Kinectimals

Kinect paw.

If you're looking for just one game to buy with your new Kinect unit, you might feel like you're in a difficult position. Would you rather race pretend cars, or play imaginary football and tennis? Without spending upwards of another 70, you're not surely seeing the full range of the camera's potential. But you don't have to buy all of them to see everything that Kinect can do. There's another option, and Kinectimals is it.

Here's the thing: Kinectimals actually does pretty much everything that the other launch titles do (alright, except Dance Central), and in a much more adorable way. Want to race a car with an imaginary steering wheel, like in Joy Ride? You can drive a remote control car around a track with a tiny tiger balancing on top of it. Want to flail your limbs at balls, like in Adventures' Rallyball? You can do that, too, playing kickball with a prancing baby cheetah.

You can knock over skittles and dominos by throwing things at them, feed giant frog mouths with tennis balls, kick footballs at targets and explore a surprisingly large, varied and beautiful fantasy island, all in the company of extremely cute, believable virtual animals. It's an adorable pet simulator, a charming adventure and a minigame collection, all in one, for the same price as all the other launch titles.

Admittedly, playing with miniature big cats takes a little getting used to; there's a primal human instinct that warns you to beware of smiling tigers. It was a while before I could look at my leopard cub, Andrew, without half-expecting him to suddenly savage one of the bunnies hopping around the glade, or my face. There are 20 baby felines altogether in this animal Neverland, and you don't have to pick just one. You can switch between any of the initial selection of five, and together you'll encounter more and more new playmates as you explore the vibrant island setting.

Not only are there leopards, there are several different types of leopards! (Video: first 15 minutes of Kinectimals.)

Kinectimals is gobsmackingly, heartbreakingly cute. It's like Zooborns: The Game. The cubs are brilliantly animated, with touchably soft fur and playful, adventurous natures. They'll rub themselves up against the screen, lick your face, peep out from behind things, pant when they're thirsty, chase birds and tumble around, fetch balls like obedient dogs and purr like kitties. I've never seen more appealing, expressive virtual animals (outside of Viva Pinata, obviously). It's difficult not to talk to them, or squeak in involuntary delight when they sneeze.

When you arrive on the island, you're greeted by a very creepy fairy ferret chimera with an unnecessarily high voice, who remains your ever-present and increasingly irritating guide for the duration of the game. This is easily the worst thing about Kinectimals. It's hand-holdy, and doesn't like to let a minute go by without offering you something new to do, when all you want to do is play. Tutorials and cut-scenes are almost all unskippable, which is fine when you're watching baby big cats gambol about, but deeply boring when you're listening to Tinkerferret prattle on about how to select the map.

The idea is to explore the island with your cub, unlocking new areas, minigames, toys and other animals as you go. Playing around and completing random mini-challenges like throwing balls at targets, or getting your cub to do a specific trick fills up a sort of experience bar that gradually earns you the right to a new minigame or part of the island. You really have to put in some hours to access it all.

As a virtual pet simulator, the closest comparison is EyePet. Your cub doesn't need feeding and walking every day like a Nintendog obviously, as felines, they're more independent. There's no aspect of obligation to Kinectimals, which means no guilt when you've been away from it for a few days. It also means you can unlock stuff at your own pace, without being dictated to by a calendar.

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