It's panda-monium! Now get off the stage!
Kung Fu Panda has now appeared on all four currently active consoles, including the PS2. Unfortunately, the Wii version gets the short end of the stick with surprisingly primitive graphics, horrible sound quality, and questionable motion-control gameplay.
The game concerns Po, a fairly large panda (voiced by Jack Black) who lives in an animal village in China. Despite his lack of fighting prowess, the village elder (a turtle) names him as the Dragon Warrior and gives him the task of protecting the land from foreign invaders – specifically, a big mean tiger named Tai Lung. Po’s ascendancy shocks the Furious Five, the village’s seemingly most-skilled fighters. Thus begins Po’s training by Shifu, the village elder. This training apparently consists of fetch quests, awkward platforming, and repetitious fights.
Before we begin the panda flambé, let’s talk about what Kung Fu Panda on the Wii does right. First off, this is an excellent game for younger gamers (in theory). Players are usually given a short list of objectives to complete in each level, and are praised for doing so. The main objective is always very obvious—fight the boars, find the eggs, get through the obstacle course - but the secondary objective usually amounts to “find all the fireworks,” or “don’t let the boars steal any treasures.” The levels are also littered with yellow coins which are used to upgrade Po’s stats and attacks. The attacks are wide-ranging, going from a simple punch combo to a belly flop and a Hadouken-style energy punch. The majority of these moves use simple motion-controls to activate, although some motions (like the Hadouken punch) are a little too imprecise to be very useful. Po can also use weapons—usually a simple staff—to attack enemies in yet another way. All of these combat options are great. Also, the writing is lighthearted and, at times, genuinely funny. Jack Black really breathes life into Po.
Unfortunately, the game is plagued by hit detection problems, platforming disasters, and combative situations that don’t take advantage of the robust combat system. Po has a double-jump, but this double-jump does not add any significant height to his jump. He can walk across a tightrope, but balance is tied to the less-responsive Nunchuk rather than the Wii Remote. He can leap across gaps, but the camera will often change direction in mid-leap, which makes landing a problem. He can curl up in a ball and roll around the environment at top speed, but the controls during a roll are iffy and the speed is such that you never really know where you’re going. Po can block enemy attacks in a manner ripped from Super Smash Bros., but enemy attacks often break the defensive sphere too quickly for it to be practical. He can fight enemies, but his stronger attacks, which require motion control, are slow on the pick-up, and our hero is often batted away while preparing his attack animation.
The camera is your worst enemy during the game’s platforming segments, as it switches directions seemingly at random. In open areas, you are able to rotate the camera with the D-pad, but in more static areas, the camera has its own priorities, few of which involve helping you reach your goal. The viewing apparatus tends to hide important items, like green coins (which unlock “bonus” content) and health pick-ups. Platforming sequences are further hindered by Po’s lack of shadow. Most of the time this isn’t an issue, but in swampy areas where Po must leap among lily pads this problem leads to far too many under or over-estimated jumps, and immediate deaths. There are also plenty of instances in which Po gets “stuck” on a piece of the environment while leaping. It’s never game-breaking, but it’s irritating and shouldn’t happen at all.
The absolute worst segments of the game involve interactive cutscenes. We’ve all played Resident Evil 4 and/or God of War by now, right? Both of those games make use of cutscenes in which the player actively partakes, pressing buttons at certain times to affect the outcome of the scene. Instead of using buttons, Kung Fu Panda uses Wii Remote motions to get the job done, and this job is not done well. The problem is that your motions only register half the time. Quick! Move the Remote to the left! Sorry, it didn’t register, and now you have to start all over again. These cutscenes are absolute roadblocks due to the game’s questionable motion sensitivity. There’s also a certain boat sequence which you control with the Nunchuk that is so poorly designed that one wonders if young children (the game’s probable audience) will have the patience for it.
By any grading rubric out there, from a graphical standpoint Kung Fu Panda looks bad. It looks really bad. Environments are dull and painfully flat, character models are blocky and animate poorly, and particle effects are noticeably absent, replaced by obvious 2D sprite effects. When Po walks through water, he’s just walking through a floating texture, with tiny pixels follow behind him.
Kung Fu Panda’s sound is equally appalling. There are times—many times—when the music is just plain absent. Sound effects, depending on which sound effect you’re triggering, are either too loud or too quiet. There are instances when the sound effect just doesn’t register. You throw a bomb only to have it silently explode. The production values are low; let’s just leave it at that.
Amazingly, the best part of Kung Fu Panda is its multiplayer mode. Similar to Super Smash Bros. Brawl, up to four players (sorry, no bots) can duke it out with some of the game’s main characters. Different stages and characters are unlocked by finding special coins hidden throughout the main game. And while the fighting engine isn’t as refined as Brawl itself, Kung Fu Panda’s multiplayer battles manage to keep players interested. Vets may tire of it quickly, but the younger crowd will get the most out of it.
Kung Fu Panda does little to elevate itself above the typical movie tie-in game, and manages to lower itself in a few instances (e.g. graphics and sound). You’d be better off seeing the movie instead.