In February of last year, the wacky folks at Double Fine surprised Xbox 360 owners with the release of Double Fine Happy Action Theater on XBLA. More of an activity than a game, Happy Action Theater was surprisingly addicting. It stood out from traditional games because it didn't have a specific goal. Rather, it was designed simply to provide a sandbox to play in — one that appealed to both kids and adults. Kinect Party (AKA Happy Action Theater 2.0) debuted on XBLA last month, offering up a bigger and better virtual sandbox.
Most Xbox 360 owners managed to get Kinect Party for free as part of Microsoft's holiday promotion. If you didn't happen to get a free copy, you might be wondering if Kinect Party is worth the 800 MSP ($10 USD) asking price. It is.
The draw in Kinect Party is the same as it was in Happy Action Theater. You start the game, let the activities cycle up on the screen and mess around in the augmented reality environment. All 18 of the original activities are here, along with 17 new ones to keep you busy. The advertising copy promises "36 channels," which is technically true, though the last one is merely an animated version of the credits. Calling that an activity is stretching it.
On the creativity scale, the new activities are just as much fun as what came before. Among other things, players will find themselves cast as a magical fairy in an enchanted forest, digging for pirate treasure on the beach, getting zapped by lightning (and turning into a skeleton) during a storm and starring in a dubstep music video. The multi-exposure photo activity from Happy Action Theater is joined by a similar activity that allows you to create multi-exposure videos. Now, instead of just standing next to yourself, you can dance or fight with your clone.
If it were just an additional set of activities, Kinect Party would still be worth checking out, but the updated game engine also addresses a major complaint we had with Happy Action Theater. You now have the ability to take (and save) photos during the game. The saving is done via Facebook, which isn't ideal (something less intrusive, such as SkyDrive integration, would have been preferred), but at least the ability is there. Now parents can share the cute snaps of their kids, and adults have perfect blackmail material when their friends play Kinect Party whilst hammered.
Also new to Kinect Party is full voice integration. Controller navigation is still present, but it is now possible to navigate the UI via voice commands. This includes switching activities as well as taking photos. The voice commands are simple enough for young kids to learn, which means they can quickly bring up their favorites without ever having to press a button.
Because Kinect Party includes everything in Happy Action Theater, the original game is no longer available for purchase on XBLA. Players who own it can download the Kinect Party engine for free and immediately have access to the Happy Action Theater activities. Since they already own the old content, Happy Action Theater owners can purchase a half-price unlock for Kinect Party. This way, you're not forced to pay for the same content twice.
With seamless support for up to six simultaneous players, Kinect Party makes for a great party game. You can turn on the Xbox 360, start the game and let people wander up to play. When someone's finished, he or she just walks away. There's no need to log in or log out. There are no start buttons to press and no tutorials to learn. It's just pure play.
It may not be a traditional game experience, but that doesn't mean Kinect Party is boring. On the contrary, whether you're five or 50, messing around in Kinect Party is an enjoyably amusing time-waster.
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