"Fans of more demanding gameplay will be sad to hear that there's not really ever a moment—even at the very end—where the game grows challenging enough to test veteran gamers. There are three difficulty modes so that you can push yourself more if you're interested, but most gamers will probably like the default settings just fine. Enemies offer token resistance and death in combat won't occur often at all."
If you're reading this review, there's a good chance that you already know a bit about Kung Fu Panda. It's a game based on the animated movie of the same name and it stars a tubby panda who dreams of kung fu mastery. There's not much to be said about the concept's originality, since it really just amounts to a rather generic martial arts tale with furry creatures instead of humans, but most people who pick up a copy will be looking for that very thing. They won't be disappointed.
The game begins with some simple training that thankfully isn't anywhere near as tedious as it might have been. You'll start guiding a panda named Po through his home village almost immediately. At first, his objective is just to get a view of legendary warriors known as 'The Five' battling one another to be crowned the 'Dragon Warrior.' Appropriately, there's little in the way of resistance at that point. It's a great way for younger gamers to get their feet wet.
Fans of more demanding gameplay will be sad to hear that there's not really ever a moment--even at the very end--where the game grows challenging enough to test veteran gamers. There are three difficulty modes so that you can push yourself more if you're interested, but most gamers will probably like the default settings just fine. Enemies offer token resistance and death in combat won't occur often at all. Some situations will definitely test your skill and concentration (including a surprisingly demanding sequence where you must flee toward the screen as a rampaging crocodile gives chase, then another where you guide a bird through lightning-laced clouds), but the odds never are stacked overwhelmingly against you. Instead, you're free to enjoy exploring the game.
Detailed environments make that pursuit entirely worthwhile. One area that springs to mind is a forest of poplar trees that skirts a rippling stream. Wooden scaffolding stretches across some of the branches and you'll have to make your way through the treetops while avoiding spike-covered pendulums and attacks from the creatures standing guard. Pale moonlight bathes the whole scene in an eerie glow and glistens on the surface of the churning water below. Everything meshes together naturally, with gorgeous water effects and beautiful texture work.
Numerous other areas in the game fare just as well. They range from grassy hillsides with suspension bridges to a murky swamp to a desert fortress and several places in between. Each was given that same attention to detail and the results really speak for themselves. What you'll see here isn't ever on the the technical level of something like Heavenly Sword or Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, but it's visually pleasing just the same and is true to the look of the film.
That capable adherence to the source material is evident particularly in the case of the character models, which sport incredibly detailed fur and facial animations. Though plot segments are acted out by in-game models, you'll probably feel like you're watching a fantastic cartoon as the voice actors recite their lines with unusual flair.
It's worth noting that the polish doesn't extend just to visuals and to the quality voice work, either; it also enters the picture when QTEs (scenes where cinema unfolds and you have to swiftly press certain button combinations) occur. There are a few instances throughout where you'll find yourself engaged in a lengthy battle, then suddenly watching cinematic events unfold. Then you'll be asked to quickly press the appropriate face buttons. In some games, failing at such times can mean that you are instantly taken back to the start of a fight or a lengthy platforming sequence. Here, auto-save ensures that you don't lose much ground at all. The result is that you're more able to enjoy the visual flair.
You may also appreciate the way that helpful scrolls are scattered around the world in case you forget what you were supposed to do or need hints. If there's a series of ledges you must cross--like the scaffolding in the forest that was described above--then you can count on a handy bit of advice that you can trigger (or not) as you see fit. This should help younger gamers to feel confident in their exploration. It also means that if you stop playing for a few days before returning to the game, you won't have to relearn a bunch of things you've forgotten. All of the information you need to clear each stage is readily available right where you need it.
That's not to say that Kung Fu Panda is polished to the point of perfection. It definitely has a few rough patches. The most obvious offender is the design of the swamp area, which finds you jumping around lilly pads that sink into ooze if you linger on them for even a second. Instant death is the result if you slip into the murky soup. There's a lot of hopping, then, and sometimes it can be too easy to go in circles because there's no map on the screen and you're too busy trying to stay afloat to worry about what direction you'd meant to go. Most stages don't have that issue, thankfully.
Repetition could have been another of the game's flaws, but fortunately the developers saw that issue coming and sidestepped it neatly. There are a few stages where you abandon Po in favor of his master, Shifu. The latter is a nimble creature--despite his obvious age--and nicely counteracts the lumbering main character. Both animals have different fighting style and are fun to control. Elsewhere you can control different members of the Furious Five, but such moments never last long and feel more like an afterthought than anything.
A more pleasing distraction is the fact that Po can be upgraded if you spend the coins you find littering the world. It's possible to tweak things like the amount of damage his attacks inflict and the size of his life meter. You can also save up your cash and unlock new outfits if that's what you prefer. There's some pleasing mission variety, such as when you have to stop thieves from stealing items from pedestals around you, or when you have to ride up giant slides to knock wrecking balls down to a courtyard below. Things are switched around with enough frequency that the whole adventure feels more like an actual experience and less like a generic video game. Plus when you're done, you can look at concept art you've unlocked or view montages of the different characters (from the actual movie). Finally, there's even a multi-player mode similar to a three-dimensional version of Super Smash Bros., just in case a brawl is what you'd like.
Ultimately, Kung Fu Panda is one of those titles that reminds me why I keep an open mind when license-based projects are announced. There's always the chance that such a game will be a disaster, but there's also room for some really great stuff... if the right developer is willing to take its time (and is afforded that luxury by the publisher). All of that seems to have happened here and the result is an excellent product that should thrill fans of the movie and even those just looking for a polished action experience with a little humor in the mix. Forget what you thought you knew about license-based games and give this one a try today.
Staff review by Jason Venter (June 07, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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