When Walt Disney originally conceived "Fantasia," he envisioned releasing an updated version of the film every few years. Although that didn't happen, the experimental film was a landmark in American cinema. It drove innovation in film audio (it was the first movie to be released in stereo) and was a technical achievement in animation. The movie finally got a content update in 1999, when "Fantasia 2000" hit theaters, but the concept remained the same. With Fantasia: Music Evolved, Harmonix is bringing that same concept to the realm of video games.
Fantasia: Music Evolved isn't the first time someone tried to bring "Fantasia" to game consoles. Back in 1991, SEGA released a Fantasia-themed platfomer for the 16-bit Genesis. In that game, Mickey was front and center on a quest to collect missing musical notes. With Fantasia: Music Evolved, you are front and center thanks to the Kinect, and you're on a quest to restore music to various lands. Though the ideas sound similar, the execution is quite different.
We first got a peek at Fantasia: Music Evolved at E3 2013 and then at PAX Prime later that year. While both events offered a chance to check out the gameplay, both were strictly single-player affairs. Last week, at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, we had a chance to meet up with the team from Harmonix once again. They showed off a new level and gave us a chance to try multiplayer for the first time.
The new level is called the Hollow. Animated in a woodcut art style, the fantasy forest seen in the Hollow was lush and green. If it weren't for the fantasy characters within, it could have easily been a scene from Disney's "Bambi." It certainly had that Disney "look" to it.
Our demo started with Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," one of the most recognizable songs from the "Fantasia" film. Re-recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra specifically for the game, the song sounds just as impressive as it does in the film. Well, at least the original version did.
Each song included in Fantasia: Music Evolved contains three separate versions. In the case of "Night on Bald Mountain," there was the original, an electronic version and a happy hardcore version. In addition, each mix is broken down into a main instrument, bass, percussion and vocals. These mixes (and the individual elements) can be mixed and matched as you play, resulting in a song that sounds different on almost every go-round.
Going through the single-player level was similar to what we've seen before. Various note icons appear on the screen, and it is up to players to match their direction and beat.
What's notable about Fantasia: Music Evolved is that all motions are relative, not absolute. For example, if the notes appear at an angle to the up and right, you need to move your arm to the up and right, but that can be done anywhere. If that note is on the right side of the screen, but you make the motion on the left half of the Kinect play area, it still counts. When Fantasia: Music Evolved is judging you, it's judging you on timing, not location.
We were told that the movement design for the notes was done primarily by team members who had previously worked on the Dance Central games. The goal was to ensure that the note movements were complementary to the music, so the selection changes depending on the specific mix that has been chosen.
At certain points in the gameplay, special composition spells appeared on-screen. Unlocking these via a series of moves offers a chance to freestyle a bit by way of a minigame.
The first one we saw during the demo was called the rhythm painter. Looking something like a blob with colored icons inside, it allowed the player to record a rhythm simply by moving hands over the various colors. Another minigame was the tone twister. This was a single line that could be moved back and forth or up and down to adjust pitch and tone for the horns.
Once a song has been completed, it opens up a remix and clears away some of the dark noise in the corresponding world level. For the demo, this meant opening up a new section of the Hollow. Back in the Hollow, we explored the landscape and discovered a little mushroom orchestra. This is also where composition spells can be unlocked, giving players more incentive to explore the world levels instead of just powering through all of the songs.
Moving on to multiplayer, we left the Hollow and loaded up the multiplayer quickplay menu. This had all of the available songs unlocked and ready for selection. Here, the choice was Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." The three mixes were an original orchestral recording, an 8-bit style chiptune mix and a jazz-inspired big band mix.
Multiplayer is a competitive mode, with each player scored individually. Notes are colored based on the player, though some notes have both colors on them, which indicate that both players are expected to perform them at the same time. Interestingly, although the mode is competitive, there are points at which the two players are meant to cooperate.
When a composition spell appears, the two players are expected to work together to open it up. Once activated, each player controls half of the recording. In some ways, it's kind of like a musical battle, with both sides having respect for the other, yet still throwing down to see who can come out on top. In the end, only one player can win, with the final score being determined by the level multiplier, raw score for hitting the most notes, and the streak bonus for hitting the most consecutive notes.
Playing through Symphony No. 9, the contrasting note styles were quite apparent, as the chiptune notes were direct and angular and the jazz notes were more flowing. We also saw the voice changer minigame, which had the players adding warble to an existing vocal track.
With the focus on creating music, it's no surprise that YouTube support is included. Thanks to the backing of Disney, Fantasia: Music Evolved allows players to export any saved performance to YouTube. This included both single-player and multiplayer levels.
Although a cynic might say, "It's just another music game," Fantasia: Music Evolved seems to be shaping up to be much more than that. Rather than cashing in on the name, Harmonix really seems to be trying to live up to the legacy of Walt Disney's original vision. Each world is akin to sequence in the film, and the motion controls allow players to feel just like Mickey in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Assuming it all comes together as planned, Fantasia: Music Evolved will take its place alongside "Fantasia 2000" as the latest entry in the Fantasia evolution when it is released in the latter half of this year.
Editor's Note: In addition to the demo, Harmonix also confirmed additional songs for Fantasia: Music Evolved.
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