attack button down for a split-second instead. These deal a lot more damage than a single sword strike and can be squeezed in at the right times to make fights a good deal shorter. Dodging, however, remained just as challenging as ever, especially as the patterns of deadly waves became more complex on the Furier setting. My early success soon faded, and I faced frustration again on several occasions. Still, I think I made progress faster the second time through, and was very satisfied when I reached the end a second time.

I don’t know enough about these types of games to determine if Furi is really a good starting point. Maybe the fact that it can entice players with its stylish looks and cool soundtrack makes it so, even if there are better games to start with in terms of mechanics. It worked on me, certainly. I’m not intimidated by these games anymore, which means I’ll likely dive into more of them soon, and maybe my opinions of Furi will change once I have better context. If that happens, I’ll be sure to write about it on this blog. But right now, I can say I’m glad I played Furi, and I’d recommend it if you are interested in learning this type of game. It’s cool enough that I think players will enjoy it even if they prefer the “promenade” setting, or if they like the challenge but can’t persevere all the way through. You can pick it up digitally for PC, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

The Score:

Furi’s original soundtrack is one of its biggest selling points. It features 22 original synthwave tracks spanning over 90 minutes, contributed by some of the most famous names in the genre: Carpenter Brut, Danger, Waveshaper, Lorn, The Toxic Avenger, Scattle, and Kn1ght. Each of these artists retains a distinctive sound of their own, but the soundtrack still feels like a cohesive whole. This is partly because of the common genre conventions of synthwave, specifically the heavy use of retro 1980s synthesizer leads and pads over sequenced electronic beats. But I suspect it was also due to a strong vision for what the soundtrack should be, and good communication between the developers and composers. The resulting soundtrack sounds great in-game and when listened to in isolation.

Each of Furi’s areas has its own musical theme to accompany the cyber-samurai as he walks towards his next foe, and another musical theme for the battle itself. Sometimes, these are just two parts of the same composition, as is the case for Carptenter Brut’s, Toxic Avenger’s, and Danger’s offerings. Elsewhere, they are distinct tracks, but both from the same composer. The battle themes tend to be fast, high energy compositions that get the blood pumping, while the music that accompanies the peaceful interludes is slower and more atmospheric. Without the distractions of combat, I was free to focus on these pieces the most while playing, and found them the most memorable as a result. But the battle themes are fantastic as well, and I came to appreciate them more when listening to the soundtrack after playing.

I like much of the synthwave that I’ve heard, but I wouldn’t say I’m well educated in the genre. Before playing Furi, I was familiar with Carpenter Brut and had heard the names of some of the other artists, but didn’t really know their music. I now plan to dive into the discographies of many of the musicians who composed for Furi. My favorite piece is Waveshaper’s “A Picture in Motion”, which (in what I doubt is a coincidence) accompanies the protagonist’s walk through the fantastical zen garden area that I described above. I love the synthesizer arpeggios in this piece, with their long attack sound, and I really like the synthesizer leads in Waveshaper’s other pieces as well. He scores music for two the the jailers and their associated locales, and I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of his music. I was also enamored of the chopped vocals in Toxic Avenger’s tracks, which not only accompany one of the more memorable battles in the game but also a story sequence near the end in which the music is simply perfect. The soundtrack also features a remix of one of Toxic Avenger’s pieces, which I believe is a bonus that does not feature in the game.

Carpenter Brut fans will be happy to hear that he scores music for three of the jailers, the most of any of the artists on the soundtrack, and also offers a short introductory track. His pieces are the fastest, most aggressive, most pulse-pounding of the bunch, which is great as accompaniment for the fierce duels of Furi, but I found the pieces harder to listen to in isolation. They make me want to jump up and perform some feat of physical prowess while pumping my fists. Danger, who scores music for two jailers as well as some of the cutscenes in the game, provides similarly intense music, but it’s not quite as overwhelming. I also really enjoyed the calmer sections of Danger’s music, which make liberal use of treble synthesizer lines as well as piano and traditional orchestral instruments to cement the feeling that the upcoming fight is going to be absolutely epic.

Kn1ght and Lorn may be the outliers on the soundtrack. They only provide music for one jailer each, and in both cases its moodier than the rest of the music on offer. Kn1ght’s music accompanies what is perhaps the toughest fight in the game, one that takes place entirely in melee and leaves almost no room for error. “A Big Day”, which plays as the player approaches this fight, is basically an ambient piece, with a forlorn feeling. This segues straight into “Something Memorable” once the duel starts, which adds a beat and ramps up the excitement but retains a sparse arrangement throughout, highlighting the pure test of skill that is unfolding between the protagonist and his adversary. It’s a great fit for a scene which needed to sound distinct. Lorn’s music is even more unusual, featuring glitchy, arrhythmic beats and threatening synthesizer drones. The track “Set Me Free” is the least aggressive of any of the music that plays during a fight, lacking a distinct beat for most of its length, and yet somehow it is also perfect for the battle it accompanies, which is meant to feel creepy and oppressive. Lorn’s tracks are a bit harder to listen to outside of the game, but they work perfectly when playing.

Lastly, there’s Scattle, the only artist who does not provide music for any of the jailers. Instead, he scores two story scenes. One is a centerpiece of the game, and Scattle’s track “Love and Madness” is a big part of why that scene is so affecting. It’s a great listen on its own too, but it’s elevated by accompanying this particular scene at this particular point in the game. As for Scattle’s other track “Shambles”, however, I honestly did not remember when it played during the game. Its position in the track listing, as well as the accompanying art (the digital soundtrack comes with separate cover art for each track, reminding players of the scenes that accompany each piece) suggest it plays during a short sequence near the end of the game, but I didn’t remember it. Part of that may be because it is nearly devoid of melody, consisting mostly of echoing drums and rhythmic, distorted synthesizers. It sounds unsettling, which was likely the idea, but it is a little jarring to hear when listening to the soundtrack on its own.

Overall, however, the soundtrack is great. There’s a ton of music included and it’s all high quality, a clear must for any synthwave fan. It’s a decent starting point for those who are unfamiliar with the genre too, since it highlights several different artists with their own styles. I highly recommend it. It’s available digitally, either as a standalone purchase or as DLC (downloadable content) from the same storefronts that sell the game itself. There’s also a physical version on double vinyl, but this omits some tracks and features different mixes of others, presumably due to length restrictions. I got the digital version, as DLC.