Move over, Skittles. I like Smokey.
There I was, a 24 year-old male, sprawled across the floor on my back, staring at my screen. The bright-eyed panda bear on the screen flopped over, playing dead. A syrupy sweet fairy's voice instructs me to get up and whirl around in a circle. I do as commanded. The bear swirls around and topples.
I hope you're all happy. I went through hours of embarrassment, all for you people reading this. And you know what? I'd do it all over again if I had a kid to play with—a son, a daughter, a baby sibling.
I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that if you're reading this, it's because there is at least one kid in your life you're considering picking this game up for (or just a serious animal lover). Well, I endured the childish tomfoolery so you didn't have to and managed to survive without a scratch. And I can tell you that, while I am clearly not the intended audience for this game—and it's likely that most if not all of you reading this aren't, either—I can appreciate that Kinectimals with Bears is, as a whole, a well-made children's game. And I'd better manage to convince some of you of this notion because, damn, I'm still suffering from some tennis elbow after all the arm swinging I've done.
I haven't played the original, wild-cat flavored Kinectimals nor did I have much Kinect experience prior to this review. What I can say is that if you've already played Kinectimals, this bear-centric quest is not as large as the original and is going to be more of the same. However, if you've never played this title before or you're looking for a piece of software to help you see what Kinect is capable of, I'm sure this game will fit the bill. I strongly recommend you prep the DVR/Netflix with something super depressing to watch immediately after playing Kinectimals, though, or else the constant cuteness that bursts from your television set may send you into a coma of happiness if you're not cautious. The animals may be designed to be photo-realistic, but their faces animate like cartoon characters. It's a one-two combo of adorableness. Watch out.
Whether you decide to play with cats or bears (and is there really any contest here, seriously?), the structure of Kinectmals will be the same. Yes, I did use the word 'structure' in that last sentence. I went in assuming that this game would be like Nintendogs, a virtual pet sim. It's not. You don't have to manage your animal's fur or keep it fed or take it for walks. You simply play with it, discover new tools and toys, and complete challenges. The game welcomes you in with vibrant natural environments and a furry, animated host, setting up some pirate-themed backstory to explain your goal in exploring the island. What it boils down to, though, is interacting with animals so cute it should be illegal and completing mini-games based on the activities you learn with them.
This is both a great strength and weakness of Kinectimals. Essentially, the game gives you free reign to interact with your bear—because, let's face it, that is the animal you're going to play with—earning Discovery Points (ooooooh!) that unlock challenges. This open-ended structure gives children freedom to play and go nuts doing whatever they feel like, but still maintains an overarching focus to keep them engaged and instill a sense of purpose. While this works out well early on, it flattens in later portions that require performing repetitious tasks to move to the next challenge. In shorter bursts, this design will probably hold up well, but in longer sessions, its edge will get dulled quick.
The challenges themselves require reflexes and some amount of precision. I had some issues with throwing, however. Tricks, juggling, fishing, steering, climbing... these all made sense and were quickly intuited, but throwing seemed off. Oftentimes the object I was meant to throw would stick to my in-game hand or would go flying off in a totally different direction than where my arm was pointing. This could simply be my own ignorance in using Kinect, but I didn't have problems with any other aspects of the controls. Even so, the game seemed to be lenient on throwing, and I would hit targets sometimes that I felt like I wasn't going to.
The challenges also award medals that unlock new objects, toys, and apparel, so you can ensure that your Kodiak bear is looking stylish in that pink princess collar with matching heart tag. Even an adult like myself wasn't always able to earn gold medals on my first try, so I'm betting that going for those golds will keep kids busy. The fact that the Kinect lets one player walk off and another walk in and retry the same challenge under a different profile is a nice touch, too.
With that said, while Kinectimals does possess structure and content above and beyond a pet simulator, after the challenges are complete, I'm not sure what other entertainment may be had. The animals don't need to be cared for in any way, and the direct interaction with the animals is actually somewhat minimal compared to Nintendogs. Of course, you could argue (and how dare you, I'm the critic here) that this is a children's game, and that I'm being a little harsh. Or, maybe you've already dismissed any merit such a game could possess because “iz not teh hardcorez!” The fact is, children's media ought to be handled with a different type of care than something like Gears of War, and Kinectimals does a good job in this endeavor and more games should strive to appeal to kids in this way.
To be more specific, I don't mean that this game treats you like an idiot. It doesn't. That's part of what makes it endearing and useful. The game uses its colorful, fuzzy protagonist fairies to serve as guides, and the characters sound like something ripped from Nick Jr., but in a good way. Shut up, it can be in a good way, I swear. They speak fairly naturally, use words and phrases that aren't merely base level. They animate their bodies on screen with shimmering hands or feet to help players visualize what body movements will trigger the Kinect to recognize the proper motion. They directly address and instruct the human player without making them feel like they're stupid. They enforce lots of subtle but probably healthy ideas—like when you catch a butterfly, you should free it after observing it. If all of this sounds like bullcrap to you, then... well, why are you even reading a review about Kinectimals, man?
Shockingly enough, I could go on about this endearing children's game for longer than I can about many other, more difficult games. Make fun of me all you want, but I enjoyed wiping saliva off the TV screen and acting like a kid. And if you have a kid in your life—especially one who likes little furry things with eyes—there's a really good chance that Kinectimals will win them over, and get you off your ass and doing something with those arms of yours. Also. Freaking bears, man.
Review is based on the Xbox 360 version, of course. Copy was provided by Microsoft.