Since the day Microsoft first launched the original Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360, the Dance Central series has been regarded as the peripheral’s biggest exclusive, and I would agree with that. The first three games were excellent fun, with subtle improvements across each entry and plenty of diverse songs to groove to.
Though the Xbox One has offered a Kinect 2.0 bundle since its November debut, it was a bit surprising that there was no new Dance Central game to accompany the system’s launch, especially given the annual tradition the second and third games established on the 360. Thankfully, the series’ creators at Harmonix announced Dance Central Spotlight at E3 a few months ago, and the game is now available for fans to try out.
There are several notable catches that differentiate Dance Central Spotlight from its predecessors, mainly its download-only distribution, much lower price point of $10 and a heavily slimmed-down track list. Anyone who enjoyed past games in the series and has interest in playing this one should definitely know that while the franchise’s core gameplay remains unchanged and as fun as ever, this is definitely more of a spinoff than a major entry. As for whether or not Dance Central Spotlight is actually worth a purchase for Xbox One owners with a Kinect, I would argue that the answer is still a definite yes, but not as enthusiastically as with the last three games.
The gameplay of Spotlight remains the same as before, with players standing in front of the Kinect and copying an onscreen dancer’s moves to the tune of various hit songs. The subtle but helpful mechanic of having the dancer’s limb glow red to indicate that the player has made an error also returns. One interesting in-game feature that was until now only found in the original Dance Central is the point multiplier. Similar to Harmonix’s past hits like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, pulling off moves well enough to get a Flawless rating in the game will bump up the amount of points following moves reward you with, with poorly performed moves causing the multiplier to plummet.
Spotlight‘s most notable addition is an increased number of difficulties for each song. Dance Central 3 did introduce a new Beginner mode to accompany the traditional roster of Easy, Normal, & Hard difficulties, but Spotlight doubles that, with four new routines to accompany the traditional four. This is a bigger selling point than the multiple difficulties in the developer’s previous series, as those simply reduced the amount of button presses that were necessary to play a song. Dance Central games often provide several unique moves for each difficulty, and this is no exception.
This design certainly does a good job of increasing each song’s replay value, but the way that you initially access the various difficulties may be the game’s biggest flaw. Instead of sticking to the traditional campaign style of past games, where players generally only needed to play each song once or twice and collect a certain number of stars from them to unlock the next setlist, all 10 of Spotlight‘s songs are available from the start. However, only the Easy routine is originally made available.
Getting your first Flawless rating for each move in a routine will cause the game to “collect’ it, with a specific number of collected moves leading to the other difficulties being gradually unlocked. While it can certainly be argued that Harmonix implemented this restriction to extend the game’s replay value, I would argue that it was executed in a way that feels forced and cumbersome, especially since after playing the old games so much I typically ignore the Beginner and Easy difficulties at this point.
Other problems with Spotlight extend beyond its gameplay and lay more in its presentation. I’m not particularly upset that there’s no longer any sort of narrative, as the one in Dance Central 3 felt insubstantial, but personality has been removed from the game in other ways. Those who grew to have a favorite dancer from among the previous games’ lineups may be disappointed to see them gone, as the roster has been trimmed to only 6 characters. They don’t say anything before or after dances, either, and the redesigns many characters have received in the jump to Xbox One lead to some of them being more awkward-looking.
The original games also provided incentives to keep playing in the form of unlockable characters and alternate outfits, but there is almost nothing of that kind in Spotlight. The only exceptions are characters who can be obtained after collecting several hundred moves, though I was disappointed to note that they amount to little more than pallet swaps of a single uninspired design.
Things like this may seem like nitpicking in a game focused on dancing, but in my opinion, when the number of tracks included goes from over 40 to just 10, the window dressing becomes a bit more important. The older Dance Central games definitely had more personality and charm in their presentation, so it’s unfortunate that Harmonix didn’t put the same amount of effort into this latest entry.
All of the complaints I’ve listed may make it sound like Spotlight isn’t worth playing, but that’s actually not the case. Everything that made the actual gameplay in previous Dance Central titles fun is in full effect here, and many of the routines feel more inspired and natural than some of the past ones. The return of the multiplier feature will also encourage perfectionists to work even harder for the highest score possible, but since it’s still impossible to fail a song, there’s no pressure for those who stumble on their first try. Simultaneous multiplayer also makes a welcome return.
As far as extending the game’s lifespan, Harmonix has said that new downloadable songs will be released more frequently than with its somewhat sporadic predecessors, and already has several tracks available in the in-game store. A welcome addition is the ability to re-download previously purchased songs into Spotlight, complete with four additional difficulties. Not all of them are available just yet, but Harmonix has confirmed plans to gradually work all the previous add-on tracks into the game. The unfortunate downside to all of this is that, despite the first two main games having the ability to export their songs into Dance Central 3, it doesn’t seem that Harmonix has anything like that planned for Spotlight. This is a major oversight, not just because of the enormous amount of tracks made inaccessible on Xbox One, but because many of the best songs in the series are among them.
Dance Central Spotlight still nails its franchise’s core gameplay mechanics, and in some ways, I’d even argue that it improves on them. It’s just a shame that, as a result of its cheaper price tag and digital-only distribution, it ended up with such a paltry list of new tracks and content, and also suffers from an awkward progression system. Still, it’s hard not to recommend it to fans of the series, considering that it’s only $10 this time around, and given that Harmonix seems to have more upcoming titles in the works than ever before, it makes sense that the Dance Central series’ Xbox One debut would be a bit simpler than past efforts.
If you care more about straight-up dancing than anything else, and if you’re okay with relying more on previous tracks than before, this is definitely recommended. It would also serve as a good entry point for newcomers to the Dance Central series, given its low price and more straightforward presentation. Hopefully, though, if Harmonix does choose to make a follow-up, there will be a little more for enthusiasts.
This review is based on the Xbox One exclusive.