Harmonix is one of the best-known Western developers when it comes to rhythm games, having created Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Dance Central over the past decade, but, with the exception of some smartphone experiments, they haven’t made anything unrelated to those franchises for a while. That’s all changed, though, with the release of Fantasia: Music Evolved, a Kinect-centric music-heavy title that takes inspiration from the classic Disney film.
As far as how well the game plays, the final result is a very fun title that, while borrowing from previous Harmonix game templates in some ways, still feels like a unique and new experience. Some of this may not be evident in the early parts of the main campaign, but those willing to tolerate an overly hand-holding intro will find a well-done rhythm title that, in following with the tradition of the Dance Central series, makes good use of the Kinect in providing an engaging experience.
There is a story to the game, but it’s thankfully pretty light and rarely overstays its welcome. The player starts off being appointed as the newest apprentice learning from master sorcerer Yen Sid (AKA the wizard Mickey Mouse took the magic hat from in the original movie), who teaches you about the magical effects contained within every song. It doesn’t take long before Yen Sid vanishes and the player spends the bulk of the story with fellow apprentice Scout, a brand-new character whose design and attitude are reminiscent of Harmonix’s own Dance Central cast. An accident early on unleashes a malicious force called the Noise that throws several enchanted realms into disarray, and the player sets out to recover individual bits of magic both through a variety of songs and the environments themselves.
While the main hub is always Yen Sid’s magical dwelling, players can navigate to each unique level from his balcony, and Harmonix does a good job of both making each one unique as well as beautiful. Navigating through them can be a little unwieldy (you have to physically step left and right to be able to see the whole place), but it makes up for that by incorporating several unique minigames into each one. These activities, which are generally enabled by playing songs, often result in players being able to create a custom composition that will play in the background of that particular level afterwards, and thankfully, the easy-to-understand interfaces and controls for these make creating appealing-sounding tracks easier than one would expect. This aspect ends up being as well done as the main game, which was actually an unexpected, but pleasant surprise for me.
As for how the core song-based gameplay works, the actual template for it was another surprise, and the best way to sum it up is like switching between instrument and vocal tracks a la Amplitude or Rock Band Blitz, only with motion controls instead of button presses. While the downside here is that you can’t manually choose and stick with which instrument you might want to focus on, as they’re automatically switched during specific points in each track, the timing of each gesture you make with your arms is almost always synced up very well with whatever track you’re on.
The actual inputs you make vary. The ones you’ll be seeing the most have you swipe one or both arms in a specific direction, while circular symbols have you punch or push forward at the right time. Variants include curved symbols whose arcs you mimic with your swipes, swipes that end with you holding an arm out in one direction to fill up a circle, and circles that automatically follow an on-screen path that you mimic over several seconds with your arm movements a la Elite Beat Agents.
While it may sound like a lot to take in, and the usual Kinect trademark of some hit detections feeling imprecise occasionally rears its ugly head, it’s pretty easy to get the hang of, thanks in no part to the overly long tutorial section that starts the campaign. Though the very first gameplay segment tells you how each input works and has you practice them all, it still feels the need to make you play entire songs focusing primarily on only one of them. It doesn’t help that the first hour or so of gameplay forces you through a specific set list that you have to play through again when things open up, either, and those who want to jump into some individual song playing outside of the campaign will find that they are disappointingly locked until they’re reached in the story.
As a result of this section, I spent the early portion of my play time feeling a little let down by the game, but once I started to get into the actual meat of it, both the fun I had as well as my overall sense of immersion went up dramatically. While some of the early songs are quite simple (there aren’t multiple difficulty levels for each one like past Harmonix games, either), by the time you get to the second unlockable world, you’ll start getting much more engaging sets of moves for each one. I don’t know if Harmonix’s main goal was to make you feel something like a conductor signaling each note to be played, but if it was, they succeeded.
There’s also the neat aspect of remixed tracks. The way this works is that each song has a few in-game goals to reach. The first time you play each one, you’re limited to the familiar original track, but when you reach a certain amount of points, you unlock a remixed version. Replaying the track a second time and getting an even higher score results in a third one being made available as well. You can mix individual instruments from each version through the aforementioned prompts at specific points in each song, resulting in a custom remix of sorts as well as score multipliers with each switch. While I did feel that many of the remixes were rarely as good as the originals, I still often found myself swapping out at least one of the default tracks for most songs. It definitely adds a sense of personalization to the game, though, as do the “Composition spells” at other specific points of each track, which are several types of brief minigames where players can make a custom backing track that will be played throughout the rest of the song.
It is worth noting that, despite the game having its roots in a film focused solely on classical music, the majority of the track list here is far more contemporary (Not that I blame Harmonix for this choice, as many gamers would probably have ignored the game if they stuck to orchestrated tracks). The featured artists range from classics like Elton John and Queen to contemporary singers like Drake and Gorillaz, with occasional classic orchestrated tracks popping up. Like most music games, not every song featured was my cup of tea, but there are still a lot of good picks that suit the style of gameplay this title centers on.
While I wasn’t sure what to make of Fantasia: Music Evolved back when it was announced last year, I remained interested, since Harmonix has had a very good overall track record. While a few small drawbacks, as well as a slow start, hold back the game from true greatness, I feel like the more time I spent with it, the more fun I started having. If you don’t mind getting a button-free workout from a rhythm game and want a good excuse to bust out your Kinect besides Dance Central, this definitely fits the bill.
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which we were provided with.
Both fun and surprisingly immersive, Fantasia: Music Evolved is a great use of the Kinect that successfully builds on Harmonix's own past templates.