Fantasia: Music Evolved / 30th of October 2014
Over the years, Harmonix have proven themselves to be the undoubted masters of the rhythm action genre, from Frequency and Dance Central to the brilliant Rock Band, and, whilst I may not have been overly enamoured with recent effort, A City Sleeps, there can be no doubts that in Fantasia: Music Evolved, Harmonix have created a truly sublime gaming experience, and the killer app that Kinect has been desperately waiting on.
Acting as a direct sequel to the classic Disney films, Music Evolved pitches the player into the role of a new apprentice of the great sorcerer, Yen Sid, who must team up with another of his students, Scout, with the aim of saving the universe from The Noise. The syrupy sweet story mode can be completed in around five hours or so, you may find this to be a tad short, but yet how often do we see a rhythm action games with a story driven campaign these days? Exactly, so kudos should go out to Harmonix for this, and I for one hope that it is something that they repeat in future endeavours. To clear out The Noise, players must unlock the composition spells in each of the areas as they make their way towards a final performance, wherein the player must perform an arrangement of Scout’s, utilising the various techniques learned upon the journey there.
In doing so, players will progress through a series of realms, each one with its own visual theme, selection of tracks to perform and composition spell. Prior to playing the game, I was worried that it would fail to capture the splendour of the original Disney films, and I can say with confidence that I was sadly correct, some of the sequences in the original film in particular are so iconic, and yet there is nothing of the sort here. Likewise, the soundtrack is not as consistent either, whilst there are the usual array of popular classical pieces, there are also various examples of classic rock as well as modern pop tracks, the latter being the real bane as far as I am concerned. Still, as much as I was initially appalled by the inclusion of anything but classical music, it is the likes of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Rocket Man” and “In Your Eyes” that prove to be the real stars of the show, still, how can they call it Fantasia if there’s no Stravinski?
So, Fantasia may not be anything to write home about in terms of its presentation or visual quality, and the soundtrack is a tad patchy, so what does it have going for it? The most important aspect of all, its gameplay. Motion controls have typically been a rather shoddy affair, wonderful when they work and abhorrent when they don’t, which is usually the more common of the two. Yet Fantasia: Music Evolved is different, and I believe that it achieves this due to the simplicity of the movements that the game asks of the player. There are a variety of movements that Fantasia asks the player to perform during the course of a song, punching towards the screen, swiping their hands in set directions and variations that involve tracing pre-defined patterns or simply swiping and holding. Such simple movements allow Kinect to track what the player does very successfully, and beyond this, Fantasia does not demand the level of co-ordination needed to play any of Harmonix’s other big releases, making this a game that anyone can, and assuredly will, enjoy. The movements all feel completely natural, and this allows every player to feel at ease with the game, performing the moves as they see fit, gracefully-or not so- conducting the ebb and flow of the music as they try vainly to emulate the great Leopold Stokowski.
My experience with the game was not entirely fault free as far as the controls were concerned, at times it appeared as though the game simply locked up, failing to recognise my flailing arms as I tried in vain to select an aspect of the mix to utilise in the song that I was all set to perform. Thankfully, this didn’t happen very often, but it does bring to me to what is certainly the greatest aspect of the game, mixing.
On the disc, there are thirty-three songs in total, and for each of these, there are three different mixes, these are unlocked by performing a song and meeting set criteria, typically, reaching a certain score total. After unlocking the additional mixes of the song, players will be able to change aspects of it on the fly as they perform, seamlessly integrating the varying instrumentation of each into a new, unique whole. At the start of a track, the player will select which elements that they wish to include as the basis for their mix, but at various points along the way, they get the opportunity to change these, switching the drums, for example, from a standard kit to orchestral percussion. Sadly there are too much from the likes of Lady Gaga, Cee Lo Green and Nicki Minaj for my liking, and these will not be played any more than they have to, yet it is the more modern music that truly benefits from the remixing feature, so thankfully, Harmonix also saw fit to include Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”, Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” (though they could have given me “Aladdin Sane” or something from the “Scary Monsters” album) and New Order’s “Blue Monday”. There are already a whole host of tracks available to download, including classics from Talking Heads, R.E.M. and The Cure, with much more surely set to follow, especially if Fantasia finds the level of commercial success that it surely deserves.
The joy that Fantasia brings, is in making each track feel wholly personalised, the mixing is a large part of how this is achieved, yet it is certainly not alone, as the composition spells allow the player to properly leave their own mark upon the song. With the ability to chop up samples, manipulate effects, compose simple melodies and add percussion tracks into the mix, Fantasia does a wonderful job of involving the player in the music far beyond anything ever achieved in a rhythm action game before. These are crafted through mid-song mini-games, which are slightly hampered by the inaccuracy of the control method, making genuine composition something of an unattainable dream, yet it is always possible to create a simple, yet pleasing line to fit in with the composition, and what more could we possibly ask for?
Outside of the story mode, there is a song library that allows players to simply select and perform an unlocked song, though this process can be skipped by turning on Party Mode, which unlocks every song in the game, though at the expense of temporarily deactivating achievement progress. To add a second player, both must stand in front of the Kinect sensor and shake hands, before taking turns to throw their arms about with the aim of accumulating a new high score. Simple, and effective, though it’s unlikely that any budding conductor is likely to share the podium with another, preferring to hog the limelight, and the sublime experience of Fantasia: Music Evolved, all to themselves.
Harmonix have created something here that is certainly not perfect, but they have succeeded in getting mightily close, and it is a game that will remind so many Xbox owners exactly why they still have their Kinect sensors nestled underneath their televisions. From start to finish, minus a few musical blips, Fantasia: Music Evolved is a joy to play, and whilst it may lack the spectacle of the magnificent films, it succeeds where so many others before it have failed, by creating a rhythm action game that is not only accessible, but immensely fun to play for gamers of all abilities. Besides, Harmonix might still add in some Igor Stravinski later, right?