I can name the exact moment that I fell in love with Harmonix's latest game, Fantasia: Music Evolved, at this year's E3. Periodically throughout the game, you're presented with an on-screen globe, and you can wave your hand over it to create a tune. The science of how it works isn't exactly clear (you're adjusting the pitch and rhythm of a tone somehow), but the tool is simple, it works, and the game will periodically play back your creation to you, and then allow you to redraw it over if you don't like it. Once the tune is set, you can swipe both your arms outward to zoom out to the game's "overworld" level, which in this case was a beautifully rendered, very animated robot factory, with various pipes and pistons jumping up and down in time with a rhythm.
This was the moment Fantasia showed me just how magical it was. As I tried to navigate around the stage and solve a problem by manipulating the world with the Xbox One's new Kinect sensor (a group of robots needed to get into a small doorway, so I had to swipe over some magic to shrink them down to fit), I suddenly realized that I recognized the tune that the pipes and valves were dancing to in the background. It was the one I'd just made, subtly mixed into the rhythms of the stage itself.
At its core, Fantasia is still a music game, and once you solve whatever puzzle you're meant to solve in the "overworld," you open up a music stage where you sort of conduct a song from Harmonix's huge licensing library. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven" are two tunes announced for the game, but I chose to play fun.'s "Some Nights," both a personal favorite and one of the easier titles in the E3 demo build.
As the song plays, you're presented with a series of onscreen prompts that look like long arrows, pointing in various directions. Smaller arrows fly in from offscreen towards the prompts, and as they touch, the idea is to swipe your arms in that direction, timed as if you're conducting the music. Harmonix's Dance Central series was a bit too physical and flashy for my taste (I'm just not a dancer), but this felt more like Frequency or Amplitude – an abstract series of motions timed to line up with the music itself. There are also circular prompts that ask you to push your hand forward first and then swipe your arms out, and eventually you're waving, swinging, and probably even (yes) dancing along with the game.
Periodically, the song will present you with a screen that asks you to select between three mixes of the song you're playing. For "Some Nights," I was offered an electronic version, a sort of acapella version (the icon was a bunch of mics in a row), and my absolute favorite: a marching band version, kicking with bass drums and horn sections as I waved my arms up and down.
Halfway through the song, the game also offers up that music-creation globe for the player to make another tune, and then it's back to the rest of the song, as that tune begins to seep back in, mashed right up with fun.'s pop hit. It is glorious – my arms, my created music, fun.'s tune, and Harmonix's genius, all mixed up together.
Despite all of the magic, the Disney name does still seem a little disconnected from the rest of the title. There's no Mickey or any other characters in sight, and just like the original movie, the tone of the game is a bit more mysterious and not quite as kid-friendly. But it turns out Harmonix learned a lot from making those band cutscenes in Rock Band 3, because the overworld sections are gorgeously put together. You control the stage with a floating orb called the Muse, and thanks to the Kinect's input, you can not only move it left and right across the screen, but also back and forth in 3D. As you swipe it over the game's environment, it interacts with what you see: I could knock over robots playfully, and make pipes shoot steam and wires crackle. Somewhere along the line, Harmonix has figured out how to match up their musical talents with visual expertise as well.
Fantasia: Music Evolved was very impressive. Harmonix has had a long string of hits with the Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and then Dance Central series, but this is something else, a game obsessed less with scoring and parties and more with the art and the magic of music itself. The company is working on something very special up in Boston, and we'll look forward to it when it's ready in 2014.