Kung Fu Panda Review
For the most part, when a game is based on a movie, it turns out badly. In fact, some of the worst games of the past decade have been failed transitions from the big screen to the virtual interactive world, so we’re always a little leery when picking up a title based on a film. However, in the realm of kids movies, we’ve seen several decent video game efforts in this generation, including Cars: Mater-National and Surfs Up. All we’re really looking for is an experience that will satisfy fans of the movies and offer a relatively simple but engaging and ultimately entertaining adventure. Sometimes, we start to think this is too much to ask, but wonder of wonders, Kung Fu Panda proves that such an equation isn’t impossible. Sure, it has a few problems here and there, but for the most part, it achieves its goal very nicely, which – if we’re being 100% honest – represents one of the biggest surprises of the year. It’s still not something all avid gamers will want to play, but it’s great for just about all youngsters.
The game supports all the way up to 1080p high-definition resolution, and while the colors get a little washed out and the environments can be a touch blurry, Kung Fu Panda remains a pretty title. The cut-scenes are excellent, as we should expect based on the movie CGI, and the gameplay graphics don’t suffer from many of the technical glitches we’re used to seeing in games based on movies. The level and character design are both very, very good and rather than endlessly repetitive backdrops and battle arenas, we get a nice variety throughout most of the comical quest. Things can get a little herky-jerky during fast-action sequences, especially when the bulky panda has difficulty in tight areas, but the frame rate sticks from the start and almost never wavers. Objects don’t look quite as impressive up close as they do when viewed from a distance, but that’s a forgivable flaw that doesn’t significantly impact the overall visual presentation. All in all, there really isn’t much to complain about; it’ll satisfy eager fans of the movie and even graphics sticklers won’t be too judgmental. It’s both attractive and fitting.
Thanks to the talented and hilarious stand-in for Jack Black leading the way as the voice behind Po (sure sounds a lot like Black!), the sound excels and adds a healthy amount of flavor to the experience. The writing isn’t bad at all and Po is tremendously entertaining as the gifted panda that’s cocky behind closed doors (and in his mind) but humbled before true masters. Po’s exclamations during action are various and while frequent, not overly intrusive. The combat effects aren’t quite as diverse as we would’ve liked, but we do get the appropriate amount of impact when pulling off strong attacks or special moves. Only the soundtrack lags behind, as much of the music – while very fitting like the graphics – tends to repeat a lot over each level and doesn’t play enough of a role in the gameplay. Due to the diversity of our adventure, we would expect urgent, driving tracks to accompany major boss encounters and some lighter, perhaps “fluffier” (pun intended) tracks to go along with our platforming endeavors. The voice acting and sound are top-notch, of course, but LuxoFlux doesn’t quite nail the coveted sound trifecta. It’s close, though, and again, we really have to say we’re impressed with the effort.
Typically, this is where the good news ends. Even when games based on movies look and sound good, the gameplay trips and stumbles, leaving us with something nigh-on unplayable and certainly unworthy of our money. But Po and Co. remain resilient and believe it or not, we’re looking at one of the best titles based on a film in recent memory…perhaps in history. Like we said earlier, we don’t require the production values of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the grit and incredible achievements found in Grand Theft Auto IV, or the spectacular action fiesta for avid gamers that was Devil May Cry 4. All we want is something fun and simple, with a solid set of gameplay mechanics. And that’s exactly what we get with Kung Fu Panda, despite the existence of a slightly wonky camera that can get in the way at times. You’re dropped directly into the action – it’s a dream, but whatever – right off the bat, and you run through an introductory mission of sorts. You learn jump, double jump, fast and strong attacks, special attacks, and various platforming abilities, and the player will find fast and responsive mechanics along with a surprisingly balanced battle foundation.
