Version tested: Xbox 360
Back when Xbox Live Arcade launched, it was the relentless action of Geometry Wars that set the tone - simple, frantic, addictive. The game chosen to launch with New Xbox Experience couldn't be more different. A Kingdom for Keflings is gentle and peaceful, and takes its time to reach a quietly compelling destination.
It's a resource-management game, and anyone who grew up on the achingly lovely Settlers games will feel right at home. You're a giant - drawn from a selection of whimsical presets or your own spanking new avatar - and you must help create the utopia of the title. You do this by building up the Keflings' town from a series of steadily unlocked blueprints, starting with simple workshops and cottages, and eventually piecing together cathedrals and a castle of your own design.
Construction requires resources, of course, and you can set the Keflings to work by picking them up and changing their hat. Setting waypoints is easy, so you can quickly build a miniature workforce to collect lumber and rocks. Much like the buildings, more jobs become necessary as your town takes shape. Soon you'll be managing a production line incorporating woven linen, carved wood and magical crystals.
Buildings are put together by ordering various workshops to produce the required pieces from an expanding shopping list, and these range from bedrooms to offices, workbenches to clock towers. As each section pops out of the relevant workshop, you can pick them up and arrange them in the correct configuration on the ground. Get all the pieces in the right place and the building whizzes to life before your eyes.
It's an addictive little juggling act, if a little obsessive-compulsive. There's really no way to lose, so enjoyment comes from doing things efficiently. If your lumberjack Keflings have to slowly lug a forest of wood back and forth between sawmill and where it's carved, it's going to be a long process, so you can pitch in and help, either by chopping, mining or carrying things yourself.
As you chop the Keflings' way through the local resources, you gain access to power-ups that increase speed and carrying ability. You'll also earn hearts, which must be placed in empty homes to attract new families, and books, which are used to create schools and colleges so your tiny friends can undertake trickier tasks. At one point you're asked to choose between two different development paths - essentially magic or industry - but it's a choice with no pressure or terrible consequences. Every now and then the Kefling Mayor will set you a series of tasks, so you can earn more hearts, tools and abilities.
Production becomes a multi-stage affair as the kingdom increases in size, and it's here that the Settlers influence is felt most. With different workshops able to produce different building elements, and a variety of industrious little buildings turning the same raw materials into a range of products, you'll need to retrain and reassign your Keflings on the fly to match whatever project you're undertaking. Lumberjacks deliver raw wood, which is then sawn into planks or carved into decorative pieces. Wool must be sheared, woven and dyed. It's a cunning web of interlinked requirements, even if the challenge of managing it all never raises a sweat.
Gameplay becomes a bit of a grind though as you gather up everything you need for the larger buildings, and the one other annoyance is that demolishing and relocating your constructions is a tiresome fiddle. It's not something you have to do unless you desperately want to improve your workflow, but it does mean that you tend to stroll towards the end of the game without really worrying about anything.
Elsewhere, with its meandering pace and laidback gameplay, Kingdom for Keflings is perhaps an odd choice to launch alongside NXE, but still a very welcome one. The avatars are hardly integral, but that's arguably a benefit. Rather than a hurried game churned out to showcase new technology (TotemBall, anyone?) Keflings was already working and finished. Since the game is all about pottering about doing things your own way, it makes sense to put yourself in the gameworld.
Clearly, this isn't a game for action junkies - with no threats, no armies, and no enemies to speak of - and its strategy elements are hardly taxing either. Since you'll unlock pretty much everything first time through, there's not a vast amount of replay value - just a rather pointless Free Play mode and a mostly unnecessary multiplayer co-op option. Yet it took me around ten hours to complete, and while I was never on the edge of my seat, I was charmed for most of that time, sticking with it until I'd picked up the last gamerpoints. If your gaming palate favours such gentle fare, A Kingdom for Keflings is a lovely way to spend the day.
7 / 10