When the GamingExcellence team went to X'05 in Toronto, Canada, we noticed that the game with the most playable stations (and with the most visible presence) was Kameo. This was no big surprise considering that this was one of the three Microsoft published titles at the event. Oddly enough though, Kameo was also the most deserted game at X'05. People seemed to play it for a few minutes, get frustrated and walk away to something else. And I'll be the first to admit it; after playing Kameo (or trying to play Kameo since it was hard to tell what to do without any sound), I was glad (and thankful) that I wasn't tasked with writing the preview on it. Things would not have been pretty. I'll further admit that Kameo was the only game at X'05 that I disliked and that it wasn't just a slight dislike either; I thought it was an all-new-kinda-bad.
Still, all my non-gamer friends that were picking up the Xbox 360 on launch day had already pre-reserved Kameo. Did they really know something I didn't? Was Kameo, the diminutive little pixie, appealing enough (even over Joanna Dark) to sway grown men into paying money to play a bad game? I honestly thought I was going crazy until I realized these were the same friends who didn't know that Project Gotham was a racing game or that Ridge Racer didn't involved boats. I felt reassured in my gaming knowledge and in the fact that all my GamingExcellence teammates felt the same as me on this issue.
Seeing initial reviews, I was instantly skeptical of the positive ones and secretly justified by the negatives. At the same time however, I was feeling like there was something missing in my gaming life. The initial launch titles I'd picked up were all good games and they looked amazing, but none of them really screamed "next generation" to me. I was looking for new gameplay twists and ideas. My non-gamer friends played their Kameo copies and said they really liked it, but I was doubtful. Finally, with an open mind and a fresh perspective on things, I broke down and gave Kameo a second try.
If DOA4 had been released on launch day, things may have played out differently, but as it stands, Kameo is hands down, without question, my favorite of the Xbox 360 launch titles. I love this game and as harshly as I felt about it at X'05, I can honestly state that it is truly the first must-have title of this new generation of consoles. Yes, a little part of me feels ashamed but an even greater part feels so happy in finally having discovered an amazing game to play.
Many will see Kameo and associate it with Mario right away. The game does seem to appeal to a younger crowd and boasts colorful vistas and characters. Surprisingly, Kameo shares a lot more in common with the Zelda series than with the pudgy plumber. But be warned; at heart, Kameo's story and themes are also a lot darker and its combat more violent than both Nintendo franchises. It's disarming actually to see how mature Kameo can be at times, with its combat, dialog, story and puzzles.
Kameo, the game, tells the story of Kameo, the girl (duh!), who possess special morphing abilities, and her dysfunctional family (of Elfin Royalty no less) who have been kidnapped by Kalus (Kameo's selfish sister) and Thorn, the King of the Trolls. While the story is mildly entertaining, it is, as always, a simple trapping to gel the gameplay together in a coherent way. In this respect, Kameo succeeds wonderfully and puts forth a story that, while not heavy in any way, still demands closure and allows for character development to take place. By the end of the first level, Kameo will have lost her morphing powers and will have set upon a quest to rescue her mother, Queen Theena, deliver her three Ancestors from Thorn's control, regain her morphing powers (one warrior at a time) and defeat Thorn and Kalus to save the kingdom.
Kameo's controls are elegant, functional and intuitive. The face buttons act as hotkeys for morphing into various warrior forms. While you will always have Kameo mapped out to the A button, the X, Y and B buttons can be assigned to any warrior that has been rescued. If this seems limiting, holding down any of the buttons also brings up the Warrior Wheel, which will allow you to instantly choose any of the other warriors and map that warrior out to the button held down. What this clever mapping of buttons does is allow the game's action to be controlled through the thumbstick and trigger buttons exclusively. The right thumbstick controls the camera (and enters first person view) while the left thumbstick controls Kameo's movements. The triggers are then used for character specific attacks. While this may seem limiting, each warrior has quite a few different attacks and situation specific abilities that make this very expansive.
The character specific attacks also introduces Kameo's greatest strength; variety. While specific warriors can get the job done in any given level, there are always a few ways to do anything while using different warrior combinations. Yes, Pummel Weed (plant dude) may be the optimum choice in certain areas, but when you've unlocked all the characters and replay certain levels later on, you will realize that perhaps Chilla (bigfoot-type dude) may be better suited to getting past certain areas and will also give you higher combo multipliers. The game also pushes you to switch between warrior forms as you do certain quests. In the early part of the game, after launching yourself off a ledge with Major Ruin (rolling stone dude) you have to switch to Chilla tolatch onto an iced surface. Sadly, the only character that seems lacking in combat is Kameo herself, but this is no way makes her useless. Kameo is the fastest character in the game, able to flutter around without touching the ground and jumping onto high ledges. Her spin kick is also the most useful attack against certain enemies and will net you a nifty Matrix-like slow-mo camera move. In all, the controls are classy, the gameplay inventive and the variety a welcome change.
