Not So Funky-Fresh
Maximum Family Games’ and Lightning Fish’s Kinect-based dance simulator, Let’s Dance, doesn’t really attempt to break any new ground in the quickly-saturated market of personal fitness trainers and groove-a-thon dance hall emulators. This genre already boasts at least a dozen Kinect entries, from Michael Jackson to Black Eyed Peas to several Dance Central and Just Dance variations. To be completely honest, there is only so much room for innovation when the basic idea is to move your body in response to on-screen cues.
Sadly, even with a mindset excusing a potential copycat of what we’ve seen in the past, one can’t help but feel that something’s missing from Let’s Dance; something tangible and ultimately important, lest the whole experience collapse in on itself like a house of dance choreography cards.
Let’s Dance is hosted by pop diva, Spice Girls’ Mel B, a.k.a. Scary Spice. (This is, in fact, also Mel B’s second time hosting a Kinect game, and both for Lightning Fish, no less!) Nothing against that; Mel announces her heart out as you peruse the options menus, and provides words of encouragement when you finally take to the dance floor. In fact, during certain songs, Mel will even be your dance guide, performing the moves for you to follow. It was actually rather nice to see an actual face, albeit digitized, walk me through the game’s front-end, and give me feedback after each performance, rather than a disembodied voice. And perhaps Mel works as a choice for this game, as the setlist is a trek through the last two-and-some-odd decades; modern acts like Rihanna and Lady Gaga share the stage with ’90s bigs like Chumbawumba and Fatboy Slim, and timeless classics like Rose Royce and Culture Club. Of course, the Spice Girls make an appearance as well.
The true problem with the game came after starting a song, I was able to score a few points for waving my arms in an approximation of what was on-screen, jiggled my bottom to and fro a few times (there’s a mental image/night terror for ya!), and shortly realizing that I simply couldn’t keep up with a song I didn’t know how to dance. Well, to be fair, the actual perplexing moment occurred after the song ended, when I started looking for the tutorial mode that would walk me through each step and move of the song, challenging me to “put it all together” in the end. You guessed it: there was none! In fact, the only way to do well in a song is to know it blindly. And the only way to learn the choreography is to practice it as you perform it – at full speed, with no breaks or ability to repeat certain sections, lest you want to back out to a menu and start the song over.
So exactly how many ego-grinding go-arounds of the same song does it take to learn it forward and backward? I don’t know, and I doubt anyone who doesn’t already know the steps or is the kinesthetic equivalent of a rocket scientist would be willing to find out either. Simply put, being forced to endure soul-crushing humiliation as you watch your mirror image projected alongside the other dancers is just not the way anyone learns. And while you might think that it’s not so bad if you learn while you’re on your own, think again: the Kinect will place your likeness on the screen in living color (which would normally be a plus), making sure you don’t miss a single bite of your slice of humble pie.
Eight’s a Crowd, Apparently
Although no one but those truly gifted in dance need apply, the designers did include at least a few options to make up for the missing practice mode. A party mode for up to eight players in two teams is included for any well-attended get-togethers, and the track select screen – which boasts a total of 28 songs to move to – includes an option to play either the whole song or a shorter segment. While that feature is welcome for shorter bursts of competition, Pause or Restart buttons would have served a better use. You can also take on an endurance mode (alone or with others) to see who can hit the marks in each song the longest.
Whereas some Kinect games are a bit too liberal with the sensor’s on-screen icon movement speed, making it hard to efficiently zero in on targets, Let’s Dance leans a bit too much in the opposite direction; I found the game’s response time to my movements, both during dances and while in menus, to be generally too slow, causing my on-screen self to lag behind the other dancers unless I sped up and got out of sync with them. A touch of recalibration to address the time lag would have helped matters, or else an on-screen indicator to prepare you for upcoming steps ahead of time. A visual indicator in the form of pictogram icons is provided, but the same problem persists that, if you don’t know the dance steps, the only way to do them is to watch the on-screen dancers. No charts or icons can prepare you for executing and stringing several dance moves together into a cohesive flow of bodily expression.
The Final Verdict
I’m not mad at Lightning Fish for throwing their hat into a crowded ring. If you like dancing games, you’re gonna want new games with different songs to dance to! I’m not even mad to see Mel B pimping a dance game – apart from the fact that she’s a bit inconsistent (she praised my snapshot moments only to then rip me a new one and give me an F for the same song!), I like having a human guide in the game. But I have to fault the developers for failing to do their due diligence and not including a practice mode or dance tutorial, anything to help players improve instead of just critiquing their sloppy-drunk moves. This makes Let’s Dance a game that’s better passed up, and proof positive that it isn’t just about the track listing you bring to the table.