Almost a year ago, I lined up to buy a Day One Xbox One. Part of that package was Kinect, the then-mandatory eye and ear of the Xbox One that was going to help revolutionize the way we watch TV and play games. At least, it was according to some hopeful Redmond marketers and engineers.
Frankly, I hated the idea of having to buy what felt like a needless hunk of technology and indeed paying what seemed like $100 premium for it. But needs must, and I had to have the latest Xbox system so I could review all the launch games for it, and I duly forked over my cash. I turned the Kinect on when I set up my Xbox, but once I discovered it didn't understand my British accent very well, and the Xbox One wasn't compatible with my TV setup, I thought I'd save some power and turned it off, and never turned it back on again.
Between then and now, Kinect has become Xbox One's redheaded stepchild, and it seems that Microsoft has essentially written it off. I pretty much have too, until now. Finally a game has arrived that seems worth turning Kinect back on for: Fantasia, a rhythm game from Harmonix, the makers of Rock Band. Only this time, they're dispensing with plastic guitars, drums and keyboards, and instead are requiring you to use the twin appendages that stick out of your shoulders to waft along to its music.
Based loosely-to-say-the-least on the Sorcerer's Apprentice act of Disney's eponymous musical movie, Fantasia asks you to combine semaphore waving, wax-on-wax-off style polishing movements and manic MMA aerobic punching to essentially conduct its music. Basically, it's about gesturing in time to the music, with the player swiping, punching, and holding the on-screen graphical note representations in time to the music to keep everything ticking along. Fail to do that, and of course things don't go so well. The music fades and the song becomes lost until you can pick up the beat again. Time everything correctly, however, and the music blares, scores and a multiplier are triggered, and all is good in the world.
Kinect has an uncanny ability to spot even the most subtle of movements, and even without direct feedback – always a Kinect bugbear – it seems quite easy to hit the right notes and triggers. Naturally, the game does get increasingly more complex, but the general point I'm making is that when you don't hit a note, you feel it's more your mistake than the machine's – a vital factor in making this playable and addictive.
What's very interesting about all this is that it's not just a case of waving your arms about to make a tip-top tune play. Nope. It's a bit more sophisticated than that. As you advance, songs can be remixed on the fly, with the player swiping and then selecting instruments from three banks, each group representing a different mix of the song in play. So, for example, while playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I started with Mozart's most recognizable tune sounding orchestral as I'd expect, but as I progressed, I started mixing in instruments with a Caribbean flavor. Soon cello and violin orchestral parts were mixed with steel drums and a timpani, and my tune was sounding like something out of The Little Mermaid. Frankly, I thought it was pretty horrible, but it was fun nonetheless.
This live remixing aspect definitely gives the game depth, and works very well for the most part – specifically with the game's more modern tunes, like Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence, and New Order's Blue Monday. The classical stuff is fine, but tends toward the somewhat cheesy and comedic. Though your mileage may vary per your taste in music.
Further interest lies in the dynamic loop-making. Sometimes you get the opportunity to record a short loop by moving an on-screen icon either around a circle, or across a set of "keys". Doing so creates a sympathetic melody for the song, which, once you're happy with it, can be launched and incorporated in the main mix. It's a neat touch, and further deepens the scope of the on-the-fly remixing aspect of the game.
What works very well in Fantasia is the choreography of its on-screen triggers with the intensity of the music. It's extremely well thought through, and as you play, you find there's a distinct ebb and flow to movements, building up to crescendos, and then becoming a little more sotto vocce. The result is something that feels very dynamic and involving – especially on higher levels, where things become increasingly frenetic. That does lead to a downside (or upside perhaps?) to the game – and that is it's tiring to play. With all the punching and waving you have to do, it doesn't take long to tire out even the fittest of players. Still, like I said, that can be both a positive and negative, but either way, if you're going to be playing this game, you're going to be hot and breathless within a song or two.
The other downside to the game is its story. The whole point of mixing and remixing songs is to add rhythm to worlds created by a wizard. As you play through these worlds, there are more mixes to unlock and the various parts of the world that comprise the game become animated. I really didn't like this part of the game at all. It just felt uninteresting and bolted on – plus the characters aren't in the least bit appealing. Maybe younger kids will like this part of the game, but to me, plodding through the ponderous cut scenes and listening to the inane banter that goes with it just didn't make the game any better. The meat of the game is in the songs, and that should really be its focus - not some bizarre justification of the game's existence through a contrived storyline.
But that aside, Fantasia is a great example of a quality Kinect game. It's solid, is really enjoyable to play, and it works almost flawlessly. It's a reminder of what Microsoft's unpopular peripheral is best used for: kinetic, aerobic gameplay, choreographed to deliver an experience whose exertions ebb and flow in sympathy with the game. Were there more titles available like this, I imagine I'd be using my Kinect a lot more. But for now, it seems that this might well be the last major Kinect game. At least, for the foreseeable future.
In-game visuals are good, although different-shaped cues might have been more effective.
An eclectic set of tunes to say the least, but they're all fun to "conduct."
The storyline is slow and can't be skipped. The game teaches you how to play reasonably well, however.
The open-ended nature of its remixing, and multiplayer party modes makes this a game that you'll play until you tire of its tunes.
Fantasia brings something completely new to the music/rhythm game genre. It's fun - if somewhat tiring - to play, and packs a broad and interesting array of tunes that you can remix on the fly. Very clever stuff - but will it be the last of its kind? Only time will tell.