Reviewed: June 4, 2008
Released: June 3, 2008
It wouldn’t be summer without a DreamWorks Animation title headed to theaters, and this Friday brings Kung Fu Panda to the big screen while Activision slips their video game vision of the film into stores a few days prior. If Kung Fu Panda, the video game, is any indication of the humor and quality of the film, the theaters should be packed this weekend.
In the Kung Fu Panda video game, players embark on an epic, action-packed adventure as they master the specialized Kung Fu fighting styles of Po the Panda, the unlikely hero, his teacher Shifu, and the legendary Kung Fu masters, the Furious Five: Monkey, Tigress, Viper, Mantis and Crane.
Many of you with an Xbox 360 have probably already downloaded the demo for Kung Fu Panda and played a section lifted from the first level of the game, so you might already be familiar with the visuals and the frantic button-mashing gameplay. While these demos are a great way to get a general overview of a game title let me assure you that nothing can prepare you for the final version of Kung Fu Panda. From gameplay to graphics to outstanding voice acting, you will be captivated and blown away from start to finish.
Kung Fu Panda is first and foremost a fighting game, so plan on mashing the fast and heavy attack buttons in all sorts of combos as you unleash your own style of Panda Kung Fu on the evil minions of Tai Lung, and eventually the big guy himself. Mix that up with a heavy dose of exploration and collectibles and you have what appears to be an atypical platform title, but nothing could be further from the truth.
There are 13 challenging missions in Kung Fu Panda and each comes with an assorted list of primary and secondary objectives. These almost always include defeating some level-end boss and rescuing trapped rabbits, baby turtles, or even your own members of the Furious Five. To accomplish these objectives you’ll get to play as the portly Po and key members of the Furious Five, unleashing your own animalistic brand of kung fu.
There were two levels I didn't particularly enjoy, both in the temple and both involving artifact protection. Early on, you must stop bandits from stealing the treasure of the shrine - not too difficult with a fully charged belly flop, but near the end of the game you are back in the temple and those same bandits are now trying to smash those treasures. This level is virtually impossible to get a perfect score on Master Ninja mode. These are the only two levels that really break away from the style of the rest of the game.
Po starts off with a few core moves like fast and strong attacks that can be used individually or strung together as elaborate combos. As the game continues you will discover new and more powerful moves like charged attacks, iron belly, panda stomp and even panda stumble where you can curl up into a ball and roll around the levels Marble Madness style. All of these moves can be powered-up to various degrees increasing damage and area of effect.
Kung Fu Panda gets surprisingly deep with its robust skill-based game core. As you explore the levels and defeat the enemies you will collect hundreds of gold coins and the occasional rare green coin used to unlock bonus content. Gold coins can be spent between missions to power-up Po’s personal stats and level up a large variety of specialty kung fu moves. The more you spend on each move the move powerful it becomes.
The basic gameplay is traditional 3D exploration mixed with heavy doses of combat. There are a few on-rails segments, where you steer Po as he rolls around part of a level, and there is even a cool chase scene where Master Crane (who is carrying Po) is trying to escape a giant crocodile. This reverse angle scene plays out much like the opening scene in the Shark Tale video game where Oscar is trying to dodge the incoming attacks of the pursing shark and you must make the appropriate (and timed) dodge maneuver.
Just when you might get tired of playing as the wisecracking and perpetually hungry Po, the designers throw a few curves your way allowing you to play as other members of the Furious Five. Early on you’ll get to play as Tigress, and there are several levels where you’ll play as Po’s wise teacher, Shifu, and even a brief stint as Monkey. These characters all come with their own unique moves, which are fun to explore, but with the exception of Shifu, your time is far too limited with the peripheral cast.
Kung Fu Panda mixes up the extreme amounts of combat with lots of environmental puzzles like dousing fire with water barrels or challenging jumping puzzles across lily pads, or even fluffy clouds. You’ll even get to test your aim with a few ballista (giant crossbow) shooting games. All of these various game design elements mix flawlessly into what is easily one of the best movie-inspired games of the summer.
