[i]If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want[/i]
them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.–Albert Einstein
Picture me last Tuesday morning, driving home from my local Target store at about 8:10 a.m. The sun is shining and I'm humming merrily, occasionally casting fond glances at the just-purchased Xbox 360 sitting next to me in the passenger seat. I've got the day off. By the time I'm home, my wife will be at work, my daughter will be at kindergarten, and I'll have some quality alone time with my shiny new console. Things are looking good.
When I get home, my wife meets me at the door. Your kid's burning up, she says as she kisses me goodbye. 102 degrees. It was immediately clear that my fevered, lethargic five-year old, who lay upon the couch surrounded by stuffed animals, wasn't going anywhere.
As I unpacked and installed the 360, I considered the games at my immediate disposal: Perfect Dark Zero, with its trigger-happy, vinyl-clad vixen; Condemned: Criminal Origins, which encourages the player to beat down angry vagrants with lead pipes; and Kameo: Elements of Power, which prominently features a fairy princess.
Guess how I spent my first day with the 360?
My daughter, like many girls her age, has a bit of a thing for fairy princesses. I am a loving father, and so I was happy to indulge her interests by playing Kameo for several hours, stopping only to wipe her nose, rearrange her stuffed animals, and fetch her hot cocoa. She loved it. And I did, too. In fact, over the next several days, Kameo kept me up until late in the evening, long after she had gone to bed. Underneath its cartoonish visuals, whimsical characters, and storybook premise, I discovered a great game.
Kameo's namesake is sort of a sassed-up Tinkerbell, decked out in a midriff-baring outfit and tribal tattoos. She's got retractable fairy wings which allow her to hover and cruise at low altitudes, and she can pull off a somersaulting kick attack. Otherwise, she's fairly powerless. The story has her battling her jealous sister, who has formed an alliance with an evil troll king. To rein in her wayward sibling and defeat the trolls, Kameo must obtain ten elemental sprites which can grant her the ability to transform into their corresponding warrior forms.
Each of the slightly goofy elemental warriors excels in a particular set of platforming or combat abilities. The armadillo-like Major Ruin, for example, can roll himself into a ball to crush enemies or gain access to ramps and pipelike structures. Pummel Weed, in contrast, is a fang-toothed, leafy, vinelike creature who punches his foes with fistlike buds and can burrow below ground to pass under doors and gates. Individual forms can be easily assigned to three of the controller's colored buttons, allowing Kameo to transform almost instantaneously on the fly.
Each warrior comes with a handful of skills, and more can be purchased with magical fruit found throughout the game. Although certain forms are required for specific platforming challenges, with ten different warriors and dozens of attacks, Kameo's combat encounters allow for plenty of experimentation. Battles and puzzles typically require a bit of strategy, as some elemental attacks are more effective against certain enemies. As you'd expect, water-based methods do more damage to flaming imps, for example, and fire-based attacks work best against aggressive plants.
There's an early sequence, fairly typical of Kameo's action, that takes place on a stone platform high atop a castle. Several enemies, including trolls hidden under spiky armored shells, must be defeated before the player can continue. Pummel Weed's burrowing ability can overturn the shells in order to gain access to the trolls. Once exposed, they can be Pummeled, knocked off the platform by Major Ruin, or picked up and tossed at each other by a yeti-like form named Chilla. After the enemies have been dispatched, a tower is lowered that Major Ruin must approach by launching his spherical self up a stone ramp. In midair, Major Ruin transforms into Chilla, who can grab onto the tower and climb up its ice-encrusted surface, all the while avoiding the cannonballs being hurled at him from a distance.
By constantly switching between elemental warriors and working through similarly diverse sets of platforming, combat, and puzzle-based challenges, Kameo travels throughout her kingdom, acquiring new warriors along the way. Over the course of the game, she visits exotic locations like volcanic battlefields, otherworldly caves, snow covered mountains, and ethereal forests, all the while accompanied by a moving, dramatic classical score. Each region she encounters is populated by a unique set of characters, nearly all of whom are skillfully voice-acted.
Kameo excels at providing the player with a sense of exploration, and the world it portrays, courtesy of the 360's graphical prowess, is simply stunning. Its unusual landscapes are presented in such vivid detail that at times you have to stop playing and just look. I've never played a game that had me stopping so often to watch blades of grass gently wave in the breeze, or pools of lava bubble and spark. The character animations are fluid and expressive, and the special effects are at times astonishing. Five years from now games that look like this might be par for the course, but at present, Kameo represents an incredible departure, in terms of richness of detail and immediate visual appeal, from anything I've seen in a video game.
Kameo is also a joy to play, owing to a number of thoughtful design choices. The controls and on-screen interface are simple and streamlined. Though it requires concentration and rewards strategy, it's fairly forgiving, and graced with generous save points that ensure you'll never have to slog through already completed sections. There's also a comprehensive, configurable help system that provides increasingly detailed hints should you find yourself stuck on a puzzle or boss battle. Kameo's challenges are often unusual, but in a few cases, their solutions aren't readily apparent. I suppose in these cases an argument could be made that the help system merely remedies counterintuitive game design, but the bottom line is that at no point does the player become frustrated or bewildered for any length of time.
I'm a bit reluctant to criticize such an enjoyable game, but in a few areas, Kameo left me with a nagging sense of unrealized opportunities. The game's various regions are populated by generic characters that could have enriched the story, if they were given something relevant to say. In fact, Kameo herself just isn't very interesting. There aren't any engaging side quests, and in general, the optional activities the game offers are woefully underdeveloped in contrast to its main objectives. It also doesn't offer any online play. There's an ultra-basic, no frills split-screen co-op, but it's only playable on levels that have previously been completed in the single player game.
Kameo's length was a bit of a disappointment. I completed it in about twelve hours, but I could have easily enjoyed it for twice that long. It's premise and game design are worthy of much more content than it actually delivers. In this regard, it suffers a bit in comparison to similar titles, like the 3D Zelda games, which feature the same varied gameplay and wondrous exploration, but offer much more realized worlds and communities to explore.
None of these considerations significantly diminish the appeal of Kameo's core experience, though. Its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and the sum total of its offerings is engaging and addictive. In the coming years, as my daughter's fairy princess fixation wanes, and today's cutting edge-graphics become outdated technology, Kameo will still be a unique, enjoyable game.