The next generation of gaming is off to a very good start. As the first Xbox 360 game to be released, Kameo: Elements of Power turns out to be a fitting showcase for Microsoft's powerful new console. For that matter, the game's really no worse for wear despite several production delays during its many long years in development. This colorful, creative action adventure game is one of the most family-friendly titles among the Xbox 360's starting lineup, but it'll provide a great experience for just about any kind of game player. It's packed with clever and entertaining action, not to mention some of the most highly impressive, razor-sharp graphics you've ever seen, along with terrific music and sound. Kameo feels rather disjointed at first, and it's not a particularly long game, but it ultimately provides a rousing, memorable journey that'll be a fine way to excitedly spend some of your first hours with the new Xbox.
There's not much preamble at first, since the game thrusts you straightaway into a fairly challenging battle without bothering with a proper introduction. You play as Kameo, a slender elf princess with fairy wings and the unique ability to transform into a variety of different, unusual creatures. She's single-handedly assaulting an ominous castle occupied by untold numbers of surly trolls and their ugly, presumably smelly industrial contraptions. It turns out that Kameo's wicked sister, Kalus, is apparently in league with the vile troll king, Thorn. Together they've kidnapped Kameo's family and now threaten the Enchanted Kingdom, Kameo's home. So Kameo does what any young lady would do in her place, assuming that young lady could also transform into a yeti, a plant with boxing gloves, and a roly-poly elephant-mole thing at the drop of a hat.
The opening level of Kameo definitely shows off the game's fantastic visuals and audio (made exponentially better if your Xbox 360 is hooked up to a high-definition display and a 5.1 surround-sound system), as well as its distinctive mechanics. Provided you have some experience with other action adventure games, this one's easy to pick up and play, thanks partly to the responsiveness of the Xbox 360's excellent but familiar gamepad and partly to the onscreen prompts that constantly remind you which buttons perform which functions. Controlling the action from a third-person perspective, you can make Kameo run around (or hover around more quickly) using the left analog stick, and you can freely rotate the camera using the right stick. Kameo's attacks and other moves are mapped to the shoulder buttons, while her transformations are mapped to the face buttons.
For instance, she can morph into the pugilistic plant Pummel Weed at the touch of a button, at which point she can execute left and right jabs using the respective triggers. Pulling both triggers at the same time causes Pummel Weed to burrow into the ground, letting it slip under gates and also setting up a powerful uppercut. Kameo isn't much of a fighter herself, so she must switch between her different forms to overcome various obstacles and defeat all types of different enemies. Yet despite the relatively simple controls, the early going in Kameo may still be rather confusing, since you aren't given a clear sense of what's happening or how to play. Unless you've played a bunch of Metroid Prime, it'll especially take getting used to controlling the elephant mole guy, Major Ruin, who rolls around like a ball. Luckily, the game's got a built-in help system in the form of a self-important (but generally helpful) talking book that's always there to give you advice about your situation. So with a little patience and a few voluntary hints, you should be able to cross this first hurdle without too much trouble.
Suffice it to say you don't manage to take down Kalus and Thorn so soon. Bizarrely enough, once you finish the lengthy introductory mission, you'll find yourself in the Enchanted Kingdom being instructed on the very basics of gameplay--such as how to move around and rotate the camera--as if you hadn't figured all that out already. It's as if somebody decided at the last minute that the original opening of the game was too bland, so the flashy castle level was tacked on in front of it. Whatever the explanation, between the potentially frustrating first level (which forces you to get comfortable with some of the game's most advanced mechanics in what's quite literally a trial by fire) and the unnecessary and late instructional how-to back at the Kingdom, the first hour or two of Kameo may have you shaking your head. But then the game sets you off on a much more satisfyingly coherent sequence of action, exploration, and puzzle-solving sequences. And soon enough, the false start will be forgotten.
There's a lot of variety in Kameo. When you're in the Enchanted Kingdom, there's no danger. It's just you getting to flit around in a vibrantly detailed storybook world, talking to some goofy characters, finding hidden items, and so forth. The richly detailed gameworld rewards exploration to a certain extent, since you can find helpful items and other little secrets by straying from the beaten path. However, even though the gameworld consists of big, fairly open-ended areas, it isn't difficult to tell where you're supposed to go next thanks to the presence of a minimap, in many cases.
