Help me! I’m drowning in cute!

That’s how I felt playing Kinectimals more or less the entire time. But because I’m a professional amateur reviewer, I’ll put that aside and focus on how good this game is and — more importantly — whether its target audience would enjoy it. And in case you haven’t worked it out, this game’s target audience is rather younger than you or I.

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The basic concept of Kinectimals is somewhat similar to Nintendogs or Sony’s EyePet, in that you take care of and play around with an animal of your choice. In this game, you choose from a range of different cats. Well, when I say ‘cats’, I mean little tigers, panthers, or other normally-large-and-ferocious members of the wider cat family. Here, of course, they’ve been turned into cute (there’s that word again) and fluffy little things with the temperament of a kitten hopped up on party pills.

The setting of Kinectimals is a large and lush island, and in between exploring its various areas, you’ll spend your time throwing balls, driving RC cars, partaking in mini-games, and cleaning or feeding your pet. There’s actually a surprising amount to do here — I was expecting a shallow collection of tasks involving you and your pet, but there’s actually a lot of game to this game. The overarching goal of exploring the whole island and unraveling several major mysteries is pretty in-depth and takes a lot of work to achieve. And along the way you’ll be side-tracked by a ton of activities and objects.

In fact, this might just be the most substantial of the Kinect launch titles, at least in terms of the number of hours you can sink into it. Who’d have guessed it?

At a basic level, you can pull out your ever-expanding toy box to partake in a number of simple activities. You can groom your cat — oh yeah, my one’s called Sammy — or simply stroke it; feed it treats; throw a Frisbee for it to fetch; help it dig up hidden treasure; and perform copy-cat tricks. That last one is oddly fun, and sure to be a hit with the kids: if you raise your arms up, your cat will try to copy you. Sit down, and your cat will sit down. Jump, and so will your cat. Roll over on the ground, and your cat will play dead. Simple, yes, but exactly the kind of interaction ability that helps foster an emotional attachment to the virtual thing on the screen in front of you.

Punctuating these low-level moments are a seemingly never-ending series of mini-games that you can return to at any point. Getting good scores in these are a good way of continuing your exploration of the island, although — just like any mini-game collection — some are better than others. You’ll be kicking soccer balls into bubbles, flicking frisbees into stacked objects, and more in your attempt to get a high score. In fact, forget about games like Joy Ride or Kinect Sports — many of the mini-games found there are more or less replicated in Kinectimals. My two qualms: a lot of them boil down to the same thing, and some don’t incorporate your cat enough.

I haven’t mentioned the graphics yet, have I? I should, because they’re great. Lush, vibrant, textured, friendly, polished: all these words would be appropriate here. Your cat looks great, even on a 55” TV when it’s pressed its face right up against the screen. Its fur in particular is just very cool.

But the island itself almost steals the show. I’ve seen my fair share of pretty scenery in games and gotten used to nice graphics, but the waving grass, bubbling brooks, swaying trees, and dappled hills in Kinectimals have obviously been made with love and care. Technically you can probably find holes in the graphics, but from an artistic standpoint I think they really nailed the look they were going for.

So far, so good, right? Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the land of Kinectimals. One tiny creature manages to cast a ridiculously big shadow over the proceedings, and his name… is Bumble. This unholy flying weasel/ferret/rat thing is the game’s help system, and boy is he annoying. Actually, the first time you meet him, he’s not so bad — you just think, “Oh, he’s just like any character from Dora the Explorer or whatever.” But when he turns up for the hundredth time in the first half an hour, you’ll be screaming at him to get lost.

Seriously, he’s an incongruous element in Kinectimals, and he’s as tenacious as a cockroach. Want to muck around with your cat for a little bit after completing a mini-game? Hard luck — Bumble is here to show you something new and exciting in an unskippable cutscene! You do pass through into the cold, dark valley of quiet fury after a while and accept his blighted presence, but it’s very unfortunate that he — whether deliberately or not — constantly gets in the way of the sometimes quite awesome fun of playing with your cat.

Now that that’s out of my system, I should probably qualify it by saying that younger kids might actually need to be guided that much. I just wish you could turn him off, or at least select from several pre-set options that determine how much he jumps in front of your face. How hard could it have been, for example, to have an option saying, “Are you five years old? Here, have a flying weasel hang out with you more than your actual cat!”

Beyond that? Mini-games do, as I said, get repetitive, and mostly boil down to similar tasks. But if you form a bond, however mild, to your cat, then you’ll forgive a fair amount of dud offerings. And that’s where Kinectimals gets things both right and wrong. It obviously recognises the importance of seemingly inconsequential actions and abilities that help people connect with their virtual cat — and to the developers’ credit, this stuff works. But then they’ll throw in the demon ferret help system or a mini-game that actually gets in the way of the simple fun of hanging out with your feline pal.

In the end, though, Kinectimals gets more things right than wrong. As with all the Kinect games I’ve played, I’m left with the feeling that the developers could do wonderful things with the sequel. But unlike something like Joy Ride, that shouldn’t put you off getting this game if a) you love cute things, and/or b) there is a child in your house. I have a few friends now with small kids, and every night I pray that they never find out I have something like Kinectimals, or they’ll never leave my house.

"For the right person, this will be catnip."
- Kinectimals
Follow Own it? Rating: G   Difficulty: Easy   Learning Curve: 15 Min


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Comments Comments (1)

Jonny5 from NZ
Posted by Jonny5 from NZ
On Tuesday 7 Dec 2010 8:07 AM
This will be the first game I buy for my girls (aged 3 and under). It's a bummer about the flying weasel though.