Kung Fu Panda also comes with a nice assortment of multiplayer party-style games for up to four players, and even includes some team-based modes. Most of the modes are simply brawl-type games so if you are a fan of Super Smash Bros. then you know exactly what to expect. There are a few nifty games that feature more ballista target shoots and even a clever puzzle-tile matching game where you race to match tile images and fight for control when two players each uncover a matching tile. These mini-games are along the same style as those found in the Shrek, only with a lot more focus on combat, as is appropriate for a game about a Kung Fu Panda.
Visually, Kung Fu Panda is full of rich and wonderful colors and some surprisingly authentic (or perhaps stereotypical) Chinese architecture. The characters are delightfully designed and animated and the fur textures on Po, Tigress, and Tai Lung are remarkable. You just want to reach out and pet them. The lighting engine is amazing and puts a heavenly golden glow on portions of the game.
The level designs are huge and many are inspired from the movie while others take us to places the movie only hints at. In addition to game-exclusive levels, you’ll also get to meet some new characters like the evil ninja cat trio, the Wu Sisters. These whirling ninjas are the boss to what is easily one of my favorite levels in the game, one that features some treetop escapades over a forest village with a stunning river running through it, all lit with pale blue moonlight…simply stunning.
Another favorite level is a mysterious shrine with towers and ramps that has Po rolling around the majority of this level collecting coins, fighting enemies, and unlocking the secrets of the shrine. It was levels like this that always kept the gameplay fresh and original so you never even had time to get bored.
I have to give special mention to the water in this game. I know water has become the arbitrary benchmark of graphics these days but you have NEVER seen water like this before. On the lake level you will be jumping across giant lily pads and broken pieces of wooden dock and each jump sends up a spray of water and then you can watch ripples extend outward and even interact with other existing ripples using real-type wave physics. I was taken back to my high school physics lab and our wave generator and ripple effect studies. Whoever created this water texture and the physics behind it needs to immediately license the technology to every other game developer on the planet.
When it comes to sound I have to give huge props to the guy who does the voice of Po…you really have your Jack Black impersonation (even the timing and inflections) down to a science. Sometimes you sound more like Jack than Jack does. A lot of the game is narrated by Po and it’s told in that story-style Jack has made famous in movies like School of Rock and Tenacious D. and the Pick of Destiny. The in-game cutscenes really show off some great facial expressions and humorous reaction shots - watch for the scene with the duck on the dock. In fact, that duck has a reoccuring role as one of the funniest supporting characters in the game.
Not to slight the rest of the wonderful cast; all of the Furious Five, Tai Lung, and especially Shifu all perform flawlessly with loads of attitude and appropriate levels of self-aware humor. The rest of the aural experience is choked full of “awesomeness” including plenty of exaggerated and powerful kung fu thwacks. Po’s Panda Stumble rolling move had my subwoofer rumbling deeper than the boulder chase in the new special edition of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
There is also a wonderful soundtrack full of oriental themed music that really sets the mood and gets you pumped up for the action. I love the little "gong" sound that signified the completion of a task, and it often accompanied my own sigh of relief, especially on some of those Master Ninja levels.
Kung Fu Panda will take most gamers about 7-10 hours to finish on normal difficulty. For those looking for the ultimate challenge, try tackling the Master Ninja mode for some added gameplay value and several of the games 39 Achievement point objectives. The Achievement points in Kung Fu Panda demand perfection. You will have to complete any and all primary and secondary task on each level (and both difficulties) to get the majority of the points. The rest of the points are awarded for unleashing a certain number of fast and heavy attacks, racking up killer combos, purchasing all upgrades, and unlocking everything. They'll even give you 50 points if you can complete the entire game without dying.
There are several mini-games included so the whole family can share the Panda experience. These are pretty much the same style of games we've seen in past movie titles like Shrek and Shark Tale. They are modest diversions for younger gamers but teens and adults will skip them in favor of bigger and better titles that do the same thing. Even so, I did get hooked on several of these games for about two hours.
It’s not often a video game can get me excited about a film, but I can honestly say I am now looking forward to watching Kung Fu Panda when it hits theaters this Friday. Meanwhile, I can’t recommend Kung Fu Panda, the video game, highly enough. Kids and teens will love it and you might even catch mom and dad playing it late at night.
The story was fresh, funny, and original, the characters where delightfully designed and animated, and professional voiced, and the entire game was a pure delight to play from start to finish. I'm already well on my way through my second pass as I aspire to become a Master Ninja.