I was given a review copy of “Dance Praise 2″, produced by Digital Praise, which is a “Dance Dance Revolution” (DDR) type game for the PC or Mac that uses recent music from Christian artists. While I’ve played a bit of DDR with my kids, the kids are definitely the experts in this field, so a bit of this review comes from them. Additionally, computers are my biz, so I’ll hit some of the technical details of the software.

Short take: This is a great game to get your video gamers off the couch and having fun while getting in some good exercise (especially at Expert level). It’s a bit easier overall that the DDR games I’ve played and seen, but there are definitely challenges for even your most experienced stepper. The music is all recent Christian music, so you don’t have to worry about the song selection (and it’s high quality music, to boot). If you’re already a DDR player, there are a few differences that will take a little getting used to, but they’re not show stoppers. You can get the whole family involved — individually or head-to-head — and there are some great variations on the usual game play. Recommended.

Now, for the details.

Installation

I installed this on a laptop running Windows XP, so I can’t speak to the Mac installation. The installation itself is rather simple; agree to the typical license, pick a directory to install into, and off it goes.

A few words on my choice of hardware; a laptop. DP2 is a computer game (supports Windows Vista/XP/2000 or Mac OS X v10.2 and later), and does not run on any game console. However, while computer screens are getting bigger, most folks don’t have one the size of their TV (because they are getting bigger, too). A smaller screen is harder to see, and especially if you hook up the maximum 4 dance pads it would be tough for all to get a good view of it. In my experience and based on what I’ve seen, the family computer is typically in the bedroom, office, or other place not really conducive to this kind of game. You need lots of floor space and a big screen.

The laptop deals with these issue. It’s portable, which doesn’t restrict you to where you can play this, and, like many laptops these days, has an S-Video Out jack that, directly or via an adapter cable, plugs into the TV. Problems solved. Your situation may well differ and you may have a computer and location that works just fine, but if you don’t there are ways to solve them.

Game Play

If you’ve not been in an arcade in a decade, “Dance Dance Revolution” is the most popular game in this genre. Basically, as the music is playing, arrows (up, down, left and right) move down the screen and when they reach a certain position, you step on that part of your dance pad, which has corresponding arrows. When you have two arrows at the same time, you jump and hit them both. If there’s a bar attached to the arrow, you hold your foot down on that arrow until the end of the bar, then take it off. The arrows are typically choreographed to the words and/or music you’re listening to (thought DP2 allows a Computer-generated choreography option), so you step out a preset dance to the music. OK, the term “dance” isn’t entirely accurate, since if you did these moves at an actual dance party, you’d get some seriously funny looks. Nonetheless, there’s timing and a sense of musicality involved, and it exercises that all-important foot-eye coordination. >grin< (Hey, you need that for driving, right?)

Music

Of course, this is the area where DP2 stakes out its territory; the use of popular Christian music. If you want a preview of the music, the web page plays substantial clips of all the songs included with the game. The music runs the gamut from the slower (“Voice of Truth” by Atlanta’s own Casting Crowns), to the harder (“Love” by Day of Fire), to the very danceable (Stacie Orrico’s “Don’t Look At Me”), to a good assembly of pop and rock (tobyMac, Superchick, ZOEgirl, DC Talk, Eleventyseven, Caedmon’s Call, and on and on). The standard package comes with 52 songs. Glad to see my man Michael W. Smith made the cut.

Since one is dancing to a beat, the more prominent the beat, the better. Christian music, at least that played on most Christian music stations, is pretty sparse on actual dance music. Hence, most of the music is pop, rock, hip-hop, and the like, and while most do have an obvious beat to them, there are stretches where it’s not so obvious what the steps are synched to. For example, the aforementioned “Voice of Truth”, while a great song on its own, isn’t what one might consider (OK, it isn’t what anyone would consider) a dance tune. It’s basically a rock ballad, and often the dance steps are synched with the movement of the words than any easily discernable beat.

