Few games are as flat-out endearing as Kinectimals. This pet simulator and minigame collection is clearly meant for a younger crowd, and that audience will fall head over heels for the wide-eyed wildcat cubs that romp around with you as you move from one activity to the next. Few games succeed so well at using cutesy charm to keep you consistently engaged, even when the activities masked behind that charm are so shallow and inconsistent. You shouldn't come to Kinectimals looking for depth or breadth of content. Instead, you should approach it for what it is: a simple and easygoing way of interacting with some of the most adorable animals to ever appear in a video game.
That charm is evident from the moment you boot up the game and select a cub to call your own. You choose from a small selection of equally lovable young big cats by petting and scratching one (performed by mimicking these motions with your hands) and then give it a name by speaking it aloud. But if you aren't immediately enchanted by your purring, prancing bundle of fur, it will only be a matter of minutes before you fall in love. The cubs are authentic enough to seem like real creatures, but they're coated with a hint of sugar. Their faces are highly expressive, they purr loudly when they move close to you, and their backs rise when you brush them or give them a sponge bath. Their expressions and movements are slightly exaggerated, but never so much as to make them seem cartoony. This is just as well because the world they inhabit is also somewhat exaggerated yet ultimately strikes a realistic chord. The sun shines on meadows covered with thick blades of grass. Trees draped in soft pink cherry blossoms waft in the breeze. Rabbits hop in the background. Your cub gets coated with dirt or snow when he plays, and when you are done brushing him, he shakes away the remaining dust or snowflakes. Sure, the general store is presided over by a lemur. But this is a bright, beautiful world in which the animals are still animals and not given human characteristics.
Well, one animal is: Your adventure is presided over by a hovering meerkatlike creature named Bumble. He's a big help to younger players, narrating the story and giving hints on how to proceed, which probably makes him a necessary nuisance. But he's a cartoon element in a game that goes out of its way to present an authentic place. Bumble would have been less garish if it seemed like he inhabited the world, but he looks pasted on, as if he is hovering in front of a movie screen, rather than interacting with the environment. Aside from a few occasions in which blurry vertical scan lines appear for a few moments before they fill in, he's the only visual flaw in a gorgeous game. His squeaky voice may be the only audio annoyance in Kinectimals as well. The flute flutterings and clarinet melodies invite images of butterflies and perpetual summers. Making interface selections results in twinkles and soft drumbeats. Everything is always bright and cheery but never so sweet as to rot your teeth. In other words, this is a vacation paradise only occasionally spoiled by the overbearing host.
Kinectimals is part pet simulator and part minigame collection, broken up by a bit of dollhouse-style customization of your humble hut. By interacting with your cub, you unlock new minigame challenges and, eventually, new areas to visit. These interactions are simple, but they use the Kinect hardware in natural ways. For example, you play ball with your cub (or with your primary cub's playmates) by tossing it to him and then hitting or kicking it back and forth. You play jump rope by simulating the motion with your arms. You teach him to jump by leaping into the air and to play dead by lying on the floor--or by calling out "play dead." It feels like you are actually playing with a real pet, whether you're squirting him with a water gun or feeding him fish-flavored kibble. Other activities let your cuddly buddy roam about and generally act like a kitty. You might need to knock over some large dominos with a cowboy hat, and your cub will be perfectly happy to run after the hats you throw, knocking dominos over in the process. Conversely, he can sometimes get in the way of the object that you toss. It's really like having a cat with you; its good intentions both helping and hindering your simple objectives.
