Fantasia: Music Evolved review: The rhythm is gonna get you

If you've seen the movie Fantasia, you know the bit where Mickey, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, puts on his robe and wizard hat and tries to make magic happen, arms sweeping grandly through the air. Things eventually get out of hand, of course, but for a brief while, Mickey feels the euphoric glee that comes with mastering something really difficult, and in its best moments, Fantasia: Music Evolved makes you feel the exact same way. Pulling off its complicated combos makes you feel like an honest-to-goodness wizard, bending the forces of light and music to your mighty will. Best of all, no pesky brooms to clean up if you miss a beat.

The game doesn't really bear all that much resemblance to the movies that shares its name, though cranky sorcerer Yen Sid does make an appearance. You are indeed his apprentice, but your job is to clean up the noise that's cluttering several different areas of the world after Scout, another protege of Yen Sid, accidentally releases it by trying to get a peek at her future. She'd be happy to clean it up herself, but she doesn't have the magic that you learned as the sorcerer's apprentice, so it's on you to restore the music to each location. As cleanup duties go, it's way more fun than mucking about with a bucket and broom.

And now comes the part where you start flailing around your living room, though Fantasia lets you flail far more gracefully than in Harmonix's other games. Fantasia is controlled entirely with your arms, sweeping and pushing in time to the beat. You'll sweep in every direction to hit targets, push towards your screen to hit circles, and hold your hands in place to fill up other circles, all of which explode gloriously when you do it correctly. Playing Fantasia feels like you're in the night sky, sculpting a fireworks show for the audience below.

Once you've earned enough points to unlock one of the song's two remixes, you'll be able to switch between mixes at switch cues, perhaps combining the song's original vocals with a new drum beat or ditching the original altogether to swap in a chiptune version instead. Playing with the remixes increases the score as well as the difficulty, and also extends the lifespan of each song. You can only play "Rocket Man" so many times before you get really, really sick of the original, after all.

In addition to several songs, each location has a few musical hotspots that you can activate in order to clear away the noise. The hotspots are cute little toys that let you make tiny refrains of music by doing things like waking up sea slugs or playing with meat. (Seriously, there's a musical meat trio of bacon, chicken and steak.) You don't need to play through everything in order to clear away the noise, but completing all of the song remixes and finding all of the musical hotspots unlocks additional songs in the game's library, so it's worth taking the time to fully explore each region. They're all gorgeously drawn and animated, taking you underwater to play in a fishy shoal, to a forest, an urban neighborhood, and even outer space. Each locale has its own distinct personality, a bonus considering that they're really just glorified hubs for each of Fantasia's levels.

The part of Fantasia that I expected to hate the most - the Kinect controls - ended up being one of its strongest features. I played in different lighting conditions, I varied the motions I used, mixing up big sweeps with tiny chops, I flung my arms to cross my hands across my chest, and the Kinect picked up each and every movement flawlessly. It had a bit more trouble when my curious dog wandered into range, but it did let her sit next to me on the conductor's stand on the menu screen. (Bonus points for letting my dog be in the game, Kinect. Well played.) There was none of the annoying fiddlyness that's typical of a Kinect experience - everything simply worked the way it was supposed to and got out of the way of the fun.

The one area where Fantasia falters is in its composition spells, which needlessly interrupt the core rhythm game. At a certain point in the song, you'll be presented with a wireframe outline of the spell; nail all of the targets that align the frame and you'll open up a tool that lets you record your own snippet of music by manipulating the song's notes. One spell asks you to raise your hand and guide a cursor over the surface of a sphere to make a musical refrain; for another, you'll raise both hands and move them up and down or in and out to stretch or shrink a musical sequence. Your recorded efforts are fed back into the song, which sounds like it should be really earth-shatteringly cool, but it doesn't really come through all that well. You can kind of hear your recording playing along with the main tune, but completing these sequences doesn't make you feel powerful or inventive, they just disrupt the momentum of the game. I suppose there's more of a payoff if you're really into musical composition, but for the average yutz just looking to get 100 percent on that MIA song (like me), it's a pointless distraction that doesn't add to the enjoyment in any significant way.

Fantasia's other main irritant is a common music game issue, namely having to play through songs you don't like in order to get to the stuff that you do. The game comes with extra songs in the library (and plenty of room for the inevitable DLC), but they're locked until you meet the right conditions, such as collecting enough musical strands or playing through certain levels. That's not a knock against Fantasia, of course, so much as a problem with the genre in general.

If you have an Xbox One and a Kinect, you should have Fantasia: Music Evolved in your library, not only because it's the thing that shows off how well your Kinect can work, but also because it's an immediately accessible and fun party game. Its musical selection is well-rounded, and while I can't say that any of the remixes became my new favorite versions of songs, they add a layer of complexity to the core game that's more interesting than simply putting more notes up on screen. It's also nice to have a musical rhythm game that's ready to go without pulling a bunch of controllers out of the closet - but if you want to put on a sorcerer's hat, I won't tell.

Note: This review does not cover Fantasia: Music Evolved's multiplayer mode.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox One version of Fantasia: Music Evolved, provided by Harmonix.

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