The protest song comes in many forms, from the pacifistic acoustic folk-rock of Bob Dylan to the raw electric aggression of Rage Against the Machine. Music has always had the power to subvert, and when combined with politically charged lyrics and passionate performers, it becomes a natural catalyst for rebellion.
Rebellion is what Unison is all about—at least ostensibly. The rebels are a three-girl dance troupe that is trying to bring back the groove to a despotic city where all forms of dancing have been outlawed. In order to win back the right to dance, the group must "air-jack" the local television stations and broadcast a live concert of themselves to convince as many people as possible of the fun of dancing. Unfortunately, this intriguing idea is diluted by a weak song selection and a flighty, erratic plot that seems at times to be trying just a little too hard to be eccentric.
Like the PaRappa The Rapper series, Unison has a host of strange characters and out-of-nowhere dialogue. Although set 200 years in the future, the game's attitude and visual presentation depicts the disco era of the 1970s; the girls wear outlandish club-clothes and huge platform boots, and their mentor Dr. Dance sports a gigantic balloon-like afro haircut. While I wouldn't go as far as to call the girls ditzy, more often than not they don't seem to really grasp the importance of what they are doing. When sneaking into a television studio to air-jack it—and facing imprisonment if discovered—one of the girls inexplicably starts flying around flapping her arms and making airplane engine noises. And these girls are supposed to be the leaders of a political movement?
Unison has 12 songs in total, all of which need to be unlocked by completing certain requirements in the story mode before becoming available for free-play. However, when I said that the game had 12 songs, this is not entirely accurate since a few of those are actually medleys of previously completed songs that have been rather poorly spliced together. The songs are light and apolitical (Aqua, Nelly and KC & the Sunshine Band are among the artists), which reinforces the mixed messages that the game sends out. These tunes are music to dance to, and nothing more. That being established, let me set my gripes with the plot aside and examine Unison's musical stages.
Generally, music games present songs in some sort of visual format. Symbols scroll past on the screen, which represent a musical line that must be accurately reconstructed by pressing the corresponding buttons on the controller. Unison treats the music-making process a little differently, in that the performance (in other words, how the player manipulates the controller) has to be memorized like a real dance routine would. Each stage is divided into the rehearsal phase and the performance phase. During the rehearsal phase, Dr. Dance outlines the moves for the song, which the dancer must then mimic. When the dancer is able to dance back a certain percentage of the routine accurately, the game moves on to the "broadcast" stage, which is the actual live performance where the dance must be performed from memory.
The process of memorization is not as daunting as it seems at first, seeing as the only parts of the controller in use during the game are the two analog sticks in patterns of left, right, up or down. Each of the three girls represents a different level of difficulty, which comes in the form of more complex and intricate patterns. While the choice of three girls theoretically offers at least three complete play-throughs of the game, in practice actually having the patience to slog through the game three times is unlikely. Memorization forces the gamer to replay the same small segment of the song over and over again, which is, to put it bluntly, boring.
Unison is also "missing" several other things that we have come to expect of the very best music games. To me, the whole point of a music game is to make the gamer feel like a part of the music creation process. Unison does not do this. Instead of making the analog sticks corresponding with the movements of the dancer's feet or arms, the dancer simply does her own thing while the patterns given for the controller to follow vaguely outline the rhythmic motifs of the music. If a mistake is made while trying to follow the pattern, absolutely nothing happens except that a small "Miss" appears on the screen. The dancer keeps going, oblivious to any wrongdoing, unlike for example the dance game Bust-A-Groove where the dancers would stumble and curse if the player did something wrong.
One of Unison's selling points according to the back of the case is that it is a "perfect party game." While it does offer a multi-tap option for up to 3 players, which is an unusual and attractive feature, I find it hard to believe that Unison could ever be the life of a party, due to its forced memorization. When people are trying to have a good time, they the last thing they want is to be forced to memorize information by rote as if it were a multiplication table from grade school math class.
There's no denying that the game is a pretty package, with an almost overwhelming amount of psychedelic visual stimulation. The girls fit the part of the charming Japanese Idoru, right down to the fact that everything about the group, from their identically matching outfits to their dance routines and song selection, is created and controlled by Dr. Dance. Yet obviously image isn't everything, especially in a game where so many other things are underdeveloped.
Alluring pop divaspolitical rebelsmusical party game…Unison spreads itself too thin trying to satisfy all of these criteria, and ultimately comes up short everywhere.