Reviews
Fantasia: Music Evolved

By Jorge Figueiredo - November 25th, 2014

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Magic is such a large part of so many cultures and our imaginations that sometimes it’s hard to deny that it might actually exist. When we were kids and first saw Mickey Mouse “borrow” Yen Sid’s hat to perform sorcery, it was a truly magical moment. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a sorcerer? I know that I’d love to be able to command the magical elements of the universe by waving my hands about, causing nature to bend to my will. While I can’t do real magic, Harmonix and Disney Interactive have managed to create something that certainly makes me feel like I do, thanks to the Kinect for the Xbox One or the Xbox 360 consoles. Their recent release, Fantasia: Music Evolved (which they sent us to review) is definitely a magical game that will not only have you waving your hands around and enjoying yourself immensely – it will also have you tapping your toes to they rhythm!

For those who do not know their Disney, the title of this game and the story are derived from Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), specifically the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment. The game’s campaign story begins with Yen Sid, the Sorcerer, enlisting the player as his apprentice – a very lofty position! Thankfully, you have the narrator that acts as your companion, guiding your first faltering steps (and offering tips later on in the game). The player is then tasked with breathing life into various worlds that Yen Sid has opened up access to using the magic of music. Each world has an exploration element, where you use simple gestures to move around the bland and desolate areas, searching for special mini-games and songs to help enliven your in-game surroundings. Early in the game, you discover Yen Sid’s old apprentice (Scout), who also fills you in on “the Noise”, which clouds the worlds and saps the joy from everything. Obviously, your job as Yen Sid’s representative in the worlds is to set things right, restoring harmony to everything.

Moving about the game is a simple matter of gestures. Navigating the main menus requires pointing with your arm in the direction of the desired option on screen (your silhouette is shown at the bottom center). One within the environments, things become a little more interactive. Stepping left and right in an environment moves your point of view from side to side. Moving your hand around moves your “muse”, which acts as a focus point with which you can interact with objects. Zooming in usually requires you to point both of your hands at the screen and move your arms apart (as if opening curtains wide). Backing away is achieved with the opposite motion (closing the curtains). For the most part, the navigational gesture system works well.

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The mini-games are fun and fulfilling.

During the preview that I had with Fantasia a few months ago at X14, it was the mini-games that I was first introduced to – and so, I began my journey with a couple of these. There are different kinds of musical games that will enable you to create your own mixes using various sound algorithms. The mini-games tend to be similar in their core principle: activate different groups of sounds using gestures, and then create your own melody mix using elements from these groups. While you can have an unlimited amount of time to create your perfect melody, the melody itself is not very long, and is played in a loop (so you can edit it on the fly with your gestures). Once you have completed it to your satisfaction, you can save it, and the mini-game punts you back into the environment that you started in. The melody that you created becomes a part of that world, playing subtly in the background. It’s a great way to make the player feel invested in the worlds that they are freeing from desolation.

While the mini-games are fun (and grant some creative freedom), it is the core game that really steals the show. I am referring to, of course, the various songs hidden within the worlds. In this mode, you are displayed as a coloured silhouette at the bottom of the screen. Various prompts will appear that will signal to you which gesture you have to perform, as well as the general timing involved. A handy tutorial at the beginning of the game teaches you everything that you need to know, and it’s fairly easy. Essentially players perform a combination of sweeping gestures, punches, sweep-and-hold, as well as a “tracing” gesture where you use your hand (or hands) follow the path indicated on the screen. Matching the prompts with your gestures will net you points – and doing so in succession will get you multipliers and streaks. Some songs actually present an opportunity to weave your own creative thread into the tapestry of the song with mini-games, similar to the ones mentioned earlier. It’s a nice touch that really makes players jive with the game – and it adds meaning to each of the rich worlds that you play in (eventually discovering each realm’s “composition spell”, which increases your power).

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The closest thing to doing real magic? Maybe!

