Games Review: Fantasia – Music Evolved (Xbox One, 2014)

Disney’s Fantasia: Music Evolved feels like a bit of a strange beast when you first encounter it – it’s a Kinect-controlled game based on Fantasia, Walt Disney’s 1940 love note to classical music. But this feeling of uncertainty lasts only as long as it takes to get into your first song which is where the game reveals itself to be a smart, fun way new to interact with music that, bafflingly, no-one has ever thought of before.

The game’s story takes it’s cues directly from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You are the sorcerer Yen Sid’s new apprentice and he has tasked you with bringing life to the worlds he has created. You do this by moving your body in time with various classical and licensed pop music not unlike a conductor. You match your movements to the prompts on screen in order to build a streak and with it, a score multiplier.

It’s surprisingly engaging – the game doesn’t care how you hit its on-screen prompts, just as long as you do, which allows you to sort of freestyle conduct each song. You introduce each instrument section with a flick of your hand during the warm up round and then begin to conduct as the song commences. There are flicks, little swishes and long swooshes, punches and holds – the more you get to grips with Fantasia, it really does begin to feel like you’re manipulating the music with your hands and the sensation is a powerful one.

After successfully completing a few songs in the game’s story mode you unlock the ability to remix songs on the fly and it’s this that really sets Fantasia apart. Remixes are started by specific on screen cues that, when triggered, allow you to select a new instrument section to change the sound of the song entirely. Classical arrangements become skull-throbbingly sludgy dubstep, towering rock anthems become club bangers and chart-topping pop tracks become furious chiptune mashups. You can pick and choose which sections to modify as you go to create a remix or mashup that sounds rad to you, and when you’re done you can even upload your remix to the game’s YouTube channel straight through the game.

While the list of songs on the disc isn’t as sprawling as Rock Band 3, Harmonix’s last true entry in the rhythm genre, it’s still more than capable of holding it’s own and the vast array of remixes on offer (each song gets two or three different mixes to unlock and play with) keeps them from getting stale in a hurry. There’s a little of everything here too with modern pop acts like Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Bruno Mars and Aviici, classic rock from artists like Elton John, The Who, Queen and David Bowie, classical orchestral arrangements like Bach, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Mozart and modem alternative like Gorillaz, The Flaming Lips and Kimbra.

If you’re finding that the song list is a touch prohibitive, there’s quite a bit of DLC available as well. You can grab brand new songs from the Xbox Live Store from artists like Soundgarden, Coldplay, Ne-Yo and Ellie Goulding to expand your library. Further, if you purchase the digital version of the game you can get access to Remix Packs which add extra remix options to the existing on-disc track list which could help you keep the songs feeling fresh.

The area where Fantasia: Music Evolved could have conceivably fallen down is in it’s near-complete reliance on the Kinect for control. Thankfully, developer Harmonix have found a way to make the Kinect more accurate and responsive than I’ve ever seen before. Very rarely would I lose my multiplier because the Kinect failed to recognise my movement – either I didn’t do it properly or I missed the cue entirely. That said, the Kinect does still needs you to stand about five-to-six feet back to detect you properly so if your loungeroom is a bit clustered, you may need to rearrange the furniture a bit. I’ve grown so used to the Kinect being a muddy, lossy experience as a control scheme that I was incredibly skeptical of Fantasia’s playability going in and Harmonix proved my assumptions wrong at every turn. It’s a real feather in the developer’s already heavily-decorated cap.

This is especially true if you’re looking to jump into a multiplayer game. Fantasia supports two players working cooperatively. Some cues must be performed by both players at the same time, others are aimed at just one player. Remix options are chosen by each player in turn and it can lead to some truly insane sounding mashups. It’s a lot of fun and the Kinect’s movement tracking still doesn’t falter, even with an extra pair of hands to track. The game still encourages you to use which ever hand you want to accomplish each movement and you’ll find that the two of enter into a sort of strange but very natural feeling team interpretive dance.

I actually have only one gripe with the game and it’s this: I really struggled to get my home theatre set up to play nice with Fantasia in terms of latency. This wasn’t actually the game’s fault however, it’s more the result of heavy post-processing going in inside my TV and blu ray player that cause it. The result of this is the game is unplayable when affected by lag because you can’t hit any of your prompts. The game has a calibration tool to try and alleviate this lag but it can only do so much. The easiest way we found to solve this is to run the old red and white RGB audio cables from your TV’s audio out to an external stereo or receiver. We used to do this with Rock Band 3 on the Xbox 360 via component cables to minimize lag. Sadly, on the HDMI-only Xbox One, the solution isn’t so straightforward. Ultimately I ended up hooking my Xbox One up to my 24” BenQ GL2450-B PC monitor and ran a line out to my PC speakers. Being a 2ms gaming monitor, this cut the lag entirely and I was able to properly enjoy the game, albeit on a far smaller screen than the developers probably intended.

Fantasia: Music Evolved is an excellent addition to the rhythm game genre and an extremely important step forward in how we interact with games in general. It’s a perfect family game, and a perfect party game. It’s easy to learn and really hard to put down, and should be more than enough for fans of the genre to sink their teeth into while we all wait patiently for Harmonix to announce a new Rock Band title.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Innovative, enjoyable controls; Solid songs; Smart design
Lowlights: Lag could be a bugbear for some
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Released: October 21, 2014
Platform: Xbox One, Xbox 360

Reviewed on Xbox One