A charming and thoughtful adventure...
I think it's common knowledge that Rare games have often had fairly complicated and bumpy development cycles. A lot of their games have hit the skids indefinitely. Though somehow, despite jumping platforms, generations, and enduring numerous design changes, a few of them have eventually made it onto store shelves. From Star Fox Adventures to Perfect Dark Zero, it always seems to be a five year debacle. Of course, much of this was due to Microsoft's purchase of Rare from Nintendo. One of the games that made it out of that stirrup was Kameo: Elements of Power, which began as a Gamecube title before being moved to Xbox where, at 80% completion, it finally found a permanent home on the Xbox 360. It is often said that long and bumpy development cycles spell disaster for a game, but Kameo: Elements of Power came into its own as a very unique and enjoyable experience.
The story in Kameo is very basic fantasy stuff. Kameo is a fairy who is given the ability to turn into variousElemental Warriors by her mother, Theena. But Kameo's sister Kalus becomes jealous of her sibling's abilities and decides to turn evil and kidnap the whole family. There's actually a twist towards the end of the game, but that's the basic plot. Yes, it is paper-thin. They were definitely trying to appeal to a younger audience, and unfortunately those of us that enjoy a story with substance were left out in the cold.
Despite hopping three platforms and two generations, the initial concept for Kameo never really changed all that much. It remained a storybook fantasy adventure in the vein of Zelda. The game is centered around combat and exploration in equal measure, and what mixes things up and sets Kameo apart from all the other action adventure games out there is the fact that you play as 11 different characters. This is due to Kameo's magical ability to morph into what Rare call"Elemental Warriors", whom she collects over the course of her journey. Everything from rolling armadillos to lava spewing fire ants, the variation adds the constant sense of renewal to the experience each time you collect a new elemental. Kameo herself has just one attack move in the form of a rather weak flip kick, and is otherwise limited to running, flying, and jumping. I actually found that I wasn't very bothered by this because Kameo's limitations created an incentive to find elementals. Since you will depend heavily on these collectible creatures to accomplish certain tasks, you will become well accustomed to their individual abilities, advantages, and disadvantages.
While I have stated in this review that this keeps the game dynamic and fresh, there are some issues with the Elemental Warriors themselves. This is primarily due to the control. A good example is Deep Blue, who is a sea creature that swims underwater (the only elemental with this ability). To make Deep Blue swim underwater, you have to hold down both left and right triggers, and then pull the left thumbstick downwards. This creates the feeling that you are literally controlling a squishy, heavy ball of fat due to the fact that you are constantly fight with the camera and controls to keep Deep Blue pointed in the direction that you want to go in. It just isn't intuitive. Others sort of have other little oddities about them, like Chilla the gorilla, who moves very slowly and feels rather sluggish overall. He also shoots spears and throws enemies, which sounds cool in concept, but in actuality it just leaves you in a vulnerable position wherein you cannot move or see anything around you while you're in the aiming mode. If an enemy hits you, you're pretty much defenseless against their blows. I also dislike the fact that Rare mapped transformations to the face buttons when they should have used the D-Pad. And the bumpers aren't utilized at all. Other than that, there is a nagging lack of refinement that is sort of hard to put a finger on, but you know it's there because you've played those games like Banjo Nuts & Bolts and Star Fox Adventures, two games that had very smooth controls. They felt right.
Back to the positives for a minute. Each Elemental Warrior has a number of optional upgrades that improve preexisting abilities, as well as add all new ones that can really come in handy when you're in a tight spot. Everyone is going to have a favorite out of the bunch, and while there seem to be so many to take advantage of, I think Rare did a pretty good job at using the strongest of them for the meatier tasks. I've come to love Thermite, a red ant who carries a cauldron of lava on his back. He's by far the most destructive of the bunch, both before and after all upgrades are completed for each of your critters. There are many instances that call for synergy between warriors. Some cases call for two, sometimes three different creatures in order to accomplish a task. This adds a nice dynamic to the game by encouraging players to learn each individual character and then time their moves and transformations appropriately during the more complicated scenarios.
