They were kung fu fighting...
Watching any kind of martial arts, demonstrated by practiced, dedicated masters, allows a viewer a glimpse of (beware, clichéd phrase following) “poetry in motion.” Though portrayed less gracefully, and more action-sound infused with amazingly-butchered dubbing, American cinema has found a special place for kung fu in pop culture. DreamWorks Animation has created its own take on the genre, translating the various animal inspired styles of kung fu into the actions of the creatures themselves. Of course, with a child-friendly summer flick comes the inevitable licensed game, but this time around, kung fu, Panda style, doesn't look (or play) nearly as slow or uncoordinated as it sounds.
They were kung fu fighting...as a panda bear...
Handled by the same developer which produced Vigilante 8 for the Nintendo 64, Luxoflux Corp. has been in charge of Kung Fu Panda: The Game for the PS3 and Xbox 360. For those who can't get enough of the Panda infused wushu awesomeness, look no further. Forget any kind of licensed-games bashing we've spewed in the past—but only for a split second, because what we have here is a bit atypical—because Kung Fu Panda shows what it means to take a film property and turn it into a proper, playable, coherent game.
Appealing mostly for a younger crowd, Kung Fu Panda follows Po's (the black and white bear of the title) journey to becoming the Dragon Warrior. What starts off as a simple adventure to watch his favorite kung fu masters, the Furious Five, in action, develops into a complete story where it's up to Po and the Five to defeat the recently-escaped-from-prison Tai Lung. Whether it be by deception or pure execution, Kung Fu Panda makes it feel like there is actually a story in a licensed game for once. Everything is included: cutscenes, narration, conflict, fun dialogue and character development. Essentially, you could have missed the film completely, but if you play through the game, you would know the story and get to experience some extraneous adventures. The developers haven't sacrificed resolution for the sake of spoilers, and we thank them for it.
No Jables, but it'll do...
But for a game, a story has be told in a compelling manner, and luckily such is the case here. Between each mission a Jack Black soundalike will give you an quick overview of what's going on, where you're going and how awesomely awesome things are. Moreover, as you play through the levels you'll activate short cutscenes, and although they break the flow of the action, there's emotion in the expressions characters that play out well as the fully animated activities unfold.
However, more often than not, we find ourselves discounting licensed games as they fail to utilize the full extent of the properties they represent. Usually, such a case includes a failure to attract the original acting talent of a film. Kung Fu Panda, unfortunately, befalls the same fate. While James Hong reprises his role as Mr. Ping, Jack Black is missing for Po's voice, as well as the various other character's actors. On the other hand, the person who takes on the voice of the Panda does do a stellar job in mimicking Black, making it hard to distinguish if the other half of Tenacious D is in fact absent. Similarly well done is the rest of the accompanying voice talent who act as competent substitutions for the film's cast.
The game does miss the mark on several other bits of audio work as well. For the most part, the soundtrack is fitting with thumping drums and woodwind melodies, but they're limited. A recycled musical beat loses its power after awhile. Though, repeating musical follies aren't the game's biggest aural concern, as equally limited character war cries and reactions become painfully annoying in certain parts throughout the experience.
Unfortunately, you can't pet your TV...
Some surprisingly-impressive visuals make up for the audio miscues, however. Although the game doesn't set any benchmarks for graphical quality, there is a lot of detail not only in the characters, but the environments as well; they will definitely impress any child.
Perhaps one of the most important details in making animals look like animals, is giving them believable attributes. All of the characters have a wonderful, authentic feel to them with great fur textures, unique appearances and fighting styles. Whether you're playing as Master Shifu, Monkey or Po, you'll notice their differences, not only in the way they move or the attacks they perform, but in the way they look as well. Also convincing are the levels you play through: water ripples and reacts as it should to displacement, moon reflections bounce off of coins, and Po's belly bounces around.
There's also not much to find technically wrong with the game. There are a few instances where the frame rate might drop, and the short draw distance might result in textures popping in while boating down a river, but when there is lively commotion and activity going on in the backgrounds, it's hard to nitpick too much.
