Enough words have been written about the history of Microsoft’s second attempt at motion controlled gaming and how it was a mandatory purchase for all bleeding-edge Xbox One owners. We all know how a lot of people – probably the majority, in fact – don’t see even the second iteration of Kinect as being a viable input method for gaming. So, let’s not go over any of that. Instead, we’ll load the usual gaming website routine into a cannon and fire it into the sun, and talk about the game we’re reviewing.
Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved is a Kinect-controlled music game that is very loosely based on some of the things that happened in Disney’s 1940 cinematic experience Fantasia. When we say “loosely-based”, we mean that you don’t see a hint of Mickey Mouse until the end credits and then it’s only for a very few seconds. You are, however, following a similar path to the famous mouse who, in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice portion of the film, had to reap what he sowed as his laziness caused all manner of problems for both himself and his teacher, the grand sorcerer Yen Sid. In the game you play the apprentice and are taught how to cast musical spells. The part of Mickey is (sort of) mirrored by the character Scout, the apprentice that came before you, who got lazy and decided to try to bite off more than she could chew. Her actions freed “The Noise”, which causes negative effects all across the game world.
To fight The Noise, you need to collect musical fragments in each of the available realms. When you have enough, you unlock a “Composition Spell” which allows you to create a short piece of music to clear The Noise from that particular area. Then it’s done, done, and onto the next one.
Musical Fragments are collected by playing songs or some very basic mini-games. Songs are played by following some simple prompts on screen. A right-pointing arrow requires you to swipe right (with either hand) in time with the music. Circle prompts need to be punched. Swipes with circles at the end of them need to be swiped and then held, and finally, circles on a line need you to punch, hold, and then trace them as they proceed down that line. The inputs all work incredibly well, and the ability to select which hand you use when only one hand is in play means that different people will approach songs differently. You might lead with your right hand, only bringing the left into play when dual prompts are on screen. You might lead with the left. You might even use the hand that corresponds to the half of the screen that the prompt appears on. It’s totally up to you, and switching things up even halfway through a quick prompt doesn’t seem to throw the game at all. It all just works, and works well.
At the start of a track, you’re asked which instruments you’d like to use. These are grouped into different mixes, with only the original version of the song available to you initially. Once you’ve unlocked a song’s second or third mix, you might kick off Elton John’s “Rocketman” with the original guitar and vocals, but a keyboard from the second available mix and the drums from the third. This works incredibly well in practice, and at varying points during the song, you’re able to switch instruments around. Don’t like that disco beat? Kick it out for some booming orchestral drums. Hate that guitar? Get rid of it and bring in some 8-bit videogame sounds instead. The amount of mixes you can create and style is impressive, especially when they sound pretty darned great. Various simple music creation tools, which are unlocked by completing a mini-composition spell during a song, allow you to throw your own melodies and beats into the mix too and despite the fact that you're making the music yourself, they never really feel out of place as part of the main song. Indeed, in the scope of each track, you have a very big musical canvas on which to paint. If a musical canvas is a thing.
It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows though. For starters, there’s the question of the game’s difficulty level. We breezed through the entire story mode without ever hitting less than 91% of a song’s notes. We never had to retry a stage to reach a goal, and we even hit a perfect score on our first playthrough of Queen’s seminal “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It should be noted that this isn’t because the game is overly generous or that we're overly talented at playing it, rather that it just isn’t all that testing for the most part. With that said, the design of the game makes some sections of songs feel next to impossible to play without learning them prompt-for-prompt. The reason being that the prompts can appear anywhere on the screen and don’t show up until right before you have to actually perform them. This means that not only is preparing for a transition from one sequence to another sometimes very difficult, but during fast sections of some songs you’ll have four or more prompts on the screen and no idea which one you’re supposed to play first as you were looking at the last bunch of four in order to get them right. Get the first one wrong and the rest will follow, killing your high score potential.
As we say, it’s something that could be worked around if you learnt the song all the way through, but with so many mix options and variations on hand, that’s not a likely scenario. There's also the unpredictability of it all. Were this Rock Band or the like, it would be relatively easy to visualise the sections that you’re trying to learn. “Yellow button, yellow and red buttons, yellow button, yellow and red buttons,” for example. If you have to play that twice, you just repeat it. In Fantasia, two identical sections of music one after the other can be represented by different commands. So that four note combo could realistically become “Double swipe left, single swipe right, double swipe left, single swipe right" and when the identical sounding section plays, it would be "punch, trace a wavy line, double swipe up, single swipe left and hold.” The unpredictability of the prompts makes long-term score battles or trying to “perfect” every song somewhat unlikely, which affects replayability greatly.
It should be said that the somewhat unfairly fast passages we mentioned are relatively rare in songs that are rated one, two, or three out of five on the difficulty scale, which is why we were able to all but walk through story mode without any resistance. Once you unlock tracks with four or five ratings though, you’ll probably be in trouble.
Another bit of rain on the parade comes in the form of how slowly the game moves along in single player. Select a realm to visit in story mode once Scout or Yen Sid has stopped babbling, and you get an overly long period of loading, followed by an overly long visual transition, followed by a cutscene or a voiceover. Select a song and you get another transition, another long loading time, and finally you’re ready to play. Some things are massively over-explained by the voiceover, too. If you’ve played the demo of the game that’s available for Xbox One, you’ll remember how each type of prompt was explained. That sort of speed carries on far too long into the main meat of the story mode. There are times when it genuinely takes full minutes to simply exit one song and start the next, and that just isn't good enough.
As we say though, once you’re into a song and you’ve got your groove on - maybe with a snippet of your own composition coming into play every now and again - there’s nothing else quite like Music Evolved. Despite some strange musical inclusions – Peter Gabriel gets “In Your Eyes” in there ahead of “Sledgehammer” for example…come on, now – there are times when you really feel as if you’re in the zone. It could be when you’re successfully gliding your way elegantly through the first of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or when you’re smashing your way through the bold drums of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” It could be as you get to the raging guitar solo of the aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody. It might happen when you’re taking things a bit slower with a bit of Lorde’s “Royals.” But rest assured, it will most definitely happen. It isn’t often that you’ll play a game where it’s hard to stop yourself from flashing your gnashers and beaming a genuine smile simply at how well you’re doing and how much fun you’re having, but it happens in Fantasia far more than you’d expect it to.
Multiplayer – complete with an enforced handshake between players to activate the mode - is relatively limited, but works well providing that you have a large enough playing space so you don’t backhandedly slap each other in the mouth over and over until a fight breaks out. Players are assigned a colour, and have to play prompts of that colour only. Sometimes both players will be given the same prompt, which makes for some comedy viewing from the peanut gallery as players are swaying and punching in synchronicity. It’ll certainly be one to fire up when a few friends are around.
The only problem is that even with those jolly japes tucked away in the game’s back pocket for special occasions, once you’ve unlocked everything in Fantasia and played with all the entertaining but simple interactive environments that each realm provides, there isn’t a great deal to come back to. The unpredictability and lack of warning on prompts - which we discussed earlier - prevents any real point-for-point score battles from taking place without an awful lot of work, so hardcore score attack mode fun isn’t really on the cards. That means that you’re stuck with a shade over thirty tracks to get in the mix with and add bits and pieces to, which can be fun, but it probably won’t be enough to bring you back for long.
Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved is a game of highs and lows. The highs are extreme, and while the lows are less so, they are still indeed lows. You’ll see the credits roll in single player mode within a few short hours and while there are still plenty of mixes to unlock once that happens, for a few reasons it’s tough to see where the replay value will come from outside of the odd multiplayer battle. It’s a very, very cool ride while it lasts, though.