This Kinect swansong shows that there was strange potential lurking within the peripheral after all.
Picking up any new game for the first time, there's an elementary question of identity. Are you a part of the game's world, or apart from it - protagonist or a glorified spectator, fulcrum or false god or all of these things and more? In Fru - the possibly last, probably greatest of Xbox One's dedicated Kinect offerings - you play nothing. Not a mere non-entity in the sense that, say, Gordon Freeman is fundamentally just a reticule and a jump button, but a fluid, lurid absence, a hole in reality mapped by Kinect onto your silhouette.
Fortunately, there's more than one reality on offer. Your digital shadow is in fact a portal to a parallel dimension - an alternate version of each 2D environment with a different layout. Progress is about exposing the bits of each reality which allow your charge, a frail but nimble girl in a fox mask, to advance from left to right, while blocking dangerous objects such as lava flows from view. It's the setup for an amusing, exhausting platformer whose achievement derives from how it embraces the body as above all, something highly specific and saddled with peculiarities, rather than the generic, optimised instrument of fun that is bandied around in Kinect marketing materials.
Thus the pipe-smoking armchair academic take. The more down-to-Earth version is that Fru is an afternoon's worth of Twister played mostly standing up, where instead of straining to lay a finger on the spinner board, you're struggling to keep your grip on an Xbox One controller. The game's body mapping technology is dependable, and the pad controls straightforward enough: you move the girl with either left or right analog stick and jump with either trigger, which makes it possible to play with the pad in either hand. The first few puzzles are also fairly forgiving - a question of loitering to one side to uncover a ledge, or obscuring a pitfall with your palm - but the difficulty ramps up swiftly.
Before long you'll find yourself stretched across the scenery, arms extended to enclose a flock of moving platforms, or tucked into a corner with one foot propped on a chair, so that the waif in your custody can scamper along your shinbone to safety. The key objects in each scene are seldom distributed evenly or considerately between the visible and hidden planes - you'll often run into a situation where the surface you need to unmask is tucked in amongst objects that vanish under your hand, obliging you to cram a limb into the gap, then hold it in place while guiding your ward across.
It may be wise to close the curtains before settling in for the long haul, for the neighbourhood's sake. I have completed puzzles in Fru lying flat on my back, arms and legs held vertical as though fending off evil spirits. I have beaten scenarios by thrusting my bum out and ducking my head under an invisible trigger line, like Catherine Zeta-Jones sneaking through the laser maze in Entrapment, only Catherine didn't have to stop now and then to cough into a handkerchief.
There are as many solutions to each puzzle as there are ways of moving your body, and thus many, many ways of embarrassing yourself. Complicating matters further are the optional collectibles, 24 in all, which require truly terrifying feats of contortion to obtain (thankfully, there's the odd mid-puzzle checkpoint to soften the blow). The screenshots speak for themselves. They certainly spoke volumes to my girlfriend.
Are the puzzles themselves worth all that pain? Yes, just about. Fru's offerings are familiar if you strip out the execution - parallel dimension quandaries in platformers date back to Sonic CD and before - but they're artfully paced and layered, and in any case, looking at them in isolation from the execution is missing the point rather. It's one of those games that teaches you things about the underlying machinations without appearing to, such that clearing each hurdle feels both triumphant and inevitable, and there's real delight to teasing out the potential of those asymmetrical environments and controls - working out that you can have the girl trot up your arm and right over your head by kneeling "inside" a block of basalt, for instance, or catching her on your toe like a football after accidentally letting a platform scroll out of view.
It's a disappointingly quick play, around three hours long if you discount the unlockable pre-release version of the game, but an elegantly put-together one. Each of the four chapters is woven around a new mechanic, while still retaining the bulk of what you've learned from previous puzzles - the third introduces magic glyphs that cause ledges to appear or vanish, as long as they're kept in view. There's also the lightweight story, which feels like it may have fallen victim to a deadline, but deserves praise for how it refuses to spell things out that the art and ambience gradually make plain.
In amongst all this, Fru manages its own, distinct variation on the idea of a protective bond between player and avatar. Games in which you play surrogate parent to something small, cute and squishy aren't exactly thin on the ground, but offering up your own flesh as a navigable surface fosters an unusual emotional dynamic (in fairness, developer Through Games follows on here from the Xbox 360's Leedmees, a Kinect variation on Psygnosis classic Lemmings). In the second chapter, the environment accessible through your silhouette is underwater, allowing the girl to swim around inside your head as you inch sideways, doing your best to avoid gigantic orange tangles of sea urchins. Pregnancy is the more obvious analogy, but I came away feeling like I'd participated in some charming allegory for cognition itself - manoeuvring a thought through a neural thicket of dead ends and distractions till at last, with a bound, she could leave the flesh behind.
A little less poignantly, Fru is the first game I've played that has caused me to seriously consider the size of my bottom. I've always prided myself on being above such things, stalking past over-priced London gyms with the haughty aplomb of a man who hasn't had to chat anybody up for 10 years, but here it's a matter of life or death. You can obviously change the size of your silhouette by moving closer to the sensor, but there are times when it pays to be endowed like Kate Moss - and conversely, moments when a John Goodman-grade rear will stand you in fine stead.
Fru has the sad honour of proving a number of things right about Microsoft's vision for Kinect, years past the point when it might have made a difference. For starters, it shows that Kinect games can succeed because of Kinect rather than in spite of it, providing they're actually conceived with the peripheral in mind. It reminds us, too, that ease of use isn't an automatic good, that the inevitable fuss and confusion of motion control can serve a designer's purposes. And it's a hint at what might have been accomplished away from the maelstrom of blockbuster games publishing, had the nascent Kinect indie scene ever reached critical mass. A window, then, into a world of promise and frustration, tragically unrealised but still worth visiting.
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