DanceMasters (known as DanceEvolution in Europe) is about as hardcore a dancing title as you can get on Kinect right now, moulded from decades of experience ruling the neon-lit arcades in downtown Tokyo. Some will find themselves drawn into its fast-paced world of J-pop and over-complicated gameplay concepts, but the majority of players attempting to master this particular dance will likely be left wrong-footed.
If you’ve never indulged in much Japanese culture in the past, DanceMasters will be a little bit of a shock to the system, especially when compared to Dance Central or Dance Paradise's relatively laid-back presentation.
From the word go, the screen is filled with flashing lights, energetic camera-work, and high-pitched squeaks from the female commentator. There aren’t any of these wishy-washy features like selectable dancers, backgrounds or structured game modes here – just the option of dancing solo, dual (two players on the same machine) or with up to four players on Xbox Live.
The menus are incredibly annoying to navigate, relying on the player putting their right or left arm up to chest-height to move the selection, before raising their right arm (left arm goes back a menu) and holding it for a second to select the option. Between every selection your arm has to be lowered back down again, which resulted in our right shoulder starting to ache within half an hour of starting the game.
Most of the time with DanceMasters will be spent in either Solo or Dual mode, with multiplayer over Xbox Live completely empty at the time of review, so don’t expect much competition there. Each of the 30 songs on offer can be played freely from the start on either ‘Light’, ‘Standard’ or ‘Extreme’ difficulty, with another mode called ‘Stealth’ unlockable later down the line.
None of the tracks are what can be described as ‘mainstream’, so if you were hoping to dance to Poker Face for the third time in as many games, you’re out of luck. The tracks that are in the game are spread between House, Techno, R&B, Rap and Pop, although the majority of them sound like English translations of Japanese songs and have utterly crazy BPM (Beats per Minute) speeds.
Like Dance Paradise, the game doesn’t track you 1:1 at all times during a song. Instead, tasks appear around the dancer which you need to successfully perform. At first these tasks mainly come in the form of two green silhouettes of a pose, rapidly scooting into the centre of the screen until they match up with the dancer. Have the right pose ready when everything matches up and you score some points, adding one to the combo meter.
It’s not just poses you’ll be doing though. There are also moments where you have to move your feet in time with the dancer, smack certain bits of air with your hands or feet on the beat, and swish your hands around like you’re conducting an orchestra (or, alternatively, doing that ‘flipping the jacket and praying to the sky’ move favoured by boy bands since 1992).
These latter movements (called Streams) are the worst of the techniques for Kinect to track, seemingly calling out perfectly OK movements at random. The others however are sharp and accurate in the main, with both the lower and upper body registering well over the course of the many hours we spent dancing our socks off in front of the TV.
Every ‘Great’ or ‘Perfect’ move that the player performs fills up a Dance Gauge, whereas being merely ‘Good’ or completely missing an action depletes the bar. In a first for the dancing titles in the Kinect line-up, the player can fail a song if the gauge reaches zero, so you can’t just mess around for the entire track.
Get the gauge filled completely filled up the other way and you have the chance of entering DanceMasters’ ‘Parallel Universe’ – a place filled with sparkling stars, rainbow colours, secret Ripples and potentially loads of bonus points.
Activating this ‘Parallel Universe’ is an absolute pain. Firstly, the player has to raise their right arm for 2-3 seconds until a circle of light surrounds the Dance Gauge, and then swish the arm upwards to enter the other dimension. Naturally any moves missed during this time take the gauge down a notch, thereby scuppering this charging motion and forcing the player to start all over again.
Despite the rubbish special move and the occasionally flaky Streams, DanceMasters ends up being good fun to play once you adjust to the thumping techno tracks and Europop that make up the bulk of the playlist. Swinging your arms around in a circle like something out of Minority Report before punching imaginary spots in the air is surprisingly good fun, and the sheer range of crazy, song-specific dances are as enjoyable to watch as they are to play.
However, later tracks on even the Standard difficulty mode overload the movement system, leaving such little time to see, process and perform the move that it becomes impossible to keep up with the song unless everything is memorised in advance. It’s a shame as the system looks more attractive than Dance Central’s cue cards, but without any way of practising parts separately, and with a system that fails the player for enough incorrect moves, we found ourselves more frustrated than entertained as we progressed through the game.
No doubt there will be those players that obsessively work out every movement as with DanceMasters’ spiritual forebear, Dance Dance Evolution – indeed, the hidden Stealth difficulty mode removes all the cues entirely, meaning the player has to copy the dancer 1:1 to succeed – but for the majority of folks, the leap from the (too) Light difficulty to Standard or Extreme will just prove too frustrating.
Fast and brutal, DanceMasters has the Dance Dance heritage at its core, providing it with depth and a character unique among the rest of the Kinect titles. However, while the flashing lights and sweeping hand gestures make it more visually engaging than most, the overly-complicated movement system and occasionally inaccurate tracking will likely turf everyone bar the most dedicated off the dance floor early.