As you explore, you actually collect Elemental Fruits, which function as currency for upgrading your elementals. There are 100 to collect, and while you won't need them all to fully upgrade your creatures, you will get an achievement for collecting all of them. This is basically the game's way of rewarding you for going off the beaten path and exploring the less obvious, and often hidden, areas of the world. Over the course of the game you will actually come across a lot of barriers that are only breakable by using a specific elemental. So it provides a pretty cool incentive to make another pass through the land once you've completed the main quest (or in between if you like).
There is much more that could be said about the gameplay in Kameo, both good and bad, but fundamentally it is a solid play experience that will keep you hooked for as long as it lasts (up to 20 hours if you're the completist type). Adding to the hours is a co-op mode that can be played over Xbox Live, which is a welcome addition if you're looking for replayability.
For the very first game to released on the Xbox 360, Kameo still puts most others to shame both technically and artistically. In typical Rare fashion, the game is very colorful, shiny, and bright with a thoughtful charm that employs a storybook atmosphere reminiscent of the classic high fantasy archetype. You will never be bored, because there's just so much to look at, and each area looks totally different from the next. The Enchanted Kingdom is a sunny, bloom-lit kingdom complete with ornate structures and the greenest individual blades of grass you've ever seen in a game, ever. In contrast, when you go to Snow Top Village, you will find mountainous snowy vistas with giant trees that house a small community of inhabitants. From there you will discover Forgotten Forest, and Mountain Falls, which is a very serene, tropical village with lots of interesting eye candy to keep you exploring. But by far my favorite area is the Ogre Swamp, which is full of large trees that house mysterious little people that you never see, but know are present. Little details like that are plentiful in Kameo, and it really makes backtracking a pleasure.
On the technical side, the water is some of the best I've seen in a videogame to date, and Rare used three texture layers on the scenery with plentiful normal maps. Everything is spit polished with amazing refractions, particle effects, parallax maps, and Rare's famous vertex shading wizardry.
Of course, the game can't be perfect in this respect, can it? Well, no, and there are a couple of gripes to point out. Firstly, trolls make up the bulk of the enemy populace, and they are all pretty ugly and generic looking greenish brown creatures, who animate poorly and do not impress at all. In addition, The Badlands are pretty ugly, with some really bad shades of green and brown that kind of put a damper on the visual experience. However, in the grand scheme of things, you'll spend no more than maybe 1% of the game in this area, so it doesn't make a big impact on the overall experience. Unless you want to stick around and experience the ever-expanding battle between hordes of elves and trolls - on a horse! It's a shame since it would have been so much more epic if the enemies were more interesting and dynamic looking.
Despite a few select inconsistencies, Kameo sets the graphical bar for the action adventure genre, and we should all demand this kind of quality out of the development community at large. It's not Pixar, but it is a glowing spectacle nonetheless.
Kameo is scored beautifully, with a nice array of musical pieces that perfectly complement the mood for each environment in the game. As Kameo gracefully glides through the grass, a calming, magical twinkle brings the aura of the world into perfect cohesion. Sound effects are spot-on, with all sorts of little details peppering each area. You'll hear the banter of village folk and notice the random grunts and squeals of enemies and elementals. You can even hear Kameo's wings as they flutter in the air. The voice acting is pretty good, too, even despite some strange and cheesy dialogue.
Kameo was a long time coming, and while some have said that it's a last-gen game glossed up for next-gen prime time, the truth is that this game was doing things way beyond the scope of most others in the genre at the time, in terms of gameplay variety. Kameo is an epic storybook adventure experience, even despite a few scattered design oddities and a rather cookie-cutter storyline. It really does remain a very thoughtful and charming fantasy adventure in classic Rareware fashion. And seeing as how it sold a million copies, maybe it's not too much to ask for a sequel? Kameo is definitely worth your time if you're looking for a whimsical high fantasy adventure.