Games based on animated kids' movies rarely surprise, but it's hard to stop your eyebrows arching when you realise that this latest entry in the maligned genre comes across as nothing more than a child-friendly version of Sony's hyper-violent God of War. The ursine martial artist of the title is Po, a chubby daydreamer who fancies being chosen as the legendary Dragon Warrior. I won't be spoiling anything to reveal that his destiny involves this very occurrence, but the journey to get there is more entertaining than any licensed platform game has the right to be.
At its heart, and for the majority of its levels, Kung Fu Panda is a melee beat-'em-up, in which waves of enemies approach from all sides, and you fend them off using rapid-fire combos and special moves. The game shrewdly opts to keep things simple, leaving the young player with a small but useful arsenal of attack options rather than overwhelming them with long-winded button combinations.
You have a fast attack, and a strong attack. These can be modified by using them in conjunction with one another, or by using them while running or jumping. There's also a block, and an action button which can be used to trigger specials like the Panda Quake ground slam or Panda Tumble rolling attack. The brawling is broken up by occasional chase sequences, some basic platform exploration and our old friend Trevor Quick-Time Event. Optional objectives generally involve finding a certain number of hidden items, or rescuing innocents from small cages. There are also large floating coins to collect and secret things to sniff out, squirreled away in the scenery.
So, originality clearly isn't a priority. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. While you could argue that the game is simplistic, I'd say it's accessible and that's a good thing when too many kids' games seem to have no idea how kids actually play games. Luxoflux, creators of the awesome Vigilante 8, has focussed on a small number of gameplay elements and shuffled them together in an intelligent and enjoyable fashion. Considering the prevalence of the kitchen sink approach, where games-of-the-movie throw everything into the mix in the hope that something will work, such focus and restraint deserves praise.
And, make no mistake, Kung Fu Panda is a very likeable game. This is due in no small part to the fact that you can tell the developers have gone the extra mile to produce something that could stand on its own as a self-contained videogame experience, rather than just riding the inevitable wave of movie hype. There's a solidity and attention to detail in the visuals, with bright, colourful and engaging characters and environments - that we rarely see in movie spin-off games. Jack Black supplies a genuinely funny narration that contains more energy and enthusiasm than most actors bring to such projects.
Control is crisp, enabling even younger players to engage attackers from all sides in style, while the animation does an excellent job of chaining it all together into something that looks natural and fluid. It puts cool moves within reach, makes you work to reach the end, but never allows poor design to make things frustrating. A few of the levels could perhaps benefit from clearer signposting as to where you need to go, but there's nothing a smart child won't be able to work out. In an ideal world, such things wouldn't be all that noteworthy but it says a lot for the poor state of kids' games in general that Kung Fu Panda stands out simply for making an effort to exceed its audience's expectations.
With thirteen levels it's not the biggest game in the world, but provided you're not one of those people who measures the value of a game solely in terms of hours spent, it feels nicely paced. It expands on the movie story, by necessity, but none of the sections feel like obvious padding - Po's journey from lazy idealist to Zen warrior keeps moving at all times, the villain is threatening but not unbeatable and there are enough new abilities and playable characters sprinkled throughout the story to keep things interesting.
Even so, you're looking at maybe a few evenings of casual play to finish the game. Luckily, it has one last ace up its baggy kung fu sleeve - a brace of multiplayer modes (offline only, unfortunately) that are both numerous and varied enough to have you scouring each level for the rare coins that unlock them. From four-player Powerstone-style brawls to team survival challenges and even quirky versions of Yahtzee and picture-matching puzzles, it's an impressive suite of additional gameplay that extends the game's lifespan in surprising ways.
Kung Fu Panda won't be winning any awards, and it won't be gracing any end-of-year lists, but that's not to say it doesn't deserve carefully measured praise. It manages the not inconsiderable feat of being a solid action game first and foremost, and a part of a blockbuster licensing campaign second. It's certainly the most enjoyable and polished kid's game without "LEGO" in the title for an embarrassingly long time. Parents wondering if they should cave in to pester power after a cinema trip can fork out for a rental or a purchase and know that they'll at least be getting an actual game for their money, not just a half-baked marketing exercise.