The folks at Double Fine have trotted out Elmo and some of his Sesame Street friends into the control-less video game realm by having them anchor the new Kinect title Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster. The premise of the game is that Elmo and Cookie Monster literally bump into each other (shown in a ~4 minute cut scene every single time the game is started) and Elmo shares with Cookie his favorite book, called Once Upon a Monster. The game play follows Elmo and Cookie (along with Oscar and Grover and other new monsters) joining into the action within the book’s pages as they read their way through it.
At this point, the game starts with a tutorial to get the players familiar with the controls and style of the game. In subsequent starts, you can access chapters already played and all of the activities you have accomplished in the game instead of rolling straight into the tutorial. Because the game is clearly intended for a younger crowd, I enlisted my 5-year old (who is very video game savvy) and we headed to the Kinect to see just how well the Sesame Street gang could be incorporated into a Kinect-enabled game.
I pretty much decided to turn him loose on the game to see how well he could learn and adapt starting with the tutorial. After experiencing some initial frustration with what exact movements the Kinect and game required, he picked it up and started to thrive. I was actually expecting more of a learning curve for him because the Kinect does not force the use standardized controls and players of all ages pretty much have to learn a new set of controls with each new title. Once Upon a Monster had a few controls that were expected (turning a page with hand swipe, lots of leaning and jumping for directional movement) and a couple of unique ones (such as pulling tabs on the virtual book to enter into a chapter to play.)
The actually stories/game play in each chapter can be quite lengthy, as you have to earn five stars (usually) in multiple segments (essentially a collection of mini-games) before you move on to the next chapter of the book. As you play these mini-games, it can start to become quite repetitive, as you do each task over and over again until you reach your five star limit or the game decides you never will and ends it. All of these challenges do require some sort of physical interaction. Some examples are drumming in tune with drops of rain, flapping your arms to simulate flying like a bird or leaning in different directions to move your on-screen character around obstacles. For an adult or older kid, these tasks will get repetitive quickly, but for younger kids they will love the interaction with the Sesame Street characters, and the repetition will help them get better at the current and future mini-games. In fact, the most enjoyable part of the game was seeing my son’s face light up as he became more adept at the controls and figuring out what he was supposed to do. He was high-fiving me when he “won” a segment and he even earned a couple of achievements that I would have been hard pressed to do. Although I believe that most game players dislike repetition, for Once Upon a Monster, it is almost a must because the game is actually teaching kids how to interact as much as it is trying to accomplish an in-game task.
After observing him for quite a while, I actually let my son play on his own (checking in on him frequently) for what turned out to be a couple of hours. He became completely engrossed in the game and loved it. And frankly, while that is what really what matters here, I did notice a couple technical issues with the game that need to be touched on. The most obvious was the annoying bug where the game constantly “loses” the active profile that is playing. This mainly happened when the player would leave the Kinect camera area or when the game was paused. The true swap-in, swap-out of players that other Kinect games use (that do not lose track of the active profile) did not appear to be in place here. I honestly am not sure that it mattered, as our save game and achievements were still being accumulated just fine under my gamertag. So while it appears this is a bug that continually notifies you on-screen during game play, I am not sure if it truly affects any vital stat or game save.
In addition to the active profile bug, I also thought the cut-scenes were a little excessive in length and I was unable to figure out anyway to by pass them. Kids of all ages lose focus quickly, and unless you are really into the storyline and Elmo, most players want to get to the next game area ASAP. Probably the worst of the lot is the initial cut-scene when you boot up the game. It lasts anywhere from 3-5 minutes and replays every single time the game is loaded. Even my 5-year old said to me “Why is that playing…AGAIN?” He just wanted to get back to hanging out with Elmo, Cookie and Grover. In hindsight, the only thing really wrong with them is that you are unable to opt out (at least that we found) in order to start the next portion of the game, as most are pertinent to the next game segment.
Earlier, I mentioned how some controls were what we expected while a few were quite unusual, but the one thing that seemed to be missing was more help early in the game to show the players what is being asked of them. I believe a few more visual examples during the tutorial and first game segment would have made the game play for my son much better. He picked things up fairly quickly, but he initially struggled to follow what Elmo and Cookie wanted him to do with their verbal requests. Of course the more we played the easier it was to work the controls, but I think more help would have made the game a tad more fun during the tutorial.
Overall, I think Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster is a cute game that will have strong appeal to younger kids and their parents. It probably won’t garner a lot of play outside of its targeted age bracket, as the game has lots of repetition and cut-scenes that will bore the more advanced gamer. However, the ability to allow parents to expose their kids to interactive game play on the Kinect with age-appropriate subject matter is hard to pass up. Do yourself a favor and spend some time playing it with your child if you pick up this game, it will be a fun experience both of you will enjoy.
Despite a few flaws, Sesame Street: Once upon a Monster provides parents a guilt-free reason to let their kids play video games. The game is geared toward children, yet the co-op makes it fun for parents to play along with them. One thing is for certain, your kids will receive an excellent interactive and educational experience while hanging out with you, Elmo and his Sesame Street pals.
Rating: 8.9 Class Leading