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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Zumba Fitness: Join the Party Review

Flaky detection and awkward menus seriously hamper this dance fitness game.

The Good

  • High-energy workouts  
  • Jazzy neon visuals.

The Bad

  • Inconsistent movement detection  
  • Awkward menu interface  
  • Unreliable online play.
It's a no-brainer: dance-fitness craze Zumba is good exercise. Try not working up a sweat mimicking the up-tempo jigging of a Zumba instructor, successfully or otherwise, and so much the better if you enjoy the cheesy tunes. But what makes Zumba a vigorous aerobic workout also makes it an imperfect match for the Kinect in this game. More often than not, the quick steps and booty wiggling on which Zumba Fitness: Join the Party is based defy detection by the Kinect sensor. Alongside iffy detection, there's a clumsy menu interface to contend with, plus a lack of specific in-game dance instruction, even in the training mode. The jazzy neon visuals count in the game's favour, and there's a goodly number of authentic Zumba workouts, but between the accuracy issues and uninspired game-like elements (that is, a basic point-scoring system), there's not much to recommend this over a DVD of Zumba classes.

Let's get ready to rumba.
The game is based on 30 routines, each 20 or 45 minutes long, split among beginner, intermediate, and expert difficulties. The routines are composed of four- or five-minute segments set to Latin music, such that a set might contain samba, merengue, and cumbia, with some calypso-inspired grooves and belly dancing thrown in for good measure. Some are newly devised for the game, but most will be familiar to Zumba disciples, and they are led by Zumba grandmasters Tanya, Beto, and Gina. You mirror one of these instructors through a routine, and their neon-hued figures change colour according to how well the Kinect thinks you're doing, in theory turning like traffic lights from green (spot on) to red (way off). In practice, the detection is only consistently capable with simple steps. At higher tempos and with more complicated grooving, the system often comes up short; from time to time it registers as green a move entirely unlike the one onscreen, though more often it comes off as frustratingly over-finicky, ruling as red decent approximations of onscreen actions.
In the absence of reliable detection, Zumba Fitness can at least count the sheer quantity of routines as a positive, and these are good exercise because they require long spells of energetic movement. They are also good fun because they feel like perky dance sessions rather than robotic, repetitive aerobic drills. But these qualities would equally belong to a Zumba class or a set of DVDs. What's more, either of the latter two might offer more specific dance instructions. Here, vocal or text instruction is minimal, even in the Learn the Steps training mode. In the training mode, lessons are divided into small sets of moves in a particular dance style. In the basic calypso tutorial, for example, your instructor builds from a slow, simplified version of a staple calypso step, gradually adding speed, energy, arm movements, and general pizzazz as you go. The nonspecific comments and encouragement he or she shouts ("Just have fun!" or "You're doing fine!") are coupled with slightly less vague text feedback ("Nice leg moves!" or "Nice hip motion!"). In the absence of step-specific instructions, though, it's trickier than it should be for Zumba newbies to mimic the instructor. Similarly, in a full dance routine, it would be useful for the next move to be called out or otherwise indicated onscreen.

As you pull off more successful moves in a routine, you fill a points bar through numbered stages. As you progress through stages, you are rewarded with additions to the instructor's backdrop: more silhouetted backup dancers, for instance, and, in the nightclub venue, a fancier light show. The other, less glamorous venues--a factory, a rooftop, a stadium--are unlocked as you complete routines. You can also pick the colour of your silhouette, as seen by the Kinect camera and shown onscreen--though it's there more for decoration than visual feedback, only partially displayed and placed in the background.

Selecting items in the main menu is a less-than-slick experience with the Kinect (and there's no option to use the Xbox 360 controller instead). There's a button on a slider at the bottom of the screen; to operate it, you must hover and hold over the button to grab it, swipe left or right to scroll through the menu options, and then hover and hold again over the item you want to select. It's too much work for a menu based on motion control, and the job is not made more fun by the too-short loop of Zumba music endlessly repeated in the menu screen.

Local multiplayer lets two players dance side-by-side or compete in Zumba Attack mode, in which each player is given a bar to fill by busting successful moves. Two teams of two can also compete by taking turns. If the movement recognition were more competent, the local multiplayer modes would be a fun addition for social, competitive workouts. But again, the Kinect functionality falls short of what's needed to make it a significant, interactive upgrade on an exercise video. Online, up to eight players can work out together--again, in theory. The reality is less impressive; on multiple occasions the game failed to place us in a match with anyone, whether with us as host or with us searching for a quick match or a custom match. With three million copies of the game sold, albeit across all platforms, it's hard to imagine there's not a single Xbox-based Zumba player out there looking for a match.

The workout calendar is functional if basic, prescribing a weekly schedule of routines according to your selection of workout course. These range from gentle programs composed of occasional beginner routines, to the full-on "Zumba glow," for a calendar packed with daily expert classes. Though you can also customise a program with your choice of routines, the calendar is still a fairly shallow stab at making a full fitness regime from a set of fun dance routines, and it lacks, for instance, the tracking of calories burned.

Where other dance games have created better experiences by tailoring their choreography for motion control, Zumba's moves were already established and embraced globally (12 million people taking weekly classes, claims the official site) before this game came along. It's a shame those moves couldn't have been worked into a better fitness game; flaky detection and the awkward menu interface in particular give it a cheap feel that no amount of perky Latin rhythms and neon window dressing can offset.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Review

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron combines gorgeous artistic design with enticing combat to create a memorable adventure.