Kick, punch, block, it's all in the mind (and gameplay)...
Again, Kung Fu Panda won't be one of those must-haves for more mature gamers, but its simplified gameplay makes it a perfect title for younger players who might be tired of the over-commitment to casual style games. Luxoflux has done a great job melding action adventure with easy platforming. For the older player, even playing on Hard won't require you putting in more than four or five hours to beat the game and unlock everything, but there are a few challenges which might take you a couple of tries.
Thankfully, the platforming simplicity is masked by levels which don't feel entirely linear as you fight your way through them. Also, quick-time, button-coordinated events pop up throughout the game as well, but instead of simple one-off mashing, there are two or three-button sequences to match in-time. If you do mess up, you'll have to restart the sequence. It may be a bit bothersome to have to redo a string if you miss a single button, but there's not much consequence for failure as save points are plentiful and forgiving.
In order to beat each level you'll not only have to complete tasks, but you'll have to find easy-to-spot rare coins or figurines which open up a fair amount of unlockables, including: montages, concept art and multiplayer levels (we'll get to that in a bit). However, if you want to collect additional coins, get a 100% completion on any level, or want to go back to a specific level to replay on a harder setting, there's an easy mission selection screen which tells you the number of hidden objects and percent complete for each. It's always welcomed to be able to chose missions to replay, especially when coins are sparse, and you want to purchase additional outfits or upgrade your moves-list.
Mario might be proud, but, then again, he just open a can instead...
As was mentioned before, there is a multiplayer component to the game as well. While a good portion of the offerings will have to be unlocked through finding hidden objects in the single player story, this isn't a game where you're going to need to play with friends right after ripping off the cellophane. With that said, again, we were a bit surprised at what has been implemented for a licensed game. Instead of the normal afterthought multiplayer, there are several ways to play with up to three other friends locally (only): brawl matches, team brawling, fireworks target practice, Go (a Chinese strategy game), Mah Jong, a memory derivative, and objective-based brawls. All of the different games employ the use of eight different characters (also unlocked through single play), and although it's no Smash Brother's Brawl, with a solid amount of choice in gametypes, the multiplayer aspect is a fun distraction, and adds some additional playtime to an otherwise short experience; online play would have rocketed the game into another level, however.
The PS3 version needed to meditate a little longer...
While there isn't a big gap between the two powerhouse version of the games, there are still some nagging differences. On the graphics side, the bloom filter throughout seems to fade out some of the color in the brighter environments, while objects overall appear to have slightly more pronounced, hard edges. Controls don't differ much from the 360 counterpart; the DualShock 3 allows for rumble, but you also have the option of using SIXAXIS controls for guiding Po during the Panda Stumble move, which works almost as effectively as the joystick—you just look sillier while violently tilting the controller left and right, so you might just settle for the thumbsticks.
The biggest discrepancy between the two versions, however, is with the Achievements. While superfluous, the Microsoft point system gives the game more life as it will probably require multiple times playing through the game to unlock all of the Achievements—making it through the game without getting hit included. Otherwise, with easily-collected secrets, once you've got 100% on everything, there won't be much cause to replay the game. Also, without any sort of required install on the hard drive, the game chugs a bit more noticeably, more often.
Rent or buy, but it's worth a play...
A simple, fun and well designed game, Kung Fu Panda doesn't offer the deepest narrative or most though-provoking gameplay for the more mature audiences; it's more of a guilty pleasure. Though, for the young gamer, it's perfect, and at $10 less than other, even worse, PS3 titles, it's hard to argue with competent level direction and a pretty good multiplayer component. Though, if you're trying to decide on which version to pick up (PS3 or 360), you might want to stick with the Xbox option for sake of better technical gameplay and Achievements--if you really, really want to add to your Gamerscore and play it more than once.
+ A whole story, not bits and pieces
+ Looks good with furry characters
+ Classic-style multiplayer
Oh, hell no:
- Pretty easy for the older players, with little-to-no incentive to replay
- Where's Jack Black?
- Having to unlock multiplayer games