The game is divided between puzzle-solving and combat in such an effective way that you never realize there are always two aspects to the gameplay being balanced. It should be stated that the game is never overly difficult, even during its boss battles, but may leave you puzzled from time to time. For those who usually refer to guide books and FAQs, Kameo has got you covered. At any given time, you can consult Ortho (who resides in the Wotnot Book) who will always give you the best clues to accomplish anything (if you choose to consult him). This doesn't ruin the experience in the least however, since his clues will generally still be vague enough to allow you to piece the logic together yourself. What this does do though, is limit the frustration sometimes incurred in platformers when you passed an object without paying attention to it and need to have it pointed out to you. At all times, your map will point out your next destination and you will never wander around aimlessly wondering what needs to be done next or where to go. In this respect, Rare has done an amazing job of creating context and purpose for your actions and Kameo never falls into the Donkey Kong 64 or Conker mess of wondering what you should do next.
Throughout your journey, you will earn runes (money), find Elixirs of Life (which increased your heart count) and Elemental Fruits (used to unlock and upgrade warrior abilities) and hunt down Crystal Eyes (which boost certain abilities). You will upgrade your purse size, buy new skins for Kameo and the warriors (and download some on Marketplace too - the Winter Warrior Pack is amazingly fun) and try to gain high scores on each level/area of the game to unlock hidden treasures like renders and movies. The main adventure feels just the right length for the story it tries to tell. Any longer and you would wonder if all the trouble was really necessary. Luckily, Kameo will allow you to replay all levels and areas later with all your unlocked warriors (morphing forms) and you will find hidden areas and secrets while playing in other forms. Also, getting higher scores is a hard but worthwhile incentive to go through the game again.
Graphically, Kameo may have gone through many years of development on many consoles but you'd never know by looking at it. The screen is always filled with a hundred different things moving around in the background and it's hard to imagine any platformer looking any better, artistically or graphically. Kameo, herself, is detailed and animated in such a fluid way (as are all the warrior forms) that it makes going back to other platformers a hard prospect. From the lighting to the facial movements, Kameo really taps into the power of the 360 to great effect. The costumes are elaborate and the unlockable skins ware worth buying/finding/unlocking since they are truly clever and worth the trouble. The Winter Warrior Pack on Marketplace is also one of the best purchases you can make since it turns some warriors (namely Rubble and Ash) into hysterically funny caricatures of their true selves.
In the audio department, Kameo features great positional audio a musical score (and voice acting) that is breezy and complements the feel of Kameo perfectly. The voice acting is well nuanced and some characters are immediately endearing due to their vocal personality (The Mystic and Ortho on the top of that list). Kameo, herself, may not speak up often, but when she does, there's a sarcastic undertone to her voice that makes her a lot older and mature than she appears. It may not be too obvious at first, but she has a lot more personality and fire than Joanna Dark could ever hope for. Some characters are a little over the top, but always in an enjoyable way. It should also be noted that Kameo features no lines that are repeated over and over, ad nauseam, when certain actions are performed. For example, when transforming to Major Ruin, there's no "Let's Roll!" voice cue. Kameo (and Rare) have done their homework and get the audio portion done perfectly right.
Kameo is a game that has been in development for so long that it seems to have ironed out all its downsides. The only one aspect that nags is the opening level which will seem too much to take in (at once) for many gamers. With little to no instruction, you have to use several warrior forms to make it through Thorn's castle. While the game does offer a few voice-cues and dialog boxes, there's really too much "new" material happening at once and not enough "getting used to it time" to get all of it to soak in. After this level, Kameo will lose all her warrior forms and a proper tutorial will take place. The most I can say is; muster through. If you don't, you will be missing out on one of the best platformers ever made and the best 360 release yet. When you replay the mission later, you'll wonder what all the fuss was about anyway.
While the Xbox 360 has its fair share of amazing looking titles, it seems that all new consoles are not judged on their football games or racing titles or ever first person shooters. Platformers have always proven to have the most mass appeal and Kameo is the perfect game to compliment the 360. Brilliant, fluid, intuitive and fun, there is no reason for anyone not to fall under Kameo's spell. At the very least, it may be the only new title to really feature new gameplay twists and if Kameo is any indication, there are amazing things in the 360's future. A must-have title.