It’s worth stating from the off – Harmonix have always held a treasured place in my gaming collection, ever since Guitar Hero II practically took over any spare time I had at university. There’s something about the conflux of music and gaming that truly appeals and, as developers interested in both, Harmonix have no rivals. Rock Band was a triumph, the third entry still outstanding and eminently playable today, while Dance Central is the best game of its kind and one of the few Kinect experiences that work. Fantasia: Music Evolved sees Harmonix partnering with Disney on a dedicated Kinect game and one of their first forays on to the new Xbox One hardware, Dance Central Spotlight notwithstanding.
From the off it’s obvious that Harmonix have brought the same care and curation to Fantasia that was so tangible in titles like The Beatles: Rock Band. Naturally it’s updated to keep in line with current pop trends but it isn’t gaudy or crass at all. Characterising the player as the new apprentice to the wizard Yen Sid, it’s your job to restore music to the universe and rid various worlds of corruption from ‘The Noise’. Alongside Scout, a new character designed to guide you through these worlds, you’ll have to play through a range of songs, unlocking new tracks and worlds as you go. There’s also a disembodied voice aiding you (and explaining various abstract concepts) who I eventually realised was Greg Ellis, the voice of Johnson in Shadows of the Damned. No boners here though; this is a family-friendly game through and through.
Gameplay takes its inspiration from the well-known scene in Fantasia – Mickey Mouse conducting the waves and stars, amidst the chaos of his automated broom workers. The game simplifies this considerably – it’s now all about matching gestures to onscreen prompts, set against a background of abstract swirls and the occasional glimpse of scenery. These prompts are instinctively easy to follow – arrows indicate the way to swipe, solid circles require a punch toward the screen and extended trails are there as a guide to mirror with your hand movements.
Each song on the disc has three different mixes, including the original version. Harmonix have thrown the net a little wider than expected. Classical music rightfully occupies a good chunk of the tracklist but there are also hits from the likes of Elton John, New Order, right up to current chart-toppers such as Nicki Minaj and Imagine Dragons. An initial browse of the tracklist might yield disappointment, given that the thirty-or-so songs are disparate and seem at odds to the nostalgia Harmonix appear to be attempting to revive. In fact, the song choices are fantastic, inspiring a journey of discovery in all but the most eclectic music fan. Combined with some absolutely brilliant alternate mixes, there’s every chance that the song furthest from your comfort zone might turn out to be a new favourite. The Luke Boggia Mix of Get Ur Freak On, reworking the song in a Wild West-Morricone tinged style, is brilliant – if only these mixes could one day be released separately to download.
The real fun of Fantasia is in unlocking these mixes and then constructing your own. At various points in the song certain instruments can be switched for their counterpart, creating some absolutely bizarre but wondrous versions of beloved songs. A personal highlight were the amount of orchestral remixes – Lorde’s Royals, New Order’s Blue Monday and Ziggy Stardust from David Bowie are all among a handful with classical arrangements. The technical skill to have three mixes that can blend together without sounding awful is a testament to Harmonix’s perfectly tuned ear for interactive yet high-quality sound.
Modifiers – again unlocked through the campaign – are a further way to put your own stamp on the music. These ‘spells’ open up widgets that offer a degree of freedom to record a bar or two of music, be it a rudimentary drum sampler controlled using a circular soundboard or a synth that can jot off a melody using a few waves of your arm. It would take a while to master but the algorithms in the software make any random flailing sound decent enough, the melody then incorporated into the currently playing song. It’s clever but one of the few spots where it feels like the game is overreaching, these interludes more like a toy than a truly musical mode of creation. That’s not to say you couldn’t write a symphony on a toddler’s keyboard, just that it would sound perhaps a little too much like a ringtone.
Filling in the gaps of the campaign are cutscenes, featuring the animated, sprightly Scout, as well as the realms themselves. Before venturing into a song, there are various interactive elements in these realms, all contributing musicality to the vibrant locations depicted. Although not explicitly tied to Disney properties, the realms have enough charm to them. The Shoal – an underwater realm and one of the first you’ll visit – has some excellent background music to boot; a laid-back surf guitar sparring with Mozart.
Most will be wondering how all of this works in the context of Kinect. Safe to say, Harmonix have cracked it, unfortunately just as Kinect seems to be fading into oblivion. Following the onscreen gestures was accurate without being punishing, allowing just the right amount of leeway with some less signposted movements. Without perfect control, Fantasia would fail dismally. Brilliantly, it all works so well that it comes close to immersive synaesthesia, the player one with the music and visuals. Multiplayer works equally well – a simple handshake initialising the mode, with onscreen prompts coloured to either player.
If there’s a problem with Fantasia, it’s that the experience is short-lived and fleeting enough that, without DLC, it might soon become repetitive. It’s also a shame that the visuals during songs don’t really do more than display the gestures. Of course, any more onscreen clutter would likely distract from the all-important gameplay, but even the lack of much in the way of Disney feels like a missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, for music aficionados there’s a true joy to hearing established pieces from a range of genres be tweaked, sampled and presented in totally different ways. It’s unlike anything you’ll have played before and is genuinely imbued with that Harmonix magic. As a family title it’s perfect, introducing children to all types of music and encouraging creation, participation and appreciation. It’s not going to surpass Rock Band as the de facto music party game, neither is it going to save Kinect. But, as a potential swansong to Microsoft’s neglected camera, Fantasia: Music Evolved is more than worthy.