Daily Archives: December 21, 2012

Kinect Party Review

I’m not a huge Kinect guy, but I am absolutely a true-believer when it comes to Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions. By extension, I am a Kinect Party convert, and so are my kids. A sequel to Happy Action Theater, which I reviewed together with my family earlier this year, Kinect Party successfully uses Microsoft’s super-duper techno Wall-E lookalike camera in the most sensible manner imaginable: as a portal into a virtual rumpus room.

Kinect Party features the smart and clean aesthetic and fun sort of sensibilities Double Fine has become known for. It’s cute, adorable, and has tons of visual character. Much like Happy Action Theater, it’s pretty much the easiest game to get into and play once you turn the thing on. There’s really no menu to fuss with; it just starts and, if you let it, Kinect Party just goes.

There are loads of Minecraft references in Kinect Party.

Leave it in Autoplay Mode and it will run through all 36 of its “channels”, so named as each event or stage is presented as a self-contained program of sorts. These events, stages, channels, toys, whatever you want to call them, are split between new and old; 18 of these are brand new, the other 18 come directly from the aforementioned Happy Action Theater.

You can quit out to a hub and pick specific events to play, or view and share photos. Getting to the hub is the only semi-fusty element in the game, as sometimes it’s hard to get Kinect to read your hand motion to quit. Otherwise, everything works smooth and easy as can be.

Each of Kinect Party’s channels is a little different from the next. In one, you’re running through a Minecraft-inspired canyon avoiding obstacles, in another you’re popping balloons, in still another shooting toilets in a Tempest-like neon grid, and in still another you’re a dubstep DJ – which, you know, we’ll give them a pass on this one time.

These channels aren’t “games” in the traditional sense of the word. You don’t really keep score, you can’t fail, and you’re not judged or tested. Instead, you simply play, the stage changes, and you play some more.

Though there’s plenty of variety, all of the games are tied together by a common through line of simple action fun. These basic acts – popping a balloon, dancing, posing, moving to avoid things – all teach players the rules with intuitive “learn as you go” prompts and direction, which you pick up in the first few seconds of playing. No tutorials, no interruptions, no prompts, no wasted time. Just play.

It’s because each event is so bite-sized, it can feel like you’re the leading star in a never-ending, constantly shifting stage production of the world’s craziest happenings, and just as you’ve got the hang of what you’re doing, everything changes. It sets up a curious rhythm of introduction, learning, mild mastery, and then switches, with each stage compelling you to move with it, laugh with it, and obey it.

Watching my kids play, or rather, watching it play my kids, it really becomes apparent that the Kinect can serve as the ultimate Simon Says simulator when paired with the appropriate software. Their collective reaction to the game is similar to Happy Action Theater.

 

Let the kid mosh pit begin!

Madison, my ten-year-old daughter, played it the most, flinging herself with abandon into the scenes, voguing and competing in the non-game games.

“I like how it just goes from thing to thing,” she volunteered, catching her breath.

“If you had to score it, 1 to 10, what would you give it?”

“12!”

Alrighty then.

The new added ‘channels’ are smart, fun, and kids LOVE THEM.

My eight year-old son Ryan was no less effusive when asked, “What’s your favorite part of the game?”

“Everything!”

Mkay. Totally objective.

I asked my three-year-old cute girl, Harlow Grace, what she thought of it, because, you know, three-year-olds know their game criticism.

“Do you like playing this game, Harlow?”

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” she chirped while doing jumping jacks before freezing for the camera. I’ll take that as a yes.

Kinect Party plays you as much as you play it.

The game actually supports pet play, meaning if you have a dog, he or she can jump right in and be transformed into a bearded robot or happy monster. I was unable to talk to a dog for this review by the time of publish. I’ll update if that changes.

That said, my chief criticism is the same that I hold for Happy Action Theater: like any toy that only does one thing – however well it does it – it can get old, and fast. Once my kids had played for a few hours, they got it, and would probably be fine not playing it again. When friends come over, it’s a great party game because no one has to learn any controls and there’s no setup, but, even then, once you play through all the channels, the shine wears off a bit. This would be much more objectionable if the game was pricey, but it’s not. In fact, for the first two weeks of its availability, from now until December 31, 2012, it’s free. Afterwards, it will cost $10 to unlock everything, or $5 to unlock everything for owners of Double Fine Happy Action Theater, or you can buy individual stages for $1. This is to say that it’s a cheap date, and compared to a trip to Chuck E. Cheese or some other pricey attraction, Kinect Party is an easy buy.

All of this is very, very fun. When done right, it’s amazing how happily you’ll want to just go right along, never questioning or caring why in one moment you’re playing dress up and the next you’re a winged dragon terrorizing a castle that needs stomping. This means it’s fun regardless of age. College students, friends, DINKs, parents, kids, everyone will smile – the game sort of dares you not to.

It is within these circumstances that Kinect Party can become magical, for anyone – young or old – but you have to let your guard down to really appreciate it. Scoffers will stay bored. But let Kinect Party run you through its paces, let it play you, and you’ll realize something much more special is at work behind the gesture-tracking tech and all the silly ones and zeros Double Fine has assembled here.

THE VERDICT

Other than Dance Central and The Gunstringer, there simply isn’t any other Kinect game that screams “must play”, but scream, bounce, roll and somersault Kinect Party does. And you will too.

Kinect Party is a great game that’s really fun to play. It doesn’t require much more than your attention and the permission to let your guard down. Once you buy in and let the grins come, you’ll be surprised at the trade off that occurs, you playing Kinect Party, and it playing you.