If you want a bigger selection, you can go to the web site to purchase expansion packs of songs and dances. Packs are by music genre, so you can pick pop & rock, alternative, hip-hop, worship songs and others. There is also an option to download some free songs and an update.

And what is Christian music without the message? There is an option (turned on by default) that displays the lines being sung. No worries here about what your kids are listening to. There’s also an option (again, on by default) that displays the CD cover that the current song is on. It’s a smart bit of product placement, but also allows you to support the artists if you like the one or two songs of their’s that you’re hearing.

Game Types

There is the usual dance mode, where the arrows fall and you hit ‘em all as they arrive at the bottom. When you’re selecting a song, you can instead tell it to choose a random song, play the songs in sequence, or a nifty idea called “Tune Into You”. That last mode starts with an easy song and slowly works up the difficulty. It then sets the difficulty level in your profile (discussed later) to what it believes will be a challenge for you. Starting with that is a good idea.

There is also an arcade mode, where some arrows are worth 2 or 3 times their normal value, and some actually deduct points, so you don’t want to hit them. Some arrows have bombs that clear the screen of any visible arrows, and some that throw a smoke cloud that obscures the bottom of the screen. Once you’re used to a song’s dance steps, this certainly throws a few curves at you. Additionally, though I was unable to try this, if you play arcade mode head-to-head, some arrows apply to your opponent, so you can toss a smoke bomb his way or perhaps give her big points.

There’s also a version of the venerable Tetris game called Dancetris, where you use the dance pad to move the falling blocks so that they fit together. Interestingly, this is where a forgiving dance pad can turn against you. When playing the dance game, if your pad registers a step when you’re close but not perfectly centered on the arrow, that’s good for you, since you’re keeping your eye on the screen, not the pad. However, in Dancetris, you may find yourself moving the blocks when you don’t intend to, or further than you intend to, and your “forgiving” pad becomes your enemy. This can be more challenging or frustrating, depending on how you look at it.

While you can get some good exercise in dance mode, DP2 also has 2 exercise modes. Time Exercise gets you moving for a certain amount of time, and Calorie Exercise lets you set a target number of (estimated) calories burned.

There is a Shadow Dance mode (no relation to Andy Gibb) where one player sets up dance steps for the other, but that is for head-to-head play, and I have but one dance pad.

Options and Profiles

The game has a place to save Profiles, so you can have things like difficulty level, scores, and even background graphics saved for you. When you come back to the game and select your Profile, you’re set to go; you don’t have to set your options from scratch. Scores are automatically saved with your profile, and you can keep track of personal best scores for all songs and all difficulty levels, and can compare to other players on your computer. So, for example, I can see that my oldest has a high score that is 4 times my personal best on the Expert level when dancing to “All About You” by Nate Sallie. (Hmm, something to shoot for.)

DDR Differences

As I said, my kids and I are DDR players, which is the definitive game in this genre. If you are one as well there is a small bit of an “unlearning” curve.

The DDR series of games has, generally, the same interface for choosing game types, songs, and such. Being used to that meant that we had to throw out our assumptions about how to do what we wanted to do. The DP2 interface is not difficult to understand, it’s just that it took a little getting used to for our DDR brains.

When the dance is going on, the arrows come down from the top of the screen, which is different than DDR’s default where the arrows come up from the bottom. DDR allow you to change the arrow direction, so this isn’t a difficulty issue or anything way out; it’s just the way that DP2 decided to do things. If we’d never seen DDR, I imagine it would feel natural, and indeed my kids mostly adjusted to it fine.

In both games, there are two types of steps; a normal step where you hit the arrow, and a hold where you hold your foot on the arrow until the end of the hold bar. In DDR, you just have to hit the arrow at the right time and hold for at least as long as the bar. In DP2, you must do that plus get off the arrow at the end of the bar to get credit for the step. That’s a little more difficult, actually, and it tripped up my DDR pros often. (The documentation mentions holds but doesn’t mention this release requirement.)