When you're traveling across the Badlands, the biggest area in the game, there's a full-on epic feel as you gallop on horseback amid ranks of literally thousands of warring elf and troll warriors. The Badlands sequences prove to make for some exciting interludes, as it's here that the troll armies are attempting to take down the shields protecting the Enchanted Kingdom. Meanwhile, you'll be called in to aid the defense. Massive troll artillery pieces and the huge scale of the conflict combine to make for a sharp contrast to the solo action adventure sequences that the game mostly consists of.
You'll also find some well designed puzzle-oriented adventure sequences as you search for additional creature forms. Each one is held captive by a shadow troll, a scary-looking creature that resides in a hidden lair of some sort. The shadow troll battles are all pretty much alike. They're progressively more challenging each in turn, but the battles are introduced the same way each time, and you'll use the same tactics to beat every one of these fiends, making for a sense of déjà vu after a while. Nevertheless, these showdowns are exciting if only because you'll always look forward to getting new creature forms in Kameo, since each one is distinctively different and has plenty of personality. As for the shadow trolls, just getting to face off against these guys can be a challenge, since their bat-infested domain tends to be closed off to the casual traveler. You'll need to make careful use of your available creature forms' abilities to find access to the shadow realm--so you can then proceed with the rescue.
Despite having numerous tricky puzzle sequences in it, Kameo never stoops to the formula's lowest common denominators, which means you don't have to worry about tediously pushing blocks around or hunting for keys. Instead, Kameo's puzzles are more subtly interwoven into the action, and they tend to be combat-oriented, which helps make them fun. And if the going gets tough, you've always got your magic hint book to guide you through. If anything, the book is maybe a little too zealous in offering you assistance, as it will volunteer its aid seemingly the moment you pause to figure out what to do next. It won't give you a hint unless you actually prompt it to, but it's hard not to give in to temptation if the book keeps urging you for a chat. If you've got strong willpower, you can optionally toggle off the book's banter, limiting yourself to using your own devices as you brave the game's challenges.
Of course, Kameo also features some full-on action levels, kind of like the one at the very beginning of the game. These combat-intensive sequences often force you to finish off groups of trolls and troll sympathizers before you can proceed to the next area. And since combat in Kameo is dynamic and fun, that's quite all right. As you gain access to more and more creature forms, the ways in which you can beat up large numbers of trolls becomes decidedly varied. No matter whether you're scorching them with the burning breath of Ash the dragon, impaling them and using them as projectiles thanks to the brawny Chilla, or pelting them with the stony bits comprising Rubble, chances are you'll have a consistently good time battling Kameo's foes.
On top of that, the action sequences tend to culminate in combat against a big, nasty boss opponent of some sort. Beating these is trickier than it is difficult, but the bosses themselves are so neat to see in action, and the music tends to be so frantic, that these fights serve as some of the best parts of the game. In all, the action sequences of Kameo make up more than half the game, but the other types of gameplay surrounding them meld together seamlessly, making for an adventure that feels refreshingly diverse. You're never stuck doing the same type of thing for more than a few minutes at a time before the game pushes you on to the next in a series of entertaining sequences.
Sadly, the adventure is over too soon--after maybe just eight-or-so hours of gameplay. There's some more for you to see and do after you've finished the main quest, but the main quest feels like it really could have benefited from at least a couple more action levels, since you really don't get much chance to use all the creature forms to their fullest potentials. By the time you've got all 10 forms, or most of them, the gameplay potential is really tremendous, since you're free to switch forms at any time--and it's easy to do so. The game comes up with some really inventive ways for you to combine the various creatures' abilities, but you'll probably be left wishing for more. On the bright side, Kameo certainly doesn't overstay its welcome, as you'll probably be enjoying playing around with all your various creature forms right up until the end. What helps is that you can pick up special fruit during the course of your journey, which lets you upgrade your forms with new or stronger abilities. Most of these extra powers really aren't vital, but getting to pick and choose from upgrades for all your favorite creature forms helps give the game more depth.
