Release Date: June 3, 2008
It's no secret to anyone that video games based on movies have had a checkered past, to put it politely. For every game that does justice to the intellectual property upon which it's based, there are dozens more that bear nothing more than a passing resemblance to the movie and insult the player with substandard game mechanics and design, low-quality graphics and voice-over work, and an overall lack of fun. Movies intended for a younger audience are particularly frequent offenders, with the developers often using it as an excuse to do a shoddy job in game design. Let's face it — young kids don't exactly have a lot of disposable income, so they can't vote with their empty wallets, and once they have a game, it's often too late to do anything about it. Kung Fu Panda is that rarest of movie-to-console crossbreeds: a game that not only transfers control of a beloved video game character into the hands of your kids, but actually does it well.
This is not to say that Kung Fu Panda is without its flaws. In particular, while the visual elements are usually fairly convincing with little to no clipping, there are a couple of points where I have to wonder if somebody just wasn't paying any attention to how the game looks. Specifically, the level in which Po is called upon to free four moonstones can often have the camera pushing up behind him in an awkward fashion, reducing him to a hollow, sketchy version. The first time the game did this, it made me jump a little bit; I assure you that your kids will be more than slightly creeped out at the sight of what their ursine hero looks like on the inside. The image at the end of the title also seem particularly slipshod; I could have churned out something like that in a day or two back on an old EGA monitor, the pixelization was so bad. Mercifully, those are the only two times that I could find anything visually wrong with Kung Fu Panda. Otherwise, backgrounds are well-formulated and often provide the necessary visual cues to get from one area to another, the player's character is never too small or overwhelmingly huge no matter what the perspective, and the quick time events feature particularly good animation.
The sound is another area where Kung Fu Panda comes out just a little bit scuffed. I was hard-pressed to find any point where the characters didn't come with appropriate sound; if you've seen the movie, you'll find very little to complain about with the voice-overs, to such a degree that I'm fairly sure that Jack Black must have been hired to do the narration between game levels. Fighting comes with satisfying sounds of impact as your foes are sent flying, and the different moves are easily distinguishable just by listening. There are only two little quirks to complain about here: one is that Po feels obligated to make a sound every time he jumps, and in a platforming title, that sound can get old in a hurry. The other may be more of a hardware quirk than anything else, but there were a couple of occasions in which the narration between level played, but the voice-over failed to activate. While the explanation of the plotline is welcome, it's just not the same without the narrator's voice to put emphasis on the proper words.
The design for Kung Fu Panda is surprisingly good, especially for a game aimed at a younger audience. Players never spend too terribly long on one level and always move on to the next scenario before the background gets too old, although the dedicated (or compulsive) player can easily spend a fair bit of time trying to catch all of the collectibles and score 100% on any given level. The presence of coins — and the ability to essentially use them as experience points to upgrade Po's capabilities at any time — is a welcome addition, with everything from individual moves to overall statistics purchasable at scaling costs to keep the player from getting an all-powerful character too early in the game, while still continuing to reward attentive collection.
Learning new moves is fairly simple and well-explained, and none of them are too difficult to get down pat after a few attempts, although players will often find themselves spamming the fast attack to blow through enemies, especially after taking the opportunity to boost that particular move's power. One minor gripe in this capacity is the presence of quick time events, a selection of points in the game where the Wiimote must be shaken in one or two directions rather quickly. The game's difficulty suddenly spikes at these points, and while an increase in difficulty is welcome in an otherwise simple title, abrupt increases like this usually come across as more irritating than fun.
I was able to complete Kung Fu Panda without using about half of the arsenal that was available, but the knowledge that it was there — that there was more to the game to explore if I felt like doing so — was a welcome reminder of the title's staying value. The presence of "rare coins," collectible items that are scattered throughout the game and unlock multiplayer maps and montages of various characters' scenes from the movie provide additional depth and really drive home the fact that you won't be disappointed if you shell out for this title. Older gamers who have more experience in platforming titles can blast through this one in about five hours, but the younger set will have a lot of fun exploring the world that XPEC has created, and they'll be inclined to play again and again to find that last little bit of treasure, save that last villager, or find that last hidden vase. And so, a new generation of gamers is born.
Kung Fu Panda can be summed up as a game that doesn't do anything perfectly, but does everything pretty well. In a field dominated by embarrassing shovelware that any parent would (or at least should) be ashamed to give their child, this title really stands out as a fine example of what can be done if a little time and effort is applied. Even if you don't purchase it, Kung Fu Panda is definitely a game to rent twice, and it'll be a very smart buy once the price point dips into the $30 range. Fists of fury, indeed!
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