Movie licensed games are equal opportunity titles—they are usually released on nearly every current console and maybe a few last-gen ones as well. Such is the case with Kung Fu Panda, the game adaptation of Dreamworks’ latest animated film. Fellow GN staffer Dave Gamble enjoyed the Wii version for what it was, and Randy Kalista was surprised by the quality put into the 360 port. After combo-mashing my way through the PC version, I found that it’s like a lot of other licensed PC titles—a real fish out of water. When a big publisher spams all platforms with a movie licensed game, it’s going to feel out of place somewhere, and it turns out that the PC just isn’t the platform for Kung Fu Panda.
This is ironic, because Kung Fu Panda is a better than average action platformer, with a lot of neat little video game references and great production values. Like the movie itself, the game really surprised me and went far beyond my expectations of a tedious churn-out.
Kung Fu Panda is, first of all, uncommonly attractive for a licensed title. Outside of big budget superhero games like Spiderman, movie titles are typically on the plain side, but Kung Fu Panda takes advantage of modern PC hardware to push some great effects. All of the fuzzy characters have full fur mapping, so Po looks just as huggable in the game as he does on the big screen. The environments are rich with bloom lighting, particle effects and physics—you can smash just about anything into tiny pieces, and then watch them scatter around on the floor. Every character looks and animates like their movie counterpart, and some have voice actors to match. Jack Black is certainly present, and while the rest of the cast has a few sound-alikes in it, most of them are pretty darn close to the movie talent.
The graphics have a drawback, though—at its highest visual settings, the game has an inconsistent framerate even on beefier hardware. My rig is far from cutting edge, but I can run Team Fortress 2 at its highest settings with no slowdown, so I suspect rushed programming is the cause of Kung Fu Panda’s framerate issues. Unfortunately, to get all the fuzzy fur mapping and elegant lighting, you’ll have to play with the settings jacked all the way up; there aren’t many choices on how to customize the graphics, just a single “low, medium, high” slider.
Even at the lower graphics settings, the gameplay remains entertaining if not groundbreaking. You play as Po through most of the game, except in a few boss battles and other isolated situations where you control one of the “Furious Five” or their sensei, Master Shifu. The game does a good job of interleaving the gameplay, which consists mostly of brawling and platforming, in between the movie’s plot. For instance, you’ll play through Po’s grandiose dream in the tutorial, collect fireworks and defend helpless bunnies as he tries to rocket his way into the temple, and then work through the obstacle course by beating time records established by the Furious Five. The cutscenes and dialogue are pretty faithful to the film while setting up what you need to do and how to do it, so young gamers who liked the movie will definitely enjoy the familiarity of the game.
The gameplay is a healthy mix of basic brawling and platforming, with a few novelty sequences that have Po rolling, keeping his balance and solving puzzles with environmental objects, like giant balloons, crossbows and trampolines. The combat isn’t too complex, with strong and fast attacks, complemented with grabs and stronger combos that use chi power. One or two of these moves can be spammed to win just about any fight, but considering this is a kid game, that isn’t a bad thing. Kung Fu Panda is really one of the more competent movie tie in games I’ve played in a while—it plays well and looks good, and the action has enough variety to keep kids interested. As I said, thought, it is a really bad fit for a PC, specifically in the controls department.
Like all of the titles under Microsoft’s half-hearted “Games for Windows” banner, Kung Fu Panda proudly displays that is works with an Xbox 360 controller. That’s fine, but I’m tired of PC ports that claim the 360 pad as an option, when it’s really the only workable way to play. Playing Kung Fu Panda with a keyboard and mouse was so uncomfortable that it made me physically ill; what’s more, there’s little ability to customize the controls or even increase mouse sensitivity, which made camera control a real pain. A PC game shouldn’t come with half-decent keyboard controls—it’s the native interface everyone will be using to play it.
For this reason, I just can’t recommend Kung Fu Panda for the PC. It’s a shame, because the rest of the game is well made and a lot of fun, but uncomfortable controls can be a serious deal breaker. Even if you own a wired 360 pad (or a USB adapter for the wireless ones), it’s still a hard sell. Kung Fu Panda is fun while it lasts, but it’s a short game and kids are sure to tire of it eventually. There isn’t a whole lot of replay value, and most retailers like Gamestop won’t but used PC games. If your kids really loved the movie and you have a high end PC that happens to be your only gaming platform, then it might be a decent buy. Otherwise, get it for one of the other consoles.