It used to be that licensed games were the bane of gamers. Once the mercury began to rise and the multiplex became dotted with a myriad of popcorn flicks, the companion software would follow suit, usually launching day and date of most high profile cinematic releases. And while you could often see every dollar spent up there on the silver screen, the accompanying game usually seemed like nothing more than a cash grab. Over the last few years, there has been a subtle shift to the norm, with some real surprises releasing alongside their celluloid sisters. Now, that’s not to say that all licensed games have taking a turn for the better, but titles like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Simpsons Game show there are diamonds in the rough out there. This summer, slicing his way through a crowded field of crouching tigers and hidden dragons comes the Kung Fu Panda.
Kung Fu Panda is the companion game to the Dreamworks Animation film of the same name. Dreamworks introduced the world to Shrek and over the last few years has been giving Pixar some healthy competition in the computer animated circuit with a hipper, more irreverent take on its subjects – through film’s such as Madagascar, Over the Hedge and Bee Movie. This summer, their big family flick is the Jack Black voiced Kung Fu Panda – a takeoff of those Hong Kong martial arts flicks usually found on midnight marquees.
Both the game and movie follow the tale of Po, a roly-poly Panda who is content with living out a lazy existence before being selected by fate to become the legendary Dragon Warrior when the evil Tai Lung threatens the safety of Po’s Valley of Peace. Po is then placed through the challenges of a traditional third person platformer as he engages in a series of trails aimed at whipping him into fighting shape.
While Panda features its share of platforming, there is also a robust fighting engine at work that nicely plays off the film’s martial arts theme. Through the course of Po’s travels, he will accumulate coins which can be used to purchase new abilities. These abilities include bonuses for his health and chi (magic) meters as well as increasing the strength of his various attacks and special moves. Players are able to choose where they would like to allocate the currency and thus build Po into a fighter that matches their particular styles.
Po will need to buff up considerably in his quest against Tai Lung. As Po journeys through the 13 levels that comprise the game’s main adventure, he will find himself under constant attack by all manner of war-faring wildlife including crocodile combatants and militant monkeys. Po has a large series of moves – his kung fu is certainly strong – and thus the player is tasked to brawl through the attacking crowds in order to continue further into the game. Most of these levels end with a boss battle that can sometimes employ puzzle elements that must be solved in order to uncover their weakness.
In each level, the player is normally tasked with navigating to the end. Throughout, NPCs will offer sub-quests that can provide additional currency as well as the key to unlocking the game’s Achievement Points – the majority of which are gained by completing the levels to 100% on the various difficulty settings. These can range from rescuing a certain number of hostages to protecting valuable treasures in a temple. While the bulk of the game is focus on action-oriented combat and platforming, there are occasional ‘vehicle’ based sequences (surfing a turtle, being carried by a crane) where the player must navigate environmental hazards while making their way to the next destination.
Through the course of the game, Po will encounter members of the Furious Five, an elite fighting squad charged with protecting the Valley. Each member of the Five (Mantis, Monkey, Tigress, Viper and Crane) felt their destiny was to become the Dragon Warrior however it is evident that Po is the true heir apparent as it doesn’t take long for the Furious Five to fall under Tai Lung’s capture. Po is then charged with liberating his heroes and fighting by their side.
At several times throughout the single player campaign, control will switch from Po to a member of the Five (or his master Shifu) and the player will engage in a timed button-press mini-game. These mini-games are similar to those found in games like God of War, where the player receives an onscreen button prompt and must execute it in quick fashion in order to dodge an attack or land a special move of their own. Essentially, they play as interactive cut-scenes. As the game progresses, the complexity of these events grows with the player confronting longer sequences of button presses that must be timed perfectly in order to progress.
The entire adventure will last players roughly 5 – 6 hours. Adding longevity to the game is a number of hidden Jade coins that are scattered through each level. Finding these will open up new features including additional multiplayer minigames, art galleries and alternate costumes.
Panda also features a well-stocked selection of multiplayer mini-games. The multiplayer is purely local, no online support included, and most of the games can be played by anywhere for 1 – 4 players. There is a nice compliment of game types with some traditional brawler stages (similar in scope to Super Smash Brothers) as well as head-to-head contests such as target smash events. There are also some mini-games based around popular puzzle and board games like Bejeweled and Mah-Jong.
So, you’ve seen the movie. Should you play the game.
