Look, I know there’s disappointment that the new Fantasia: Music Evolved video game revealed this morning isn’t a lush, hand-painted cartoon. And some people have bemoaned the fact that it will be using licensed music from best-selling pop acts. So, no, this game isn’t going to port a 70-year-old animated classic onto Xbox game consoles. But it’s going to try to capture the idea behind the original Fantasia movie anyway.
Walt Disney described Fantasia as “an adventure in colour, sound and motion”. That’s the concept that Harmonix — best known for crafting the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games into record-breaking cultural obsessions — is taking to heart for Music Evolved.
When I saw Music Evolved last week in New York City, one of the first question I asked was about the art style. Why wasn’t it something more two-dimensional or cel-shaded? “If we took a 2D approach, then we may as well have put it in a museum,” answered Disney Interactive executive producer Chris Nicholls. He then told me that Disney wanted to create a visual experience in video games that people would recognise immediately.
Players will become a new Sorcerer's Apprentice to the powerful wizard Yen Sid, just like Mickey Mouse was in the 1940 movie's most famous segment — only this time they'll be wielding magical energy to control music in a series of interactive landscapes. I saw two sections of Fantasia: Music Evolved last week. The first was The Shoal, a underwater cove brimming with sea life and the second was The Press, a bustling printing warehouse. And while the game doesn’t look like old-school Fantasia, the gameplay I saw embraces psychedelic look of early Disney animations. Everything makes a noise and you can control that cacophony and merge it with music.
Some of the expected play mechanics from a Harmonix game are here: there’s still beat-matching that happens in a world that reacts to your performance. As players step side to side, they’re able to pull the camera along with them. And you’re able to coax sounds out of nearly everything you see. That crab’s claws clatter like castanets when you wave over them, for example. All these interactions generate magical energy but you hit the motherlode when you go into the portals contain in each level.
Those dimensional tears are where the songs live and Fantasia will offer all new ways for players to interact with music. The beat-matching has you swiping along neon-streaked vectors on the screen, sometimes with one or two hands. As I watched Harmonix’s Annette Gonzalez play through Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody," an overlay with three secions came on-screen. Each one wouold let her switch into a different arrangement for the song. A diagonal swipe downward let her play through a more spare, piano-led arrangement but she could’ve also done an acoustic guitar or hard rock version.
Once inside these special mixes, you’ll also be able to add effects like a wah-wah distortion with a Musical Manipulator or even do free-form gestural improv with the Sound Sketcher. After the song’s done, you leave the portals with new musical instruments. You’ll also hear the melodies you improvise bubble up back in the main part of the level as you wave over parts of the environment. The music you make up stays with you, sort of like a fingerprint on a shiny surface.
The Press level was more of a puzzle-solving experience with robots that you could herd or shrink to unlock the full range of interactables in the stage. The music here was “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars.
This Fantasia’s going to be an Xbox exclusive and will be appearing on both the current Xbox 360 and upcoming Xbox One hardware. When I asked if there’d be differences between the two versions, Harmonix’s John Drake said that, right now, the game is expected to be the same on the different hardware generations.
The paternal part of me is really intrigued at the toy-like quality of this Fantasia game. My daughter’s going to be three years old when it comes out in 2014 and I think she’ll get a kick out of moving her hand through these colourful environments and seeing what happens. For more mature players, there’s going to be more opportunities for music creation than in previous Harmonix games. The company’s responsible for the some of the best Kinect games ever so despite the lack of hippo ballerinas and walking brooms, Fantasia: Music Evolved gets benefit of the doubt from me.