GDC 14: Fantasia: Music Evolved Plays Like a Worthy Successor to Dance Central and Rock Band

I have to be honest: when I found out Harmonix would be at GDC demoing their latest game, I wasn’t exactly hoping for Fantasia. Not because the game didn’t look good, but because I’m a grown man and playing a Disney dancing/rhythm game publicly didn’t exactly seem all that appealing. But this was Harmonix after all and I wanted to give it a shot. So I pounded down a few rounds of warm sake and headed over to the Microsoft Store in the Westfield Mall to get an exclusive demo. Instead of having to summon courage to get through the session alive with my dignity, however, I soon realized that my fears were misguided. This isn’t a childish or feminine game, but instead a masterfully executed rhythm game that breaths new life into the genre.

The gameplay is relatively simple. Streak-like arrows appear on the screen in sync with the music. To successfully complete a note, you simply move one or both of your arms in the direction of the arrow to the beat of the music. This essentially looks like you’re conducting music with a wand, which is where the Fantasia comparison comes into play. Depending on the song and level of difficulty, the arrows will be more difficult to nail and can come both frequent and fast. Sometimes a circle (symbolizing percussion) will appear on screen which you hold out your arm to punch. Even though there’s not much too it, it’s tremendously fun in execution and worked almost flawlessly with the Kinect in the environment we demoed in. For two player sessions, players compete against each other for the highest score, sometimes doing the same motions and other times doing parts solo.

The concept that really puts the game over the top, however, is the ability to alter the song. Throughout songs, players can select various remix paths and choose which portion of it is being played. This lets you slow down the tempo, alter which parts are playing (take out vocals, do only vocals and percussion, etc). The amazing thing is how good the songs can sound upon being altered. What we did with Lorde’s “Royals,” for instance, sounded like a perfect chopped and screwed version that I wish I could download and listen to outside the game (although this is almost possible thanks to being able to upload your performance creations to YouTube).

We were able to try out the five newly announced songs in the game including David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” Antonin Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 from the New World,” Lorde’s “Royals,” Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass,” and White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” All of these played great (besides the not-Harmonix’s fault inherent terribleness of everything Nicki Minaj produces) with the standouts being “Royals” and “Seven Nation Army.” We were able to mix both songs in funky and interesting directions that again seemed like professional remixes.

Also demonstrated was “The Hollow,” a between-song forest environment where players can interact with the world to add light color and characters to the scene. Things can be done like sprouting musical mushrooms and guiding frolicking fairies through the woodland. It was hard to get a grasp on exactly how much this adds to the experience, but it certainly does inject the game with the requisite Disney feel.

Don’t be scared off by Fantasia. Although it carries the namesake of a Disney property, it’s a fantastic rhythm game that can be enjoyed by all age groups and genders. It’s been awhile since a new concept came along in the genre and it’s refreshing to get away from dancing or playing plastic instruments and still be able to jam out to some great music. I can’t wait to get my hands on the full version and experiment with all of the different ways to mix the songs in the game, but until then, I’ll always have my weird version of Royals. Yes, you can call me queen bee.

Check out a demonstration of the game below: