Harmonix’s latest rhythm-based video game, Fantasia: Music Evolved, suggests a kind of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” simulator. Dispensing with the plastic instruments and elaborate dance motions that are central to the Rock Band and Dance Central experience, respectively, it tasks the player with making hand movements and gestures to the tempo of its soundtrack, resulting in a game that’s somewhere between conducting music and dancing to it. Players sweep and wave their hands, punch toward the screen, and hold basic poses to the beat of the songs, which includes a terrific mixture of classical music and modern pop hits, contained within a whimsical narrative that includes various elements of the Disney film from which it’s based.
Music Evolved is chasing the kind of transcendent experience provided by games like Child of Eden, in which the player is immersed in the gorgeous visuals and soundtrack while in motion with the music, to feel the same kind of euphoria that Mickey experiences and rouses throughout “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” arguably Fantasia’s most famous segment. The unique gesture-based controls are distinct enough from prevailing dancing games while also being very fitting to the soundtrack, allowing the player to really feel the terrific mix of music. But while the gameplay itself is fun and addictive, the game design around it stumbles, beginning with a painful forced tutorial that runs over an hour that introduces, then reintroduces, the game’s simple mechanics, treating them as if they were infinitely more complicated. Following this, the songs that can be played are limited to a handful until more are unlocked in the game’s campaign, subsequently forcing players to replay songs they’ve already tackled multiple times to get to the other content.
The outcome is a product that inexplicably sabotages itself. As both the Rock Band and Dance Central series evolved, Harmonix demonstrated that they understood how their games were being consumed, catering to both those who wanted to go through lengthy campaigns and those who wanted to play their games casually, a few songs here or there, essentially as a party game. Music Evolved caters nearly entirely to the former, and locks away the majority of its content until the campaign is experienced. Some of the best features are frustratingly kept out of the player’s hands for hours, by which time many will have lost interest. For example, being able to use gestures to compose a small piece of music that’s then inserted into existing songs is unique and compelling, but locked behind the umpteenth replay of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Co-operative elements, such as the ability to remix the music and create new compositions with a friend, suggest that the game has been designed to be played in a casual party environment, and the interface within which all of this is presented is so simple and intuitive that the endless tutorials are all the more bewildering.
But then, if the stars align and one happens to navigate through the game’s out-of-the-way options menu, one might stumble upon Party Mode, which unlocks nearly all of the game’s content and allows you to actually play Music Evolved as it was intended. It’s terrific to suddenly have the full game and soundtrack open up to the player, and to engage with this experience however one desires. As such, it’s unfathomable that this option is practically hidden instead of being front and center at the game’s start. There’s nothing in the title screen or main menu to suggest this option even exists. There’s also no reason why this shouldn’t have been a primary feature of the game—why the game couldn’t have been frontloaded with a short tutorial to introduce the mechanics before immediately immersing the player in what is some of the most riveting and addictive gameplay of 2014. As it stands, though, Music Evolved is arguably two games. One is a tiresome, frustrating battle just to get to the good parts, and the other one, which you can only get to by accident or with knowledge ahead of time, is a thrilling addition to the rhythm game genre.