Music Evolved's structure can get in the way of its fun
|Platform 360, Xbox One
|Publisher Disney Interactive
|Developer Harmonix Music Systems
|Release Date Oct 21, 2014
Fantasia: Music Evolved is the most demanding rhythm game I've ever played.
And not just because its core interaction — a movement that could only be described as "rhythmic flailing" — is surprisingly exhausting, or because it possesses the most bizarre visual language ever seen in the genre. Those things are taxing, for sure, but they're also rewarding, because the core mechanics behind Fantasia are, when firing on all cylinders, a ton of fun.
The problem with Fantasia is that it takes those cylinders — catchy songs, even catchier remixes and even entire game mechanics — and holds them hostage behind a frustrating, over-padded slog of a campaign.
Harmonix nails the hard part of making a modern rhythm game
Harmonix actually managed to nail the hard part of making a modern rhythm game: The studio found a new, intuitive way to interact with music. The act of swiping, punching and tracing to the rhythm of different song components certainly takes some getting used to, as do the fast and furious command prompts for each gesture. With a little mastery, though, the game somewhat resembles its source material — the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" short from Fantasia (the film).
Where Fantasia succeeds is its various methods of letting players take control of and shape the songs they're playing. It's a fascinating design that touches every part of the game - instead of focusing on how many points you can get by keeping up with the music, Fantasia places an emphasis on building out the songs themselves.
There are three versions of every track in the game — usually, the standard studio recording and two remixes. At set junctures in each level, you can pull different elements from each version. A couple times during the track, you'll also utilize "Composition Spells" to actually create a few measures of melody, rhythm, effects or other elements that will loop over the rest of the music. By the end of the song, the tune you've built will be unrecognizable and, almost invariably, pretty fresh.
It's a different kind of reward than most rhythm games dole out. There's no semblance of musical simulation. There's no scaling difficulty options, meaning you're not really tracking development of expertise. Fantasia's rewards are the songs you create, from a folk-rockabilly hybrid remix of "In Your Eyes" or a ska-orchestral version of "Locked out of Heaven" (which, believe me, is so much better than it sounds). You're offered the option of saving each mix you create after finishing a song, too, an option I exercised more than a few times.
The Kinect does a fairly good job of keeping up with your rhythmic flailing, but runs into some slight consistency problems at the most inopportune times. Most of the failed gestures I encountered happened at those aforementioned track-switching junctures, which occasionally refused to obey my swiping. A couple of the Composition Spells, which rely on various gestures, were a bit more finicky than the others, too.
For the most part, though, the core mechanics work really well, delivering a sense of ownership over music that rhythm games don't typically deliver. In multiplayer, that sense is heightened even more — creating a melody with a friend while gesticulating dramatically like some sort of step-dancing crossing guard is an absolute blast, even if the two of you are doing a terrible job.
But Fantasia needs every one of its components — the remixing, the composing, the musical ownership — to work. And its main campaign mode places every single one of them behind progression walls, forcing you to take your medicine before the real game can begin.
Here is Fantasia's cardinal sin: The first time you play any song, only one of its three tracks is unlocked. To unlock the second, you have to play through the song and reach a certain score target. To unlock the third and final track, you have to play that song again, hitting a different score target. In addition, those Composition Spells also have to be unlocked, meaning they just don't appear in the songs that include them until you've completed the prescribed part of the campaign.
Don't get it twisted: This is unadulterated and completely unnecessary padding. Rhythm games typically don't require you to unlock songs anymore; Fantasia not only does that, it forces you to unlock mechanics — mechanics that it absolutely, desperately needs.
It's not just that playing a song without all three tracks is markedly less enjoyable, the campaign itself is a chore from start to finish. To wit: It kicks off with a tutorial that breezily shows you the ropes, and then, inexplicably, it throws you into a lengthy series of standalone tutorials for each of the components you literally just learned. It's impenetrable, and — like the rest of the game — punctuated by beefy load times when starting (or restarting) a song, hopping into an overworld environment or viewing one of its completely banal cutscenes.
The whole thing is just wildly out of step with Harmonix's patented enthusiasm for music — an enthusiasm that's still present, albeit muddled by the grind. You can see it in the game's environments, which spring to life as you play their requisite songs, giving you opportunities to, say, create ambient music in a sonic forest, or tune into dreamy radio broadcasts of "Rocket Man" from distant alien worlds. The game's soundtrack is on the minimal side but it's pretty stellar, and its catalog of remixes are top-notch.
But Fantasia: Music Evolved's campaign buries its wonder and experimentation behind a structure designed for an audience I cannot discern. A lot of the story seems geared to be kid friendly — but with no difficulty settings, it's going to be hard to guarantee that the game's actually friendly for kids. Following the game's commands is intense, especially in multiplayer, where the gesture indicators are color coded. Some of my friends — Dance Central and Rock Band veterans — had a really hard time scaling the difficulty curve.
Fantasia: Music Evolved's saving grace comes in the form of a "Party Mode" toggle, which unlocks all of the game's songs, remixes and mechanics for you to play with outside of the campaign, but prevents you from unlocking achievements or completing challenges. It's an accurately named setting: It instantly gives you every song in the way they're meant to be played, which makes for a pretty solid party game choice when combined with friends and drinks. (Though, watch the flailing, please.)
Music Evolved's structure can get in the way of its fun
The original Fantasia was a thing of remarkable wonder and playful experimentation, and the fact that Fantasia: Music Evolved could capture even a small portion of that is an achievement. But, much like Apprentice Mickey, you're going to have to carry water for Music Evolved's strung-out structure before it lets you have any fun.
Fantasia: Music Evolved was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" downloadable copy for Xbox One provided by Harmonix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews