The general reaction of a game critic anytime he finds out he’s being assigned a game based on a movie is something along the lines of, “Great, this is going to be awful. I wonder if there are going to be any nice things to say about this title, or if I’ll just spend three pages ranting about how every aspect is broken. I’ll never get those ten hours of my life back; curse whoever first thought it would be a good idea to release a game alongside every single ‘family friendly’ movie ever produced.” Surprisingly, that has not been my reaction with Kung Fu Panda. The game looks great, plays very well, and would be a fine title for any young gamer looking to enjoy the adventures of his or her favorite fighting mammal for just a bit longer.
The story of Kung Fu Panda centers around Po, a rolly-polly bear whose twin loves in life are martial arts and making his already rotund belly slightly more so. One afternoon, Po sneaks into a tournament to watch the Furious Five, the greatest warriors in all the land do battle to determine who will be named the mythical Dragon Warrior. After causing a bit of a commotion, Po himself is named the Dragon Warrior, much to the chagrin of the Five, and the confusion of everyone in attendance. Po then sets forth to prove himself to the doubters and also take on the fierce Tai Lung, who has escaped from prison and is returning to claim the mantle for himself.
While the game mostly follows the plot of the story, new missions and subplots were added so that the team could produce a game more than an hour-and-a-half long. It works though, as the new missions and stories make sense in the Kung Fu Panda universe, and there aren’t any moments where you will find yourself scratching your head and wondering why on earth Po is doing something like this; it all actually flows together quite cogently.
As you might guess from the subject matter, Kung Fu Panda is mainly a brawler, with Po taking on a number of foes using an impressive variety of moves. The game breaks down Po’s attacks into the basic light and heavy moves, and actually requires you to use both styles fairly regularly to defeat your enemies. For example, small enemies are quick, and can easily dodge strong attacks, so you have to pepper them with light strikes. Conversely, larger baddies are all but immune to your sissy slaps, and require some serious muscle to overcome. Further augmenting the battle mechanics are combos that more advanced gamers can use, as well as special attacks Po can unleash whenever he has enough chi available. Finally, as you progress through each level, you will find coins which can be used to improve all your skills in whatever manner you wish. If you find yourself relying on a particular attack or combo, jack it all the way up to its top level and watch Po do some real damage.
When Po isn’t fighting, he’s engaged in some pretty heavy platforming, the sort of thing you’d see in the original Jak and Daxter or just about any Crash Bandicoot game. This is likely the weakest gameplay element, as Po’s jumps can be a bit sluggish, and the camera likes to work against you in certain situations. While it can be rotated to a point, it still has the nasty habit of getting stuck from time to time and sometimes locking into a position that isn’t all that helpful. Still though, it’s a minor annoyance at most, and one which can quickly be overcome.
From time to time, the game will break up the running and fighting to put you in a special scenario or give you control of a new character. For instance, sometimes you will take control of a ballista and use fireworks to blast away enemies or arrows to remove obstructions in your path. Also, there are several quick-time button pressing minigames, as well as whole levels where you take control of either on of the Furious Five or their mentor, Master Shifu. Normally, a game like this can get boring with mechanics that become repetitious, but Kung Fu Panda manages to keep things fresh by constantly throwing new challenges your way.
Some might complain that the title is too short, and it will feel like no sooner do you put it in that it’s over. I didn’t feel that way at all and in fact believed the length to be quite fitting for a game aimed at a younger crowd. Furthermore, for those looking to elongate the experience, there are a number of side missions and collectibles to track down, so the game can be stretched a bit. More important than a game’s length is its pacing and Kung Fu Panda never once felt like it was dragging its feet or rushing through things; it all flows along perfectly.
In addition to the single-player mode, the game features a rather robust multiplayer, with gameplay options varying from your standard 4-person free-for-all, to Kung Fu Panda-themed Reversi and Mahjong. There are over a dozen multiplayer modes in all, but there is a catch; actually, two of them. First, there is no online player for Kung Fu Panda at all… none. This is a purely local affair, so unless you have 4 controllers and an equal number of interested parties, this mode might not see much use. Second, virtually all the multiplayer content must be unlocked by finding hidden coins in the single-player game. While a good number of the coins are fairly obvious to spot, others are hidden quite well and could be hard for a younger gamer to track down. Therefore, some might not be able to access all the multiplayer modes without consulting a strategy guide, and that is a shame for a game such as this.
The other major knock against most movie-based games is poor technical work, with shoddy graphics and mediocre sound rearing their ugly heads. That simply isn’t the case here, as the game manages to both look and sound great. The world Po and friends inhabit is vivid and interesting, and the characters themselves are all rendered quite nicely. It’s a bit of a testament to the development team to work so hard to make a game look so great that no one outside of fans of the movie will ever likely buy.
The sound work gets similar praise, with the voice acting crew getting an especially big thumbs up. While the actors who voiced the roles in the movie don’t make the transition to the game, the actors who fill in for them do a great job. In fact, you’d probably never know that the voice of Po wasn’t done by Jack Black himself if I hadn’t told you: it’s that good.
One of the more cynical things critics will tell you is that so long as you have low expectations, it’s easy to be impressed. While I went into Kung Fu Panda expecting yet another low-budget, boring, frustrating pile of junk, what I got was a gem of a platformer, perfect for kids and even somewhat entertaining for older gamers as well. This game is the antigen to the normal toxin of movie-based games, and all developers who work on such games in the future would do well to play Kung Fu Panda just to see what can happen when it’s done right. While the jumping mechanics may not be perfect, and the multiplayer won’t be pulling anyone away from Call of Duty 4, this title sets out to be a fun game for kids, and it absolutely nails it. If you have young gamers in your home, or if you just really enjoyed the movie, check this game out; it’s far more fun than a roundhouse kick to the face.