Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved Sprinkles Some Pixie Dust on the Rhythm-Game Genre

A magical mash-up of art, ambition, and a mischievous sorcerer’s apprentice, Harmonix’s “Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved” aims to reinvent the rhythm-game genre. Heavily inspired by Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic, the title is absolutely a music game, but not one of the plastic guitar-playing variety. Applying, refining, and evolving on everything they learned from making the motion-controlled “Dance Central” series, the Boston-based developer is leveraging the power of Xbox One – and its Kinect 2.0 technology – to deliver an experience that encourages creativity as much as traditional game progression.

“Music Evolved’s” setup and story path sees players assuming the role of a new sorcerer’s apprentice that’s tasked with fighting the chaotic forces threatening to unmake Fantasia’s musical worlds. While the famous mouse in the star-spangled sorcerer’s hat isn’t the game’s main protagonist, the player’s journey is very much inspired by Mickey conducting the heavens in the original film. In addition to taking direction from Yen Sid, players are helped by Scout, an original character created specifically for the game, Scout is a previous apprentice whose mastery of music is matched only by her ability to get up to mischief. In a cool nod to the 75-year-old movie, the young talent also sports a baseball cap version of Mickey’s pointy blue hat.

Saving Fantasia requires bringing the magic and music back into the world’s realms – vibrant, varied areas represented by different art styles and atmosphere-defining aesthetics. While Harmonix has previously showcased stylistically diverse areas, such as the Shoal (an eye-popping underwater environment) and the Capsule (a space station occupied by a vinyl-spinning astronaut chimp), our demo focused on a realm dubbed the Neighborhood.

Like all of Fantasia’s melody-manipulating realms, the Neighborhood is inspired by specific tunes. The final game will feature tracks spanning classical to contemporary, but this urban metropolis is home to CeeLo Green’s “Forget You,” The Who’s “The Real Me,” and M.I.A.’s “Galang.” Controlling the “muse,” a sphere-like cursor, players can select star prompts from the Neighborhood and enter the specific tracks. Once players are inside a song, the motion-sensing mechanics kick into high gear, as players move their hands – much like a conductor – to remix the music; from pushing and holding to pulling and swishing, a variety of intuitive gestures allow them to play with the music – molding, shaping, and evolving it with different effects as they go.

Mastering musical tracks is not only a liberating blast, but it also changes the realms. During our demo, for example, we witnessed the Neighborhood transform from a natural looking urban space into something that could have jumped from the paneled pages of a comic book. By the end of our session, elephants were dangling from balloons, fish were swimming on murals, and a light, playful tone had completely consumed this once-quiet inner city setting.

Of course, in keeping with Fantasia’s focus on gesture-fueled interaction and creativity, many of the things in the realm are meant to be toyed with; satellite dishes can be spun to tune in frequencies, birds can be persuaded to leave their perches, and “hotspots” can be entered to further morph the world around you. The latter interaction is especially notable because, according to lead designer Johnathan Mintz, it lets players “choreograph a dancing meat band.” Yes, you read that right: By experimenting with different instrumental samples played by a slice of bacon, a slab of steak, and a chicken leg, we’re able to weave the musical stylings of this protein-heavy lineup into the world. In fact, the musical meat trio could occasionally be seen getting their groove on atop a commuter train riding through the realm’s background.

“Music Evolved” is a crazy-ambitious, passion-driven offering that’s poised to transform the genre previously defined by plastic peripherals. While our presentation touched on the title’s core gameplay and progression path, it barely hinted at its potential to let the leash off players’ creative sides. On top of remixing tracks to change the realms, there are composition “spells” to master, recordings to create, and the opportunity to enjoy – and interact with – music in ways you never thought possible… unless, of course, you totally thought it was possible to teach a piece of bacon how to play percussion.

Toss in a two-player co-op mode and the option to share your creations via Xbox One’s streaming services, and Harmonix’s latest promises to move players – both literally and figuratively – like no music game before it. “Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved” comes to Xbox One and Xbox 360 on Oct. 21, 2014.