Kinectimals - Review

   18/11/2010 at 09:02       Phil May       3 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - Kinectimals, Frontier Developments, Microsoft, Xbox 360, Kinect

When Project Natal was first announced, I could already see its future mapped out in front of it. Project Natal, now known as Kinect, would become a dumping ground for a colossal number of games from first and third parties that would follow in the footsteps (or in this case pawprints) of games we’d already seen ages ago on the Nintendo Wii.

It’s rather a pleasant surprise to find one game I had massive reservations about actually turning out to be one of the better launch titles for Kinect.

Kinectimals could almost be described as a cross-species Nintendogs. The basic ideas are very similar. You’re placed in charge of a virtual animal, and must care for it, nurture it, train it to do tricks and generally keep it entertained. It’s at this point in the review that by rights I’d point out that my fatherly duties to try and keep my daughter away from the ravages of videogame addiction for as long as possible utterly failed. I saw the footage and instantly thought “Oh man, she’d love that!”

Thankfully, despite the game’s obvious kid-friendly appeal, it’s still a little beyond her. Not only that, she’s too durned short and as much as I don’t particularly want my nipper to end up pestering me for time on the 360 to play stuff like this, it’s immaterial as Kinect doesn’t deal with the hobbit-sized at all well.

Enough digression though, Kinectimals is from the same studio that, years ago, blew the gaming world wide open with a canny space trading simulator called Elite. If you’ve never heard of it, or never played it, get out right now!

Elite laid down the foundations for a couple of (rather iffy) sequels, but also allowed the studio now known as Frontier Developments to stretch their creative limbs in all manner of directions, touching on everything from neat and quirky dog simulators (A Dog’s Life on PS2) to a couple of sublime slices of WiiWare that put full priced games to shame (Lost Winds 1 and 2). Now it looks like they’ve got their hands on a Kinect development kit and have produced a mini marvel in the shape of Kinectimals.

In all fairness, comparing it to Nintendogs is a little harsh as Kinectimals has a little more depth to it than Nintendo’s canine sim. For starters, it plays more like a traditional game in that your journey through all that Kinectimals has to offer feels more like a quest than a series of random and sporadic events. As a mysterious explorer, you land on an island populated by cute jungle cat cubs, and a slightly effete insectoid / feline known as Bumble. He becomes your guide through Kinectimals and is often on hand to offer advice or guidance on what to do next (though naturally the choice is ultimately yours).

Kinect controls for the game are quite tightly done. There’s the usual Kinect lag when moving your cursor around to highlight stuff but it’s barely noticeable as the menu systems and guides all work very well and feel polished. You are introduced to Fur Town, an area where you get to choose which cub you’re going to adopt, and it’s here where you see Frontier Developments’ fine work on producing exceptionally convincing cat characters.

Choosing one from a Lion Cub, Leopard Cub, Cheetah Cub, Jaguar Cub, or Tiger Cub, you first name your animal (using voice control) and your animal uncannily repeats its name back to you. A neat little trick that helps you bond with the cute little cub straight off the bat.

Once introduced, the game guides you through the tricks you can teach your cub (though there are many more to discover) and also shows you how to pet and stroke it.

Kinect offers up a pair of virtual hands for most tasks though you’ll also need a bit of room for some minigames, as you’ll see later, so those with limited space might find that there’s a lot in Kinectimals that will be inaccessible to them till they’ve de-junked a little.

Once introductions and basic training instructions are over, you’re whisked off to the first part of the island you’ll become familiar with – the Glade. This is a cool shady area that’s ideal for your first interactions with your chosen cub.

Holding out your right arm to the side will bring up the game’s toy box, allowing you to choose the sort of activity you’d like to engage in with your furry little buddy. Often though, your cub will pre-empt your choices by mooching off and finding something it wants to play with rather than leaving it to you. Sometimes you can end up at cross-purposes with your cub as it takes a few moments for it to register you’ve picked something out, before it goes off in a sulk and bends to your will. Once you get the hang of it though, it’s fairly easy to pick out items to play with, feed to, or groom your cub with.

Where Kinectimals feels more like a game than just a virtual pet sim is in the way minigames are put together. Simple stuff like throwing a ball at skittles or playing catch and fetch with a Frisbee and your cub all add points towards an Experience Meter. The more you fill your XP meter up, the closer you get to unlocking a whole new part of the island map and a whole new set of locations and challenges.

In addition to these places, you also have a home base (your house, which you can decorate with any items your cub sniffs out), a shop (run by a pair of extremely cute Lemurs that could give Tom Nook a run for his money), and Fur Town which is a useful stop-off if you fancy swapping cubs at any time or just fancy checking out your own stats and information.

Exploration is the name of the game though and from the initial ferny glade, you can branch out and discover lost beaches, hidden freshwater pools and craggy mountains to play with your cub in.

The minigames included in Kinectimals vary from physical challenges like teaching your cub set tricks within a given time limit, to an absolutely superb mini-driving challenge centred around radio controlled buggies. There are several of these to collect, including the infamous Warthog from Halo. What’s great about the driving challenges is the way the control system works. It’s fantastically responsive. You hold up your hands to steer your buggy using a virtual steering wheel, push forward with your hands to go forward and pull back to brake or reverse. It sounds fiddly but it works so well that the first race track challenges you’re given are a breeze to pass with a gold medal. If Kinect’s other launch driving game, Joy Ride, controlled as well as the RC Buggy segments in Kinectimals perhaps critics might’ve been a little more forgiving.

The whole game is absolutely beautiful to look at, from the sumptuous and glossy coats of your feline charges, to the twinkling seas, blue skies and lush jungle of their island home. Frontier Developments really know how to produce stunning visuals on the 360 and the Cobra Game Engine is something I'd definitely like to see used on a few more 360 games.

After quite a few hours of play, Kinectimals still feels relatively fresh and innovative and there’s quite a lot of depth if you hunt out all the mysterious objects dotted around the island, and unlock all the locations. However, if you’re the sort of gamer that prefers more visceral fare, it would be tough to recommend the extreme cuteness of Kinectimals, but to slightly twist the words of Marty McFly in “Back to the Future”, “you might not be ready for it, but your kids are going to love it” particularly if they’re over 3ft tall.

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