There's a two-player split-screen cooperative mode in Kameo, but it's not substantial. It simply plops two players instead of one into the game's various action sequences, without so much as bothering to distinguish between who's who (you're both Kameo-- same outfit and everything). These levels were clearly designed with the solo adventure primarily in mind, so they don't present any significant challenges suitable for two players. And most of the entertainment they do provide comes from the inherent novelty of playing the game with a friend. Besides, since the co-op missions must first be unlocked in the solo adventure, this means at least one of the two players will already know the given level from top to bottom. If one player lags behind the other, he or she automatically warps farther ahead. So it's easy for the more-experienced player simply to tow the other player along. Still, at least the cooperative option is there to potentially prevent two kids in the same household from fighting over who gets to play the new Xbox 360.
Even if you're stuck sitting around watching someone else play, it could be worse, since the game's gorgeous, beautifully detailed visuals really are a pleasure to take in. While Kameo herself looks rather generic, with her anime doe eyes and her plain black tresses, the other characters she'll encounter and the environments she'll explore look marvelous. The environments run the predictable storybook gamut of everything from meadows to ominous caverns to frigid mountains, but all of it's beautifully stylized, filled with lots of little visual flourishes, and just plain great-looking. The characters populating the game are much more inspired, especially Kameo's creature forms, each of which is brimming with weird, cute personality. Rubble, a living pile of rocks, chuckles contentedly whenever he performs his explosive attack, leaving behind just his head. 40 Below, a frozen creature that rides on a snowball as though it were a unicycle, can summon a spiky projectile that can be thrown like a bowling ball. All the while, you can see Kameo's form faintly outlined within each of her elemental warrior comrades.
Overall, the game strikes a fine balance between familiar storybook scenery, with all the sorts of colorful kid-friendly characters you'd expect, along with much-more-unusual imagery that older or more-experienced game players will appreciate. The game is technically outstanding, too. There's a transparent save system, so--provided you have an Xbox 360 hard drive or memory unit--your progress will be saved often, automatically, and without a hitch, relieving you from having to waste time with save menus or save points. Loading times are minimal and the game hums along at a nice, steady frame rate, despite how much seems to be happening onscreen at any given moment. And it all looks markedly impressive on a standard television. But again, as will likely be the case with most any Xbox 360 game, you really need to see Kameo: Elements of Power running on a 720p high-definition display to truly appreciate its visuals.
The sound presentation of Kameo is possibly even better. A stirring, fully orchestral musical score (complete with choir vocals to accentuate many of the game's more awe-inspiring sequences) fits the action wonderfully, instilling in Kameo a truly epic, high-adventure feel. It's really an amazing soundtrack, but the rest of the audio lives up to it quite nicely. Good-quality voice-over can be heard throughout the game, and the dialogue is frequently quite amusing thanks to some funny accents used for some of the oddest-looking characters, like this one octopus-headed little thing that talks like a Valley girl. Much of the sound works on subtler levels, too. So if you listen closely, you'll be able to discern the distinctly different noises each of the creature forms makes while walking and things like that. From the squishy pitter-patter of Deep Blue's suction-cupped feet, to the meek whimpers of the dimunitive-but-deadly thermite, these little touches contribute immensely toward giving the game its charm. And if you've got it hooked up to a 5.1 surround-sound system, you'll enjoy listening to it all the more, as the effects naturally come from all directions, immersing you in the experience.
The only disappointing thing about Kameo: Elements of Power is that it doesn't last longer. It doesn't necessarily feel short, since it's jam-packed with things to see and do, and it keeps throwing new experiences at you from start to finish. But since the combat is mostly pretty easy, and since the puzzle solutions are always right there (courtesy of your talking hint book), you should be able to blow through Kameo pretty quickly, at which point the bonus extras and score challenges probably won't keep you busy for too much longer. Nevertheless, Kameo is absolutely a great game for as long as it lasts, and it's made even better thanks to its state-of-the-art presentation, made possible by the Xbox 360's sheer muscle. Straight out of the gate, Kameo: Elements of Power sets a high standard for how stimulating, creative, and entertaining this classic blend of action and exploration can be on the Xbox 360.