Once you earn enough points in free-form play, you unlock the next challenge, which is a minigame you perform in the hopes of earning a gold medal and a new item, such as a toy or a collar. These games are fun at first, partially because of the novelty of performing them by simulating the corresponding motions. Once that novelty wears off, however, you start noticing that the large majority of these activities--both in challenges and in free play--are incredibly similar to each other and involve throwing one thing at another. Throw an alien ship at dominos. Throw discs through hoops. Hit lanterns with a ball of mud. Toss rings onto hoops. And so on and so forth. Other games are unsuccessful for reasons other than their repetitive nature. Sometimes, the object you throw seems somewhat magnetized to your target. Other times, that helpful nudge goes missing. This makes a few of the disc-based minigames a bit vexing because discs will often catch air and go flying above your target again and again. The game tells you that you can affect the trajectory of a disc by leaning left or right or by crouching, but this doesn't seem to work much of the time, so attempts to influence disc flight are imprecise at best.
Similar imprecisions intrude in other ways. Obstacle course challenges in which you must run in place, jump, run while crouching, and so on are exhausting but enjoyable; this is partly because your cub looks adorable when he's scrambling up walls and balancing on narrow beams. But there isn't a one-to-one relationship between your actions and the actions onscreen, and it's unsatisfying to see movements take place in the game a second or two after you perform them. Later versions of these courses include a slalom in which you must hop back and forth on both feet in order for your kitty to weave in and out of a sequence of poles. This action only works correctly about half the time, which is disheartening when it means you don't earn the medal you were gunning for and have to run the draining course again. Butterfly collection is another inexact activity. The net faces a direction of its own choosing regardless of which way your palm is facing, so gathering these fluttering beauties often boils down to randomly waving your arm back and forth, which seems to do as good of a job as any authentic approach.
Other activities utilize the Kinect hardware in clever ways. You drive remote-controlled cars through winding courses and in free-play arenas by holding your hands as if you're gripping a steering wheel and rotating them to steer. To accelerate, you push your hands forward; to reverse, you pull them back. These games don't require much precision, so the driving feels good and only occasionally awkward. Besides, the sight of a Bengal tiger cub on a speeding RC car is one of the most irresistible pleasures in Kinectimals. Training exercises are another delight. There are a surprising number of different tricks to teach your cub, from simple tasks like sitting and begging to more involved moves, such as standing on its hind legs and performing barrel rolls. There are times when the game doesn't recognize your pose, but more often than not, your cub mimics your posture. This is Kinectimals at its best: absurdly precious, but not quite a sugar overload. The way your cub sticks his tongue out, goes stiff, and drops to the ground when playing dead is consistently disarming. Watching him flop about on his belly like a caterpillar further endears this little scamp to you.
Another activity involves unearthing treasures by holding an item called a plunderscope in front of you and searching for telltale plumes of glitter. These treasures aren't usable items--just artifacts that go on display in your little hut. You can customize your hut in other ways as well. You spend currency you earn by playing minigames on new goodies, like collars and pendants for your cub, or new toys to play with, such as balls and jump ropes. You can also purchase new furniture, which you use to deck out your cozy home. Each piece of furniture has a predetermined location, so you don't have the freedom to practice your elaborate decorating skills, but decking out your home with new stuff is still appealing enough to have you going back to the lemur-owned store to see what you can purchase. You can stick to a certain look if you prefer, choosing furniture and decor with, say, an Asian theme, or you can mix and match as you see fit. There are enough choices that both boys and girls should find a look that suits them. And though they are small touches, it's still fun to see your shelves fill with the various treasures you accumulate, and to check out your growing butterfly collection.
You can perform challenges with friends to compete for high scores, but unusually for a minigame collection, Kinectimals is more comfortable as a single-player experience. The minigames are too uneven for them to be added to your family game rotation, but more importantly, they are a backdrop to the more interesting notion of getting to know a virtual companion. If you wait for a few moments without choosing an activity of your own accord, your cub will bring you a toy, or a brush, or a whistle, indicating what he wants to do next. He'll nudge the interface as you cycle through selections, as if to give you a stamp of approval. He'll flip a hat you toss onto his head and return it to you. Your pet may not grow, but he's otherwise as adorably authentic as you could hope for without being saccharine. Most of the more game-y elements are weak, but it's difficult to dwell on them for long, when there's a purring pussycat nuzzled against the screen.