The Good

  • Incredible, abstract visual design  
  • Streamlined combat is smooth and challenging  
  • Three unique and satisfying weapons  
  • Varied soundtrack deftly enhances the experience  
  • Playing on harder difficulties reveals impressive combat depth.

The Bad

  • Camera makes navigating 3D platforms unnecessarily tricky  
  • Combat on normal difficulty gets predictable.
Beauty can be a dangerous thing. The promise of exploring a world rich with the fruits of artistic expression can lure the unsuspecting into a visually impressive but fundamentally lacking wasteland. And on the surface, El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron gives off a strong "look but don't touch" vibe. Evocative landscapes grab your attention, but the rudimentary combat system built around one measly attack button makes it seem as if this religious adventure is all style and no substance. Fortunately, this is no button masher. Slicing down foes with your array of celestial weapons takes skill and precision, though the depth doesn't fully reveal itself until you unlock the harder difficulty settings. But even when you're playing on normal difficulty, the smooth rhythm of combat serves as a wonderful complement to the expressive aesthetics. El Shaddai: The Ascension of the Metatron uses its beauty as just one part of the experience, not as a crutch propping up a shallow facade, resulting in an enticing adventure that satisfies on many fronts.

Demons have an obvious weakness: a punch to the head.
Enoch the scrivener doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. Originally chosen to document the deeds of the elders, this courageous human is cast down to Earth to round up fallen angels before God washes away their sins (and the lives of countless humans) in a devastating flood. That's no small task for a man who's far more comfortable with a quill in his hand. This intriguing setup is based on apocryphal tales from ancient Judeo-Christian texts, and those unfamiliar with the source material may find it difficult to follow along. Characters are introduced and then forgotten without much fleshing out, so absorbing details can be tricky. Although you might not understand everything being laid before you, the manner of storytelling is intriguing. Plot details are conveyed in a number of unique ways, which goes a long way toward keeping you invested. Animated cutscenes alongside still shots sprinkled with expository text make up the bulk of the narrative. But the more interesting story elements are woven into the gameplay. There are times when you run through simple 2D canvases with dialogue filling in important pieces, and the integration of story within the action gives added weight to the experience.

While it's true that you may not grasp the esoteric story, you'll be hard pressed to tear your eyes from the screen thanks to the extraordinary visual design. El Shaddai takes place in an incredible-looking world that is an absolute pleasure to stare at. The abstractly-rendered environments defy description, exhibiting a wealth of imagination. Landscapes use a blend of flat textured surfaces with sharp colors to create a realm that is easy to lose yourself in. In one area, crosshatched black plains close in, suffocating you with their bleakness, and this confining sequence clashes wonderfully with the icy brightness of a serene outdoor vista. In another level, obsidian-black platforms encircled by an orange ring hover above a fiery red backdrop that conjures images of burning hellstone. In the distance, pastel fireworks dot the sky. Tribal chants interposed between psychedelic trance beats create an atmosphere that's difficult to shake out of your mind. The music enhances every step of your journey. Religious hymns, pulsing rock anthems, and calming guitar riffs cue up in key moments to temper your mood and keep you invested.

Underneath this abstract and ambitious surface, you find that El Shaddai is a straightforward action adventure that blends combat and platforming in both 3D and 2D settings. Although gorgeous, the various stages you inhabit are mostly linear, allowing only slight steps off the beaten path for the rare hidden item. This confinement does limit your chance to shake free of the shackles and stretch your legs in this pristine world, but this design choice is not without benefits. What El Shaddai lacks in freedom it makes up for in razor-sharp focus. There is a strong push to move forward at all times, and you find yourself running into fights, leaping between platforms, and sprinting across magnificent lands without a moment's hesitation. The visual and audio design do a great job of keeping you excited to push on ahead. New landmarks spring into view every few steps, calling you onward, and the varied soundtrack shifts between songs to ensure your ears are just as happy as your eyes.

Once challenged to a duel, you need to shift your focus from the atmospheric wonders to the demonic monsters closing in. Because your repertoire of moves is limited, combat is based more on positioning and timing than on trying to figure out which attack you should use. Every attack makes use of just one button. You perform different moves based on how you hit it (tap versus hold), if you use a modifier (which launches enemies in the air), or whether you're jumping or standing firmly on the ground. Block and jump buttons make up your defensive maneuvers, and you can dodge as well. It sounds simple, and it is easy to pick up, but there's more complexity than you might initially realize. Like all sentient beings, your enemies don't like being attacked. If you rush at them with rage in your eyes, they can just turtle, before countering with a flourish once you tire yourself out. But if you tap your attack in a slowed-down rhythm, you initiate a special move that knocks away their shields. Mastering this attack is a key to success. Combat feels like a violent dance in which you must keep perfect time if you want to excel. Tap too aggressively, and you might as well be swinging at a rock; tap too slowly, and you leave yourself vulnerable.

With each successful strike, you visibly damage your maniacal foes. El Shaddai is played without a HUD (you do unlock an option to use one once you finish the game), though the expertly designed visuals ensure you're aware of all the information you need. Both you and your enemies wear armor that gets destroyed as you take damage. When you land a particularly powerful attack, you can see the effects of your anger displayed on their ravaged bodies. It's an empowering feeling to knock your well-armored opponents silly until they're just running around in their skivvies. That almighty feeling goes both ways. Enoch loses his precious protection as fights wear on, too, and there's no better feeling than when you win a fight after digging in your heels when you're at your end. If you do fall in battle, you can revive yourself if your fingers are quick. Slamming on the shoulder or face buttons brings you back to life, though each successive attempt is harder than the last. Waking up at the last possible second and then tearing your stunned opponent to shreds is absolutely exhilarating.