Fantasia: Music Evolved – Preview

Title   Fantasia: Music Evolved
Developer  Harmonix Music Systems
Publisher  Disney Interactive Studios
Platform  Xbox One, Xbox 360
Genre  Music, Rhythm
Release Date  TBA 2014

To be completely honest, I have never seen Fantasia. The classic Disney animation that combined classical music and wondrous imagery has somehow passed me by my entire life and, no matter how many times it’s re-released on Blu-Ray, I’ve still never got round to actually sitting down and giving it a go. I told the Harmonix guys this, but they didn’t seem to mind. This is Fantasia, sure, but Fantasia: Music Evolved is a separate beast altogether.

Our demo opened with a dark, mysterious forest known as The Hollows, where we were introduced to our first major game mechanic – exploration. Players use Kinect to manoeuvre around the scene, stepping left and right to move the camera around, and manipulating the environment with a floating orb, controlled by the player’s hand. One of the main innovations that excited me about this is that the orb has depth; you’re not just moving it around the screen hitting objects on a 2D plane. Instead, by pushing forward and pulling back with your hand, you can move the orb to the back of the world to search for hidden items and fiddle with objects not immediately in front of you. It’s a small detail if you think about it, but I’m not sure there’s any other game that lets you use the Kinect in a 3D manner, so this one little thing astounded me.

Fiddling with the environment is the key to getting ahead, as when you start messing with objects, crystals appear that need to be collected to fill your magic meter. Filling your magic meter unlocks songs to play, and after completing a song, the world begins to change and evolve. In our demo, after “beating” a track (the team chose to skip Some Nights by “fun.”, thank God) a creature appeared from inside the lake, offering up a whole mess of tentacles to wave your hand over and get at some more crystals. There are also some puzzles to solve while exploring, and in our demo we saw a game of hide-and-seek with a yeti, as well as a Simon-Says-style game where the player had to make birds sing in the correct order. It’s family-friendly, simple stuff, but watching a monster throwing snowballs around a lovely, wintry environment was instantly charming, and I was grinning from ear to ear for the whole thing.

But it gets even better when you start playing the songs. When looking at Fantasia and choosing what would make the best game, Harmonix decided to draw most of their inspiration from the scene in which Mickey Mouse, as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, conducts the weather. To that end, the musical sections require you to conduct the song, in effect. Directions fly onto the screen, and you must move your arm in that direction in time to the rhythm of the song, or hold your arm in place after moving it in some cases.

Again, it’s simplistic in nature, but that allows you to be as dramatic as you like. You can play sat down, gently flicking your arms or, if you really want, you can get up and flail your arms around as though you really were conducting an orchestra. How ‘into it’ you get is reflected in the game as well; it detects how hard you’re striking the direction, and the on-screen arrow explodes accordingly. We were told that there would be visuals running in the background during the music sections, but honestly, I was so mesmerised by the particle effects from the arrows that I was more than happy with a black background.

There’s still space for you to do your own thing, however. At certain points in the song, you’ll be given the opportunity to create your own melody or drum beat by way of a mini-game. It was hard to see what exactly one was meant to do in these sections but, rest assured,  even if you don’t create something spectacular, it’ll still sound good, as the game auto-tunes your addition to the rest of the soundtrack, meaning you should never hit a bum note.

The most interesting thing you can do to the music, however, is remix it. Songs are split into three sections, separated by the mini-games, and these sections are broken down into a further three parts. At the end of each part, the player has to choose a “path” to take. If the player chooses to go left, they continue playing the song as the original composer intended. However, taking one of the other two available directions changes some aspect of the song entirely.

In our demo, Vivaldi’s Winter had only one remix path that swapped out some of the strings for a dubstep-ish drum beat, and another that replaced more of the original orchestration for dance music, until eventually it was barely recognisable as a classical song. You can also choose which parts change, so you end up with a bizarre, but actually really good, techno remix of a classical track. It’s a fantastic way of making well-known songs fresh and interesting each time you play them, and, again, left me smiling like a buffoon.

A music game lives and dies by its soundtrack, but Harmonix appear to have got it under control. The game will have a mixed bag of modern pop songs, such as the aforementioned Some Nights along with classic rock, with Bohemian Rhapsody already confirmed, and of course plenty of classical music to appease fans of the original film. Not every song is going to please every person, but hopefully the remixing will keep it interesting enough for people who hate particular tracks; I for one look forward to hearing Bruno Mars’ Locked Out Of Heaven with ska horns blaring through.

If ever a company were to make a Kinect game that turned the maligned peripheral into a must-have, it had to be Harmonix. They’ve had plenty of experience with the equipment, and have enough enthusiasm and excitement for the project that they could power Blackpool Illuminations. With its exciting exploration opportunities and accessible rhythm-game mechanics, it’s hard to see what could go wrong. I left the presentation safe in the knowledge that they know exactly what they’re doing with Fantasia: Music Evolved, and didn’t stop smiling for a very long time. Hopefully I’ll be grinning all over again when the game launches some time next year.

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