The way to play is the same as ever: hold the Joy-Con in your hands, and follow the on-screen directions to replicate the neon-coloured dancers as best you can. Various modes allow for co-operative and competitive play, worldwide tournaments, and even (not very trustworthy) calorie-counting in the slightly grossly-named “Sweat Mode”.
The main mode, aptly named “Just Dance”, offers new tracks to shift your limbs to, each with a brand-new dance and corresponding visuals. Though this is the same gameplay we’ve been given by Ubisoft since Just Dance’s debut 11 long years ago, it’s as fun now as it was then. The new dances are funky and stylish, yet simple enough to follow, relying largely on the arm and hand movements that can be detected by the controllers – legs are fully optional here – and although it’s easy to fake, you’re only letting yourself down by not committing wholeheartedly. The new costumes and backgrounds range from entertaining to slightly cringey when it comes to some of the “cooler” songs, like Billie Eilish and basically any rap, and although there’s a tendency to rely on cartoonish ethnic stereotypes, that’s hardly new for the Just Dance series.
Features like Quick Play and Shuffle Play make it easy to jump right into dancing and to entertain groups who aren’t picky about song choice or carefully curated playlists. World Dance Floor – a 3-song competitive tournament that matches you with players of a similar level – is Ubisoft’s concession towards pandemic-afflicted households that can’t partake in the co-op, and is a great way to spend 10 minutes if you fancy losing to twenty people with long Gamertags who’ve mastered every single dance. There’s even the option to play with your phone as a controller instead of Joy-Con, which works remarkably well, even if most modern phones are slightly too big to comfortably hold while dancing (and there’s always the danger that you’ll fling it halfway across the room during an overzealous arm movement).
Kids Mode is a little disappointing. Aimed, presumably, at the under-10s, it offers a dumbed-down version of the main Just Dance mode, with the “OK-Good-Super-Perfect” metric being changed to a confusing “Haha-Wow-Yay” one. The songs are either easy wins for parents – ‘Baby Shark’ and ‘Into The Unknown’ will definitely be on repeat – or uninspired duds like ‘Let’s Save Our Planet’ and ‘Space Cat’. Kids Mode has the vibe of those YouTube channels where Elsa goes to the dentist and everyone loves making slime: entertaining enough, but not nearly as good as the stuff for adults.
Playing the game and accomplishing achievements, which come thick and fast, will net you “Mojo”, the in-game currency used to buy capsules from the gachapon Gift Machine. These unlockables include new avatars, new frames for the avatars, and new “aliases”, which is an Animal Crossing-style title that will be displayed next to your avatar. Mojo and the Gift Machine are presumably ways to keep players playing, but it’s not much of a reward, and the randomness of the gacha mechanic makes it largely meaningless, anyway.
It’s a shame that new songs aren’t part of the unlockable system. Just Dance 2021 is really built for people who intend to purchase the Just Dance Unlimited subscription – an extra cost on top of the full price of the game, although a 30-day free trial is available. The base game comes with just 41 new songs, mostly from 2019 and 2020, including Lizzo, The Weeknd, and even a little bit of K-pop with TWICE and NCT 127. Another 600 songs can only be accessed through the subscription, and even then, you won’t own them – they’re streamed to the console. The internet connection requirements work pretty well, for the most part, and although songs streamed from the Just Dance Unlimited selection often begin with low-resolution visuals, the sound and rhythm don’t seem to have any issues.
Playing the game without the subscription feels like a long advert that you’re paying for. The recommended songs will include ones only available in Unlimited. An actual video advert for Unlimited will occasionally play. The 41 songs actually included with the game are hit-and-miss, ranging from well-known chart hits like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s ‘Rain On Me’ to relative unknowns, and covers of songs like Britney Spears’ ‘Till The World Ends’ stand out by being not quite the versions you know and love. With such a small roster of new music, it’s sad to see so few bangers, but the whole point is that the best songs are hidden behind a paywall.
Then again, that’s not exactly new for the series. Just Dance might be a cash-grab, but it’s still an entertaining one – and one that can make you work up a sweat for the first time since quarantine started. If you’re not averse to dropping around 80 quid for both the base game and a year’s subscription – or less if you know you’ll only play it for three months – then there’s plenty in the game’s hundreds-strong catalogue to keep you moving, even if there’s a surprisingly high amount of chaff in there.
Is anyone expecting Just Dance to be revolutionary? Is anyone surprised by the reveal that most of the content is locked behind in-game purchases? Probably not – but that doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing, anyway.
Just Dance 2021 fails to ever feel like a fully fleshed-out game, especially for the £50 price tag. Although the new tracks and the World Dance Floor mode are fun enough, it’s hard to justify spending so much on a game that adds so little, and expects you to purchase more with thinly-veiled in-game advertising and upselling. If you love the series then you’ll be investing no matter what we say, but we can’t help but feel that Just Dance as a franchise has been resting on its laurels for far too long now.
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