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Kinectimals offers an endearing space populated with friendly cubs. But its magic has had to be delivered in bite sized portions, when all I wanted to do was run free through the fields with my animal friends.
Kinectimals from Frontier is an incredibly cute cub simulator, which from its name you can deduce is a Kinect controllable experience. The opening Frontier credits give a taste of what is to follow. A beautifully rendered and playful tiger cub rolls in and out of view on a small earth like ball. It is instantly reminiscent of the Pixar's Luxo Jr where an animated angle-poise lamp appears, with childish curiosity, playing with a ball.
Kinectimals is not only a game, but a toy and a play thing as well. It focuses on interaction techniques to recreate the cubs and model how they respond to your actions. It takes place on the idyllic, bright and tranquil island of Lemuria.
The first scenes are realistic play fighting and rolling around, soon though the interactions get crazier. I liked this approach, it starts as a simulation and then introduces more colourful behaviour. Not many panther cubs can ride on the top of a radio controlled car after all.
In a first person view you are greeted by Bumble, a talking, flying helper. Bumble pops up on screen throughout your experience. A cheery American voiced Jiminy Cricket style character offering helpful hints but sometimes unnecessarily long tutorial explanations. Some of these explanations were slow in getting to the point and even my four year old son got a little annoyed with Bumble.
Most controller based games have a skip button. If there's a suitable gesture or clap to skip explanations Bumble chose not to inform me about it. He eventually introduces you to a range of cub playmates: a lion, a tiger, a panther, a cheetah and a leopard.
A set of ghost hands appear tracking yours and allowing you to stroke and tickle the cub. This first interaction is a good one. I felt a degree of connection with the cub as I reached out my arms. Whilst there is only visual feedback it still feels like you are stroking the cub. The seemingly long initial cut scene really sets up the personality and style of the cubs which enhances the first interaction.
The open world promises of Kinectimals mean I'm less keen to grind.
Bumble goes on, still at length, to explain the island needs exploring, that you will discover sections of a map along the way and that we were on a quest to find the missing Captain. It is the Captain's old cabin that Bumble invites you to use to store the trophies and unlocks as the game progresses. At this point my heart sunk as I saw another long path of levelling up through mini-game after mini-game.
While I am fan of levelling up and of exploration in some genres, the open world promises of Kinectimals mean I'm less keen to grind. The unlock path seems an annoying restrictive game mechanic to spin the experience out rather than something technically necessary.
The closest thing to Kinectimals is the Eye Pet (PS3) which suffers from this too. With Eye Pet you only get to open the toys a day at a time. You have to unlock the content, and as the comedian Dara O'Briain has commented "look! I already unlocked the content. In the shop...with my credit card!"
This results in an overall game mechanic that is extremely modal. I want more of that freedom the game hints at. Each experience is selected from a swipe and point menu called the Toybox. Each one has its own set of gestures. This on the rails approach forcing the mini-games context broke the immersion for me.
I appreciate it makes sense to only be able to do things relevant to the part of the game you select. But I found this modal game style restrictive compared to the technical freedom of Kinect.
A whole island to explore, but I could only do the one task in hand.
I was standing there in front of the TV with a whole island to explore and a wonderful playful pet bounding around, but I could only do the one task in hand unless I quit or completed it.
The cub training trick mode fares a little better though. It is amusing to watch the animations, and great fun to see someone else get the cub performing. The flow and joy of play really immersed me here.
This sense of disparate activities rather than a coherent whole is accentuated by the fact that the rest of the island is broken up into greyed out map areas. Each map area you unlock has a set of specific game areas. These differ from the toybox mini-games as they are timed task set pieces. Each of these is on the score timeline which creates a rigid (repetitive) pattern for the experience.
Many of the game zones are target based, throwing boots at advancing crabs or spraying objects with water. There are a few obstacle courses that you put your cub through its paces on. In these you run on the spot and jump, duck and balance your way around the obstacles. These game areas are geared up for multiplayer, at least in the form of taking turns. On completion of a game there is a gesture button to press to swap players.
If Kinectimals wasn't so convincing to look at perhaps your expectations of engagement wouldn't be quite so high.
If Kinectimals wasn't so convincing to look at perhaps your expectations of engagement wouldn't be quite so high. It is beautifully rendered. The island has a great variety of woodland, meadow, beach, river areas and secret temples. The detail is not trying to be too photo-realistic. There is a degree of extra glow and colour giving an ethereal feel. I found the character and the animation of the cubs astounding.
There is a genuinely seamless flow between the animations that makes them utterly convincing. The blend of realistic animations with more expressive and comedic ones works very well. This blend of the reality and fantasy extends to the entire experience.
But even all this can't hide the fact that behind the cuteness and clever animations this is a collection of very simple mini-games. These exploit Kinect's motion sensing and audio recognition features well. Perhaps it says as much about Kinect's limitations as it does Frontier's game design that most of the action is in discrete areas. The modal context of the game no doubt give Kinect the best chance at getting the recognition right - within a section there are some very complex gestures. I suspect that if all the trick gestures were available during all the other modes there would be an awful lot of frustrating incorrect responses.
Kinectimals is an entertaining, beautiful and engaging technical achievement.
It may be a while before we get a proper full sandbox toy with less menu selection and modal operation. Walking through a 3D environment with gesture, changing view points and really rooting around looking for things will come in time.
Even with its flaws, Kinectimals is an entertaining, beautiful and engaging technical achievement. It made me feel good playing it, and the kids loved it too.
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