Fantasia: Music Evolved is an interesting fusion that combines elements of a rhythm-based game as well as creative controls. While you are somewhat “locked in” to a routine (in terms of the song and the timed gestures that you have to perform to score maximum points), you can actually change the “direction” of the song somewhat by changing the mix. Alternate mixes are unlocked in each song once you achieve various point-based goals for that song. Once unlocked, you will be able to change the mix at certain points during the song. Each of the three mixes for each song have their own distinct sound (that is laid over top of the core music) and gesture set. As you have several opportunities during each song to switch mixes, you have control over the general sound of the song.

The list of music, too, is impressive. With over thirty songs spanning from classical pieces like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 to more modern tunes like Feel Good Inc. by Gorillaz, there is literally something for everyone. Each song has three different mix possibilities, and within these mixes are different sections (instruments and vocals) that you can weave together on the fly. At various points in the song, you will be given the option to change up the mix (by gesturing in the direction of the mix that you wish to go). When I first started, it felt a little odd – but after a little while, I got into it (as did Smallest Thumbs) and it felt awesome to direct the flow of the music.

To be perfectly clear, while Fantasia: Music Evolved makes you feel like you are conducting an orchestra, it is not really a “conducting simulator”. Instead, it gives you the flighty feeling of being some sort of music-based magician, waving your arms around as if doing so would actually make something happen. Fantasia’s gesture-interpretation system is accurate enough to track your movements and give you points when you’re correct; yet, it is also flexible enough to allow you to use either arm to complete almost any movement (the exception being, of course, gestures that require both arms). It is also fairly sensitive to movement, so as Smallest Thumbs was totally getting into the music and making exaggerated motions, I was making more subtle gestures – and the Kinect would relay that information to the game, which gave points to both of us for our efforts.

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Gorgeous environments.

It’s a wonderful game to play – especially with mixed company. The playing field is leveled by the input system, and thanks to the incredible power of music, people seem to do well no matter what – unless you hate music – but then why would you buy this game? while it is impossible to lose or fail the game (making this a great game for kids), Harmonix seems to have structured the creative bits in such a way that players can “compose” really great-sounding works with very little effort. It’s probably a good thing, too, because the only real issue with the game, gesture-based control, is effectively balanced out by clever harmonic algorithms. For instance, to save your personalized music, you simply drop your hands; however, there are moments when the game interprets this as a downward motion (rather than a ‘halt’), so it tracks your hands down the scale. I have yet to experience a time when this happens and the results sound bad.

Visually, the game is stunning. The various environments that you find yourself in look absolutely gorgeous, though this is not that apparent until after you start combating the Noise in each level. Once released from the doldrums, each level is vivid and colourful, with a well animated cast of characters interacting with parts of the background. Of course, for all of the visual beauty, it is the audio that steals the show. All of the main mixes sound great on a home theater, as do the alternate mixes. I was worried that there would be a combination that didn’t sound good – but my fears were unfounded, since all of the mixes work very well together (and will seriously get you into the mood to move). Even the voice work is well-acted.

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Once you’re done the campaign, there is still lots of fun to be had.

There are also multiple modes in which to play. I have alluded already to the single-player campaign (which is a little contrived – but a nice way to experience what the game has to offer); there is also a free-play mode in which you can play the songs (with one or two players) that you have already unlocked. Finally, there is a party mode that gives you access to all of the songs, but to use this mode you will forsake the single player campaign; so, if you are part way through the story, I would recommend that you continue rather than erasing all of your progress.

Fantasia: Music Evolved is one of those titles that some people get very excited about. Others don’t take much stock in it – until they give it a try, and then it’s a whole other story. The simple and silly story serves as a way to guide you through the various elements of the game – but the main game-play is the real draw, so once y you are finished with the campaign you can enjoy playing the songs through again with different mixes. Fantasia is the perfect party game, too, as it gives everyone a chance to experience the music in their own way. As if there wasn’t enough replay value in the game as it is, there is also DLC slowly being released over the next little while (you can check out the list here). Honestly, if you own a Kinect-enabled Xbox 360 or Xbox One, this game should be on your shelf.

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