Magical, but I want a bit more old pixie dust
[Disclosure: Nick Chester, who is currently employed at Harmonix, previously worked at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.]
Fantasia holds a special place in my heart. My wife and I both grew up playing instruments, and whenever a song comes on from the film, we get to share a little moment as Disney fans. Yes, PhilharMagic is one of our favorite attractions at Disney World.
So when I heart that Harmonix was making a Fantasia game, I got excited — until I heard that it had at least one song by Drake in it. Of course, my full judgment was reserved for the finished product, and I found it to be a magical experience overall.
Fantasia: Music Evolved (Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Released: October 21, 2014
MSRP: $59.99 (Xbox One) / $49.99 (Xbox 360)
At first glance Fantasia looks rather confusing, but it’s basically Elite Beat Agents mixed with the Kinect. During each song, specific notes will appear on the screen. The most basic note is the directional swipe, which allows you to use either hand to gesture in the direction required. Next are dots, which require a punch forward to initiate. Then you have holds that involve holding one or two arms for a specific amount of time.
On paper it sounds simplistic, but sitting down (or standing up) and playing is something else entirely. The way Fantasia gives you said notes feels fluid. The aim is to make you feel like you’re conducting what’s on screen, and based on my experiences, it accomplishes that goal. Like any rhythm game you’ll eventually start figuring out how to get the highest score, and come up with your own advanced tactics.
What I quickly learned is that any “flick” motion with either of your hands will cue a swipe. So I got into the habit of using both hands at the same time, “queuing” up directions in my head as they appeared on-screen. You can also use two hands for fun even if it’s a single note — it’s a flexible, intuitive system without being too forgiving.
It reminds me of the first time I played Guitar Hero, and had to relearn almost everything I knew about the genre with the new guitar controller. It’s like that, with your body replacing a plastic instrument. Harmonix has done right by the device. Since it’s the Kinect 2.0 with vastly superior sensors, it actually works. I hardly ever had a moment where the game didn’t recognize what I was doing, and it only took me a few songs to get into the rhythm of how to play.
The Sorcerer Yen Sid and his apprentice Scout will guide you through the game’s campaign mode, which is a journey through various themed worlds like “The Hollow,” and “The Nation.” These venues range from space-age structures to modern cities, and serve as a delivery system for the game’s beautiful art (and the soundtrack, of course). While I wouldn’t say that Music Evolved is one of the best-looking current-gen games on a technical level, the art style itself ranks among Harmonix’s finest work. The story itself might not be groundbreaking, but it’s worth the ride.
Sadly, you’ll have to play through the game’s story mode to unlock a lot of the track list for free play. I’m generally not a fan of this locking method for rhythm games, as it can often lead to playing a great deal of songs you have zero interest in just to get to the “good stuff.” The campaign is decent enough on its own to warrant a playthrough without locking content, and hopefully an update can change this ideology in the future. Free play also supports multiplayer, which is fun enough with two people in the mix even if it doesn’t fundamentally change the mechanics.
As for the track list itself, the actual Fantasia songs are easily the best part — the “conductor” gameplay simply feels better and more rewarding with older tunes than newer ones. Tracks from Vivaldi and Franz Liszt felt like unique experiences I can’t get from any other game on the market.
Then the game pulls a 180 and throws “Super Bass” from Nicki Minaj on the screen, followed by “Take Care” from Drake, and I’m thrown out of the moment a bit and put into a zone that feels more like Dance Central. The good news is out of the 33 songs in the base game, there is a decent mix of artists that are older but not quite ancient and still offer up something special, like Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, and David Bowie. Fantasia‘s in-game soundtrack by Inon Zur is also fantastic, and a great tribute to the films.
Another cool thing about the track list is that each song has multiple remixes, including metal and orchestral mixes. You can change up the theme dynamically through an in-game mechanic, which is tied to extra multipliers and thus a higher score. Still, I wish there were more classical songs on offer, and nearly all of the announced DLC so far is contemporary.
I definitely understand what Harmonix seeks to gain from mixing in Justin Bieber with timeless tunes like “Night on Bald Mountain” in Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved, but at times, it feels like a waste of the license. I’m just glad that the gameplay is so solid and feels so new that the sound of a less-than-desirable song is still something worth playing.