Version tested: Xbox 360
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.
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.
You can also teach your cub to do tricks. It will imitate everything you do in front of the camera. Stretch your arms up above you and it will stand up on its hind legs. Lie down and roll over and it'll keel over and play dead, tongue lolling. There are loads of these prompting actions, and the cub also responds pretty effectively to voice commands like "lie down". It's delightfully physical; you don't feel stupid reaching out to pet its fur or take a proffered toy. It feels natural.
Leave the cub alone for a while and it will dash off to grab a toy it feels like playing with. There are tens of different balls, chew toys, spray guns, flying discs and the like, but you interact with most of them in exactly the same way, by either throwing it into the screen, aiming with one arm or using your limbs to bat something back and forth. Underarm throwing and kicking are surprisingly accurate in terms of velocity and trajectory.
One exception is the Plunderscope, used to unearth treasures from the ground. It's like a magic spyglass that reveals the location of buried chests. Once you've found one, you help your cub unearth it by making digging motions with your arms. Usually it contains a decorative item that you can arrange in your jungle hut, alongside all your minigame medals and trophies.
New toys can be bought from a shop run by jittery lemurs, or earned from minigame challenges. These unlock steadily, about one every 20 minutes, and take place in different places around the island, and they all involve playing with toys or doing tricks for points. There's the aforementioned RV car race, obstacle courses, trick competitions and squirt-gun shooting galleries, all themed around the bit of the island they're situated in.
Again, though, there are limitations. Although there are loads of minigames – more than 20 – about three quarters of them involve throwing a thing at a target, whether it's hitting crabs with a boot, kicking a football into bubbles or hooking sombreros onto poles. There are only a few that you'd want to play more than once. It's a good thing that there's always a new one right around the corner.
Kids will absolutely love Kinectimals, although very small ones will probably have trouble with the disciplined positioning that Kinect needs to work properly. I'd have gone completely mental over this when I was eight and owned a menagerie of stuffed lions and tigers. Kinectimals is actually releasing alongside a series of plush toys, with tags that you can scan to bring them to life in the game as well. Maybe children aren't so easily impressed by technology nowadays, but I'd have thought that was just magical.
Where some Kinect launch titles consist of one or two decent ideas stretched painfully thin, Kinectimals has plenty of different challenges in a lovely, adorable framework. And it really is irresistibly cute. But it's also limited, and repetitive, and overly prescriptive, scared of letting you just play around and experiment without giving you constant, intrusive goals.
Children won't care as much about the hand-holding, though, and people with a sensitive cuteness reflex will be willing to forgive everything that's wrong with Kinectimals every time their panther cub rolls over and bats the air with those big furry paws. Of all the Kinect launch titles, this is perhaps the one with the most actual substance. Hopefully it's but a hint of things to come.
7 / 10