(260)

Pudding Monsters Review

Pudding Monsters is the first fresh title from Zeptolab since its smash-hit Cut the Rope took the App Store by storm in October 2010. That game received significant praise from IGN and other outlets for its collection of clever puzzles and very high level of polish. Pudding Monsters is jam-packed with Zeptolab’s trademark shine, but the puzzles themselves don’t quite stack up to the standard set by the company’s modern rope-cutting classic.

Pudding Monsters is essentially a collection of 75 block-sliding puzzles. Each stage opens with a handful of pre-placed little monsters. Swiping a monster up, down left or right sends it flying in that direction – it’ll keep going until it hits another pudding monster or another object on the stage. The goal of each level is to swipe your collection of pudding monsters until they’ve all glommed together, forming one big super-monster.

Like any puzzler worth its salt, it’s a simple and instantly understood premise that evolves over time. Players will need to swipe their pudding monsters in the proper order and in the proper direction to avoid one from flying off the stage forcing a restart. Zeptolab regularly introduces new gadgets like teleporters and spring-loaded bumpers to keep things fresh. New monster types also add fresh wrinkles. Green monsters leave a sticky trail of slime that will catch and stop other sliding monsters. Psychic monsters move as a group – swipe one and all the rest move too, regardless of where they are on the stage. All these new mechanics do keep things spicy, but they come and go very quickly before it feels like they have been fully explored.

There’s nothing explicitly wrong with Pudding Monsters’ puzzles but there’s nothing especially delightful about them either. Each stage is solved by swiping a handful of monsters in the proper direction and in the proper order, so trial and error can be used to reduce the difficulty of even the trickiest stages. I blew through all 75 stages in around 90 minutes, solving each via the most challenging three-star method. There are a few moment of lightbulb-goes-on puzzle-solving bliss but most of the puzzles are too simple.

Pudding Monsters does do something quite clever and laudable with its three-star system, however. Each stage has three star-tiles on the floor. To earn three stars, a player’s final, fully-joined pudding monster must rest on all three. This leads to the game’s most satisfying moments, as I often found myself knowing how to get my monster on one side of the screen, but unsure how to end the stage with him on the other side, where the star tiles would inevitably be. The twist is that Pudding Monsters also tracks whether you complete a stage with zero, one or two stars. Completing a stage in every way possible nets you a gold crown, meaning each puzzle stage is actually a collection of multiple puzzles. Although it is a smart way to stretch the content, once you’ve found the three-star solution finding the one-star or two-star solutions usually isn far behind.

THE VERDICT

Pudding Monsters doesn’t quite stack up to the great App Store puzzlers like Cut the Rope or Where’s My Water, but it’s still a pleasant and diverting puzzler with plenty of charm and polish. Gamers with a few minutes to kill will appreciate the bite-sized nature of the stages and the frequent introduction of new gameplay twists. Hopefully Zeptolab is cooking up a set of ultra-tough stages to challenge the community of mobile gaming puzzle veterans it helped create with its previous hit.

(121)

The Impossible Review

The Impossible, helmed by The Orphanage director J.A. Bayona, tells the mostly true story of one family’s traumatic experience during the devastating 2004 tsunami that devoured the western coast of Thailand.

The premise is deceptively simple. At the start of the film, we’re introduced to a vacationing family — father Henry (Ewan McGregor), mother Maria (Naomi Watts) and sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) — who arrive in Thailand for a tropical Christmas getaway. However, on the morning of December 26th, they are swept away into a mammoth tidal wave that sends them into the heart of disaster. Now separated, Henry, Maria and their boys must find their way to safety along with the tens of thousands of others caught in the middle of this deadly tragedy.

First and foremost, what really draws you in to The Impossibleis its dynamic sense of scope. While the tsunami is mostly just a backdrop for the narrative, Bayona commands a breathtaking spectacle that really feels authentic. The initial ten-minute sequence depicting the first enormous waves engulfing the coast took over one year to create, with 35,000 gallons of water brought in daily for the one-month shoot, but the results are stunning. If nothing else, the visual effects accomplished here — especially in the first 45 minutes — are nothing short of mind-boggling.

Of course, the heart and soul of this film are its characters. Although their screen time together is minimal, McGregor and Watts each deliver outstanding, moving performances. Frantically weaving through various states of genuine fear and feigned bravery for their kids, Henry and Maria are characters we can easily identify with. Watts is viewed as a potential Oscar nominee for this role, and while it is deserving, McGregor’s performance is equally powerful.

However, the surprise gem in this cast is the young Holland, who is making his impressive feature debut as Lucas. Shouldering responsibilities beyond his age and naturally developing courage throughout the film, it’s Lucas that really exemplifies the candid horror of this grievous situation, and Holland interprets that beautifully on screen.

As it happens, the only real downfall of The Impossible is its relentless sentimentality. Indeed, the harrowing journey of these characters is gripping and heart-rending, but the film occasionally teeters into the realm of emotional manipulation. Coincidence and schmaltz begin to take the reigns around the midpoint, rendering some of the film’s gravitas heavy-handed. Having said that, it’s hard to blame the film too much on this front, as it has to work within the confines of its near two-hour runtime.

THE VERDICT

At times, The Impossible can feel emotionally draining and even exceedingly romantic, but the film more than makes up for it in mesmerizing imagery and ambitious performances.

(102)