When Rock Band developer Harmonix announced at E3 2013 that they were working on an Xbox One Kinect-exclusive music-rhythm title based on Walt Disney’s Fantasia, I, like many other Harmonix fans, was more than a little skeptical. Of course, if any developer could be expected to make a successful and more importantly, functional Kinect game, surely it would be Harmonix, whose pedigree in the genre speaks for itself, from Amplitude and the early Guitar Hero games through to Dance Central and the Rock Band-craze of last generation. But this time, there just seemed to be too many variables. Would the Fantasia license translate into a game that faithfully lived up to the creative vision of the original animated film, or would it settle for catering to the same family demographic as Disney: Infinity and go for the easy money? Would Kinect 2.0, which at the time of the game's reveal had much to prove (and still does), work as accurately and dependably as one of Rock Band's plastic instruments? And perhaps the most frightening question of all was: “Is it still too soon for music games to make a comeback?”
Well, the jury is still out on both Kinect and the overall future of music/rhythm games as a whole, but it becomes quite clear after spending some time with Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved why Harmonix continues to develop music games and why they saw potential in the Fantasia license; the developer just has a fantastic knack for filling voids we didn’t realize existed.
As players progress in the game and achieve specific goals (i.e. earning pre-determined point scores and unlocking song remixes), they’ll be rewarded with spell fragments that allow them to easily customize and record their own remix song samples that can then be heard and played both in the realm and in the song itself, putting a personal audio stamp on the player’s gameplay experience. These spells (read: mix tools) appear during songs and while exploring the realms, rather than existing in a separate game mode, so their integration ends up feeling far more organic, akin to performing a solo in the middle of a great song and then keeping the best part for reuse later in the track.
Unfortunately, as one now comes to expect with a Kinect-exclusive game, there are a few notable “buts”, and as a music-rhythm title Music Evolved brings a couple more in tow, one inherent to the genre and another that’s just bad game design. Just like with every Harmonix game that’s come before, audio/visual calibration is key to ensuring that the player’s input commands are accurate, and adjustments can vary wildly from one TV to another due to refresh rate. I personally had to invest a good deal of time into getting the settings just right, which translated to repeatedly fumbling through songs, returning to the main menu, tweaking the calibrator in settings, and then trying the song again. This would have been far less of a problem if the game allowed you to access the settings from the pause screen, but no such option exists. Then there’s the usual Kinect problem; even under ideal conditions, players will still experience several “missed” cues, often frustrating and leaving them wondering how in the world the game did not read their spot-on hand gesture. If you’re not aiming for perfection, the fun of the game significantly outweighs these annoyances, but the bottom line is that the game never feels 100% responsive or accurate, making it hard to put one’s faith in the Kinect as a performance judge.
Much like Fantasia is a must-watch, critically acclaimed masterpiece but not necessarily the best film in Disney’s catalogue, Music Evolved is likely to be remembered as a unique experience that brilliantly succeeds despite its obvious shortcomings. The campaign itself is mercifully short (each song is usually the complete, uncut experience and thus quite the physical workout to perform) and the artistic creativity on display in each realm as players encounter, discover and manipulate music will amuse players young and old, as well as surprise and challenge them. With over 90 songs on disc (including remixes), a Party Mix Mode and two-player multiplayer, the game reveals its true value upon replay, and when coupled with the power of Xbox One, its ability to share performances via recordings or streaming live via Twitch is invaluable. If you’re a Disney fan, a Harmonix fan, or a music fan, and don’t mind looking silly flailing about to music (and you will flail), there’s no reason to not give this game a chance. Just don’t call it a Harmonix comeback. They’ve been here for years.
To read Khari's extended review of Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved pick up the Nov issue of CGM.