As you progress, you will gain golden coins and other collectible items; some of which are essential while the others are optional. The coins let you upgrade any number of abilities, ranging from max Health and Chi to the available Panda Techniques, like the Quake and Iron Belly. It’ll cost you 10 coins each to upgrade to the second level for each of the upgrades, but after that, they can go up to 25, 50, and more; you can even buy three new outfits for Po, the last of which will cost you 1000 coins (gotta play for a while). It may take some ingenuity to obtain as many coins as possible, but that’s half the fun. Maneuvering about your environment doesn’t take much effort, but you do have to look around and study the landscape if you want to claim all the prizes. For example, you learn the hard way during Po’s Dream that if you break the stack of crates before getting the valuable vase at the top, you’ll never get that vase. Furthermore, when the levels become more intricate, you really need to carefully examine your surroundings to obtain a “100% Awesome!” rating at the end of the mission.
And then there’s the fighting. Po is normally outnumbered but thanks to his skills, he’s usually more than a match for his foes, especially once you begin building up his stats and special abilities. The latter drains Chi while getting hit of course drains health, but you can replenish both by various items you will find in the level. Executing combo attacks isn’t all that difficult, although they almost seem too easy to pull off at times; we found ourselves launching into the Panda Stumble without intending to, and that got a little annoying. But it’s not like accidentally ripping off a special attack is a “bad” thing, per se, you just might lose some Chi you didn’t wish to lose. There’s also a small issue related to collision detection. When facing certain bosses, we could never really be sure what was a safe distance, and what might be a good attacking distance. A far-reaching weapon appeared to reach further than it should, and sometimes, our leaping attack did the same. “Wait…how did I hit him from here?” We said that more than a few times during our playthrough. But beyond that, the speed, stability, balance, and control of the combat is surprisingly solid and even fantastic in some respects.
It may sound insulting to keep using the word “surprising,” but forgive us if we’re simply not used to good games based on movies. It’s kinda rare, you know. But everything isn’t all roses, as the gameplay does face one semi-major hindrance: the camera. Many 3D action titles have traditionally had a few flaws when it came to the camera, and Kung Fu Panda is no exception. The default view sits a little too low behind Po, and even worse, it always reverts to that view even after you manually adjust the camera height. Also, there are times when the camera clearly is unsure of itself; like when Po was climbing and vaulting his way around a courtyard filled with dangers, and jumping to the left caused the camera to wack right out. It jerked to the right, then came back to the left a little, and God forbid you should try to alter the view yourself…all kinds of bad things could happen. But this being said, we’ve seen far worse examples of a camera in action/adventure titles this generation, and once you get used to the eccentricities, the camera in this game is more than functional.
It won’t take long to finish the entire quest, but it’s loaded with plenty of comic relief and entertaining gameplay diversity. Fans of the movie will get a big kick out of Po, the story and writing is quite good, and the mechanics that tie it all together are solid, accessible, and well implemented. We did notice a few technical glitches here and there, like when those boar enemies (they’re little more than running punching bags to Po) start dropping out of nowhere. Near the end of one level, the action came to a complete halt because one last boar didn’t pop up so we could finish the job. We actually had to run all the way back to the start of the level and then return to get him to reveal himself; then we dispatched him and moved on. But it only happened once, and despite the kooky camera, we almost always had a lot of fun jumping, climbing and fighting with that likeable black and white bear. And did we mention that he can use weapons in addition to his own inherent hand-to-hand skills? Yep, Po can snatch up certain items to use as weapons against enemies, and this is both easy and effective. Our only complaint might be that there wasn’t enough weapons, and not enough special abilities to go along with them.
All in all, Kung Fu Panda really hits the mark. Big-time gamers know this month is all about MGS4, but for younger or more casual gamers, LuxoFlux and Activision’s product is a darn good option. Add in the fact you can play with up to four players in a multiplayer mode, and fans of the popular film will definitely get their money’s worth. It looks and sounds good, it flows well, it has enough variety so it’s not too repetitive, and anybody can pick it up and play, even though there is a decent amount of depth. You are rewarded for taking your time and exploring, and the character upgrade system is an appreciated feature for those who are looking for a little added “oomph.” In the end, we have to say that Kung Fu Panda, while certainly not perfect, is one of the best games based on a movie that you’ll ever play. Well, damn…hallelujah!
6/9/2008 Ben Dutka