Since its inception, the rhythm and dance genre, with its simple mechanics and its playful, cartoony characters, has catered to casual gamers. Tecmo's entry into the field of rhythm and dance, Unison, follows these conventions, laid down by the likes of PaRappa the Rapper and Space Channel 5. Unfortunately the results are not as impressive as either of those games.
The story of Unison plays out like Footloose meets Charlie's Angels, with just a dash of Powerpuff Girls thrown in for good measure. The evil dictator Ducker has outlawed dancing in the futuristic city of Twin Ships. The flamboyant Dr. Dance has taken it upon himself to show the people of Twin Ships just what they're missing out on, so he recruits three spunky young girls, Chilly, Cela, and Trill, to help him hijack Ducker's television broadcasts and put on dance routines for the people. Along the way we meet Y'know and Like, Ducker's henchmen; June Baby, the prima donna diva; and other quirky characters. The story helps establish the game's cartoon-inspired flavor, with a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes and cartoony sight gags.
The kitschy story and anime-inspired characters are a great setup for a game, but, unfortunately, this is the area where Unison is most lacking. As with any rhythm game, Unison has you making controller movements in time with music. Using both analog sticks, you'll dance by moving them up, down, left, and right according to preset cues in the songs. The gameplay comes in three waves, the first two taking place in Dr. Dance's studio, where you can watch Dr. Dance do the routine and practice the routine yourself. The third round takes place on stage and is the only round where you're scored for your dancing skills; the more accurate your moves, the more the crowd will love you, and the higher your score will be. In all three rounds, you're assisted by two circles with centered cursors that represent your analog sticks, which give you a point of reference for what moves you should be doing. The problem with this system is the lack of depth: While the game gets difficult, it lacks variety, and ultimately every round comes down to memorizing moves to get the highest score.
The graphics in Unison are appropriately frivolous, generally very solid, and are reminiscent of the Bust-A-Groove series. The character animation is generally good, and the game features some quality motion capture. There is also a massive amount of clean real-time cinematics, and the amount of detail in the characters really shines through. Dr. Dance's quivering afro is one of the most striking effects and will surely cause you to laugh out loud at least once.
If there's one area that Unison doesn't skimp on, it's the soundtrack, which can make or break a rhythm game. While the Japanese version of Unison had mostly the sort of bubbly, generic J-pop that you'd expect, here in the states we're treated to a diverse soundtrack featuring a strange assortment of licensed music. Included are disco classics like "YMCA" and "We Are Family," hip-hop favorites like "O.P.P." by Naughty by Nature and "Country Grammar" by Nelly, plus "Stop the Rock" by the reliably rock-oriented techno outfit Apollo 440. On their own, the songs work, but when put in the context of the game and each other, they seem rather out of place and mismatched. Aside from the music, Unison has some great voice acting, with the narrator's voice being most noteworthy, as it adds to the Saturday morning feel of the game.
The fatal flaw in Unison is the unforgivably shallow gameplay. All of the other elements are there: a fun cookie-cutter story, cheery characters, and a bouncy, eclectic soundtrack. The only element this game is missing is, well, the game.