I knew this wasn’t going to be the standard summer movie shovelware when I loaded up the game and got an eyeful of Panda’s lush visuals. Drawing on the artistic assets of the film, developer Luxoflux has filled the screen with pleasing imagery. During cut scenes, Po and the Furious Five bare a strong resemblance to their big screen counterparts – with impressive fur shading applied to the various characters. The environments are steeped in traditional Asian architecture, which the developers have carefully crafted. Everything feels solidly constructed, with Po sporting an impressive amount of polygons. I’ve played too many movie-based games where the environments felt flat and removed from the lustrous landscapes of their film forefathers, but Kung Fu Panda is as close as you can come to the eye candy on display on the big screen. The graphics alone made me realize that this title was not the rush job we have unfortunately seen a little too much of. While it is certainly geared towards younger players, I feel that Luxoflux approached this property the same way Starbreeze did with its Chronicles of Riddick spin-off a few years ago – with the emphasis on crafting a title that looked just as impressive as its source material. The water effects alone on some of the levels are some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Kung Fu Panda is essentially an action platformer – tasking the player to navigate the expansive levels and brawl all the way through. As you progress, you’ll find currency that gives the player the ability to customize Po’s offensive and defensive skills. This adds some welcome depth to what would normally be a simple button-masher and there are some impressive combo attacks that can be unlocked. Many movie-based games have seen fit to stick their cartoon character in an approximation of the movie’s environments and simply call it a day. With Kung Fu Panda, the developers at Luxoflux have really taken the time to craft a pretty solid adventure. The gameplay has plenty of variety injected throughout meaning you are never doing the same thing for too long. While the basics of the game involve the similar mix of platforming and combat seen in titles like the Ratchet & Clank series, the game is always throwing a new twist at players. Granted, much of this is aimed at younger players, so the difficulty is not too high but the level of variety is impressive. This game is not on the same plane as Ratchet but what is here is impressive for a licensed title. I will knock it for longevity, however. With 13 levels that can be completed in about 20 minutes each, most seasoned players will blow through this title fairly quickly. That said, the bulk of the Achievements are tied to the different difficulty levels so there is incentive to play through it again. It may be a quick title but it’s a fun game that doesn’t wear out its welcome. The shear variety of multiplayer games also provides some needed replay value.
Po (and the other playable characters) control like a dream. With the large number of combat moves in Po’s arsenal, at no point did I struggle with the controls and I was pulling off the more complex combos with ease. The platforming segments also control very well with the player able to maneuver Po through environments without problem. As the game progresses, Po will be forced to move vertically as he clamors over mountainous terrain and later will be charged with swinging from tree to tree. None of these actions pose an issue. When gameplay transfers to another character, I found the controls were mapped appropriately so that the player doesn’t skip a beat. The major issue I have is with the ‘vehicle’ segments. I use the term loosely as you are basically riding an animal (turtle, crane, etc) but the controls here felt slippery than when on foot or in combat. In particular, one segment has the player surfing a turtle to get from one point to the next. I found it difficult to maintain Po’s bulk on the turtle’s back which led to several restarts when my poor panda found himself face down in a pond. Fortunately, these segments are few.
None of the orchestration is ripped from the film (which features an excellent Harry Gregson-Williams score) but the original music designed for the game does the job. While Po is adventuring, his actions are underscored with a pleasing soundtrack that features traditional woodwinds. When the action intensifies, the drums kick in and lend the game a throbbing beat. It would have been nice to license the film’s soundtrack but the score here does get the job done.
It took me about half my play through before I realized that Po wasn’t voiced by Jack Black but rather a very close imitator. In fact, had I not been tipped to it by an article, I may never have known – that’s how good this guy is. The same goes for the rest of the cast. Where the movie features the vocal stylings of Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Dustin Hoffman, the game employs sound-alikes who are fairly spot on. There’s a lot of dialogue in the game and all of it is acted well. While Po’s speech echoes Ninja Turtle lingo, a little too much for my tastes, it’s in the same vein as the flick and kids are likely to imitate it all summer long. The other sound effects are what one would expect from a chop-socky brawler – with satisfying crunches and thuds heard when Po’s fists start flying.
Kung Fu Panda is an action platformer loaded with combat situations. As such, players will encounter the usual mobs of enemies that charge them and attack. The enemy routines grow in complexity through the game with some of the tougher villains countering your standard attacks – forcing the player to utilize combos and mix up their tactics. That said, the enemies will charge right at you and keep attacking until a particular ‘wave’ is done so the artificial intelligence can prove predictable – especially against the lesser foot soldiers. In true platforming tradition, many of the boss battles involve studying your foe’s routines and finding the right time to strike.
This game is based on a children’s movie and the difficulty is targeted appropriately. While some segments may require multiple playthroughs, the generous checkpoints and the lowered difficulty of the enemies made it easy to run through. A few of the boss sequences proved to be a challenge to this seasoned veteran but that can be attributed to missing a button press in the interactive cut scene elements of these boss battles. For younger players, this game should pose a decent but not insurmountable challenge. Older gamers are encouraged to start on the higher difficulty settings (which is where most of the Achievement Points are stored, anyway).
Added more value to the package is a robust series of minigames designed for multiplayer. Roughly half of these are some variation of the battle royals, a la Super Smash Brothers, with players choosing their favorite karate-chopping critter and bashing away at each other in a series of venues ripped from the film. Surprisingly, the developers have also included a number of minigame variants that include Kung Fu Panda-themed installments of popular game archetype like Bejeweled, Mah Jong and others. There’s a surprising amount of variety included in the multiplayer mode that makes the title a decent game to boot up during parties. All games are designed for 1 – 4 players with bots filling in for non-players. It’s a shame there’s no online support as some of these minigames are best played against live competition.
I was really quite surprised by the quality of this title. Normally, a licensed game makes the jaded reviewer in me groan but Luxoflux continuously impressed me with the care they took in crafting this entertainment. This is far from a cheap knock-off aimed at milking a few extra bucks from the Panda maniacs out there. That said, this game is aimed at younger gamers meaning the hardcore crowd can beat this in less than an afternoon. The extensive multiplayer suite is impressive and neatly underscores the added effort that Luxoflux put forth in crafting the game. This was a real surprise and actually succeeded in making me seek out the film, a task that I had no desire to do prior to playing the game. Let that serve as high praise. This Panda kicks ass.