In DDR, when a step is on an off-beat (e.g. eighth notes), the off-beat arrows will be in a different color as a visual cue. DP2 doesn’t do this. If you follow the music, it’s often obvious when you’re doing off-beats, but when there’s a big gap and the next arrow is going to be on an off-beat, or if you’re doing Computer-generated choreography, it would be nice to have this cue.

On the easy level, when you stand there for 5 seconds or more waiting for the arrow to make it to the bottom of the screen, hitting that arrow long before it gets near the bottom counted as an early step for 0 points. On DDR, being too early never registers as a miss. The earliest that a step is recorded is the earliest that it can score points (And of course, you can be too late.) Hard to explain, but DDR players will know what I mean. What this means is that in DDR you’re not required to move back to the middle of the pad after every step, and this allows for better and faster stepping. The fact that this is most noticeable on the super easy difficulty could tend to make young or new gamers a little frustrated.

The harder levels are not quite as hard as DDR can get on “Heavy” mode. My kids were able to play through songs on Expert level from the get-go. Having said that, let me explain a few things. My kids have been DDR-ing for a year now, so they’ve got the skills and can sight-read a dance first time and do quite well. They’re light-years ahead of me (I don’t often venture away from “Light” mode on DDR, but have been known to handle “Standard” a few times), so they can hack it. On the other hand, the steps on DP2′s “Expert” level are indeed a slight bit easier than DDR’s “Heavy” mode. I can barely keep up with watching the DDR arrows fly by in that mode, so while DP2 is easier, it’s in the sense that Algebra is easier than Calculus. Both will challenge you if you’re new to math.

What’s also forgiving is DP2′s Power Bar, analogous to the one in DDR, which grows when you get steps right and shrinks on misses. When the Power Bar is empty, the dance is (optionally) over. Thing is, it takes a boatload of missed steps to empty the thing. When I tried a level 5 Expert dance, I managed (to my amazement) to finish it. Looking at the stats, though, I had more misses than Perfect and Great steps combined. DDR would never have let me get away with that. So again, DP2 is on the whole easier, but if your goal is to play the game and not always have to “beat” it, this is probably a good thing. My kids thought that made it too easy. I loved it.

Misc. Notes

I have a Red Octane Ignition dance pad for use with DDR on our PS2 console. It has a USB connector included so I tried using this with DP2. The pad was recognized by the PC and, initially, it seemed to be recognized by DP2. Hitting the X spot worked to dismiss the opening title screens, and when DP2 got to the screen where you tell it which pad is pad 1, pad 2, etc. it did notice that I had 2 pads attached (the one included with the game, and my Red Octane). However, when hitting the up arrow to register the Red Octane pad, the program didn’t respond, while it did for the official DP2 pad. A perusal of their web site’s list of Frequently Asked Questions pointed me to a utility to install that would support 3rd party USB pads. However, after installing it the program responded the same way to the Red Octane pad. Technical support was polite but said that they don’t provide assistance with 3rd party pads, which is understandable.

Overall

This is a great game for turning couch potatoes into exercise fans. This genre of game is one of the main reasons that, when we had to buy a new refrigerator, it had to have an in-the-door water dispenser. This Dad got tired of refilling the water tub after an afternoon of DDR, but I was happy that the kids were working up a healthy sweat (and drinking lots of water instead of soda). We had seriously considered getting the original Dance Praise, but, as I mentioned, the main reason we didn’t was because our computer situation wasn’t conducive to it. We bought DDR, and (now I know) I got very lucky with the play list. With Dance Praise 2, that concern about music is off the table, making it a game you can enjoy with the whole family, especially with the head-to-head and gaming modes.. It will both ease you into this genre of game, but also challenge you and keep you on your toes, so to speak, if you already have some experience with it. With all the variations and options, and the ability to add new songs with expansion packs, it won’t get dull. Recommended.

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