Though video games have encouraged players to get up in front of their televisions and dance for many years now, the arrival of the Kinect heralds a new controller-free era of movement. And while DanceMasters (titled DanceEvolution in the UK) doesn't quite take full advantage of the Kinect's full-body tracking capabilities, it does offer plenty of opportunities to dance up a storm in your living room. The game challenges you to match poses, movements, and hand positions while dancing to a variety of club, hip-hop, and pop songs. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much to help you learn the brisk routines, and this can leave you feeling like you're just flailing instead of actually dancing. The live video feature that projects your image onscreen among the back-up dancers is a novel source of amusement, but DanceMasters is better suited to dedicated move busters than casual two steppers.
DanceMasters may be all about dancing, but the way it tracks your movements is more video game than dance class. As the main dancer performs onscreen, you are meant to mimic his or her motions. However, the game only scores you in relation to the large visual cues onscreen. These include target circles for your hands, green splashes for your footsteps, sweeping arcs that you must trace, and silhouette poses that you must match. These cues appear shortly before you have to match them, which gives you just enough time to get into place. There is a thorough tutorial that familiarizes you with all the possible visual cues, but this is the only teaching tool you will find in DanceMasters. The first time you perform a routine, you're usually shuffling along and flinging your body into place to match the cues as they appear. Repeat performances make it easier to keep up, and soon enough, you may find yourself dancing confidently and having a good time.
Though repeating songs will likely improve your skills, it would have been nice to have some help along the way. Many of the routines are full of quick turns and brisk movements, so less-agile players may have a tough time keeping up. More skilled dancers can bump the difficulty level up, but this only increases the speed and frequency of the visual cues; the dance routines remain the same. Though the dancers are very well animated and some of the moves look really cool, the character models aren't very large relative to the backgrounds, and they sometimes struggle to stand out from the scenery. It also doesn't help that the DanceMasters' tracklist is full of songs that most folks have probably never heard of or danced to before (including artists such as D-crew and Naoki Maeda, a producer on the Dance Dance Revolution series). Some songs provide catchy dance beats, while other tend to grate on the ears, but overall, the setlist does a fair job of providing a variety of dance experiences within its self-designated pop, club, para para, old-school, and R&B/hip-hop genres.
The challenging routines and lack of instructive tools make DanceMasters better suited to skilled dancers than novices, but there is one novel feature that everyone can enjoy (or turn off). Using the Kinect's camera, DanceMasters can capture and project your image on the screen so you see yourself dancing among the back-up dancers. It's not a very high-resolution image, but watching your moves appear on the TV has a lot of goofy appeal. You can choose from a number of silly masks to stick on your face and can even save videos of yourself so that the next time you perform that song, your saved video will show you as yet another back-up dancer. You can save two recordings per song, combining with your live video to put three versions of you on screen at one time. Layering your performances is very cool, and though the opportunities for humor are fun to explore, seeing your previous performances can also help you get better at performing a given routine.
DanceMasters also has online multiplayer that ostensibly lets you share the dance floor with up to three other players online, but we weren't able to find a match after days of trying. You can get a friend to dance alongside you, providing you have ample living room space, and this kind of performance game is always more fun with other players. DanceMasters isn't the most welcoming dance game out there, and it certainly doesn't have the best soundtrack, but many of the complex dance routines are pretty impressive. If you have the patience and skill to learn them, you'll be rewarded with a sweaty sense of satisfaction. If you aren't so dedicated, then you'll probably tire of the game shortly after the novelty of the live action camera wears off. Though there are better video game dance opportunities available, heading out onto the floor with DanceMasters is still good for a few kicks.