Animal Kingdom: Wildlife Expedition
(Natsume Company Ltd.)
US: 30 Sep 2009
In a game, there is always a difficult balance between meeting expectations about the experience that it is claiming to give us and handling the technical realities that hold it back. If you’re going to claim that a game is about observing animals and taking pictures, there are certain things a person is going to impulsively want to do. Get close to the animals, be able to sneak around to get clever shots, explore a variety of different environments, and naturally take a lot of pictures. The problem with a game like Animal Kingdom: Wildlife Expedition is that the technical limits outweigh the things that you want out of a photography game. The resulting experience is more irritation than fun.
The game lets you pick from two Caucasian avatars, one male and one female, before dropping you off on Animal Island with a friendly robot assistant. Gameplay consists of you hopping in a jeep that will drive a circuit around the island. When a bush shakes or a dust cloud kicks up, you tap on the spot to get out and look for animals. You can also find hidden medals and boxes with special items like camo tents and animal masks. Once you hop out, you’ll be in a circular zone in the middle of a plain or lake area. Forests are set up slightly differently. Animals can come and go from the zone, but you are not allowed to leave. If you want to get close to an animal that means putting on a disguise and making sure to walk slowly up to it. Pictures are judged by how close you are and whether or not the animal is facing you. There is no zoom on the camera, walking up is the only way to score a gold medal for a picture. There are no penalties for taking bad pictures or even not turning any over except for your editor getting a bit fussy.
And that’s the gist of the game. Your editor will give you a new assignment to keep things going such as taking a picture of an animal bathing or getting close to a lion. The main skill required is knowing which part of the island to hop out at and possessing a very large amount of patience. Which is where the problem with the game’s setup comes in: you spend most of the game waiting for it to let you continue. The first couple of shots are all fairly easy but you will hit your first brick wall when the editor asks for a photo of an animal in water. Such a shot is only possible if there are already animals in the water when you arrive. If you try to drive an animal there, they hit an invisible wall even if it’s something that swims like a hippopotamus. The issue is that all of the things that make the game fun like sneaking up on animals so that you can get that perfect shot don’t factor in anymore. In this mission’s case, it’s just you driving to all the lake sites, seeing if something is in the water, and immediately leaving if they aren’t. What makes this even worse is that since you yourself cannot leave the circle, your ability to get a photo depends solely on the random element of how close the animal is to you. If the animal is too far away to qualify for a bronze medal shot, you just have to sit and wait.
This problem continues in the other missions as they get more difficult and precise. Rather than give a specific request, the editor will just start asking for things like a “priceless shot”. The only way to figure out what that means is to walk up to every animal and see if the robot thinks that it could be entertaining. After that, you have to keep looking in every single spot that the animal might appear to see if they’re willing to perform a specifically entertaining act. Often this will not be the case. Drive around, click on all possible spots, see if something is going to work, then leave if it won’t. This process is dragged out by long load times. Since you’re entering a new zone every time that you enter an area, even if it’s just to check on what’s present, you spend most of your sessions watching the game load.
In terms of graphics the game is pretty jagged during the car sessions but most of the animals are nicely represented. Occasionally, the game puts more on screen than it can handle, so moments where there are a lot of herd animals on the level requires exiting even if what you need is there. As you progress through your photo assignments different parts of the island will unlock, so there’s a decent dose of exploration going on even if it is on-rails. As time goes by, items like a camera that holds more footage or different artwork for your jeep will also become available. Once in a blue moon, a random mini-game will also be made available as well, like hyenas trying to steal your gear in the middle of the night.
Judging a game intended for children is always a difficult process. Things like the game not being challenging obviously gets chucked quickly as a standard. Keeping things simple and easily understood is even a virtue in these cases. But I think someone is just going to be disappointed with how limited the game is after seeing the promises on the box. Invisible walls keep you from running around and approaching animals how you’d like. Your photo assignments are all based on random luck instead of skill. The fact that many of the specific poses that the game requests occur rarely means that you’ll spend most of the time stopping and starting while looking around. All of this is dragged out by long load times. It doesn’t really matter what your age is; when you spend most of a game looking at a loading screen nobody is going to have much fun with it.