Whoa… I know Kung-Fu!
I am surprised. Really I am. I mean, the concept of a goofy, uncoordinated panda becoming some kind of kung-fu hero is so lame that it seems like the writers in Hollywood really are throwing darts at a board. Hmm… the main animal star is… a Panda! And he’ll do… Kung-Fu! Damn, just missed "Caribbean Monk Seal" and "Barbershop Hi-jinks"! But when the trailers for the DreamWorks flick came out, it looked like they might be on to something after all. With a smart voice-over cast, including Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, and a nice-looking homage to old-school chopsocky flicks, it looks like Kung Fu Panda could be a winner.
But how about the game? Thanks to Activision, I was worried we'd just get another Shrek game with a panda in it. Well, we're all in for a pleasant surprise, because Kung Fu Panda manages to survive the 18 Bronzemen and come out in one piece.
The basics of this platforming action game are simple enough as you guide our hero, Po, on his quest to become a true dragon warrior and defeat the evil Snow Leopard, Tai Lung, and his hordes of evil minions. Two buttons serve as quick and strong attacks with a third button for special moves. You could easily try and button-mash through the entire game, but Panda offers much more, especially for those who can recite lines from Drunken Master or Five Deadly Venoms in their sleep.
As the game progresses, new moves become available like the rolling Panda Stumble attack, and some counterattacks like the Iron Belly and the dreaded Panda Quake. You can even perform juggling combos or grab smaller enemies and use them as projectiles. In fact, you’ll need this arsenal to get to the end because on anything other than the easiest difficulty, you’ll hit a point in the quest where this “kid’s game” starts to kick your ass.
To further aid your journey, the coins you collect along the way go toward RPG-style upgrades. You can increase health, the damage done by specific attacks, or just get some new threads. At the highest difficulty level, your choices will be one of the keys to success, although you could just go back and play an earlier level for more cash.
And while you’re grabbing all the cash, you’ll need to keep an eye out for hidden jade coins and statues that will unlock secret content including art, clips from the movie, and multiplayer games and levels. Trying to unlock all the goodies gives you even more of reason to roll through the game another time or two.
Some of the single-player unlockables include stages and characters for the multiplayer content. This part of the game could have easily been a throwaway afterthought, but Panda comes through with a nice selection of several challenges including basic Smash Bros.-style fighting free for all to a large assortment of interesting mini-games: Match tiles, shoot cannons, defend helpless woodland creatures, and more. There’s plenty here to keep the whole family occupied.
The best part of Panda is that from time to time it breaks up the standard gameplay of pounding enemies. It tests your reaction time with the correct button presses in a cinematic battle, takes you into the air as Master Crane to save Po from the killer croc, and sails you downriver while throwing Po’s weight around to steer the boat. Defense missions, where you have to protect some character or objects, are also on tap and provide some of the game’s most challenging moments.
Panda’s visuals get a lot of love from the developers and do a good job staying true to the movie. Po is appropriately fuzzy in his close-ups, and both real-time animations and cut-scenes look great.
However, easily the biggest disappointment in the game is that the original cast of voice actors wasn’t brought along for the ride. The voice of Po isn’t Jack Black (although his stunt double does a pretty good job) and the only person from the movie that I could figure out was James Hong, who plays Po’s father as in the movie. The rest of the voice cast, including the “Furious Five” and Dustin Hoffman’s character, Shifu, put on a ho-hum performance. Shifu sounds a little like a crotchety old man and the faux Jacky Chan’s “Master Monkey” character was especially irritating - like a bad dub from one of his 70’s movies.
Another minor annoyance is the game’s camera. You may need to tweak the options to get the controls just right, but no matter how you tweak it, there will be times when it causes you to miss out on something. Panda’s levels have you climbing, jumping, and rolling all over the place and the inability to angle the camera upward can get on your nerves. Tight quarters will bring the camera in too close, and sometimes, there will even be a slight downward tilt. With all that, who knows what secrets may be lurking just above you?
Despite some minor annoyances, Kung Fu Panda turns in a well-rounded performance with enough appeal for small and big kids alike. Diverse gameplay mechanics keep the action from dragging its tail, and bonus rewards and multiplayer wackiness lend some replay value to the adventure. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing would be proud. [Editor's Note: Ling-Ling would be proud in panda heaven.]