Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: Active Life Explorer

Platform: Nintendo Wii

Namco Bandai

Publisher: Namco Bandai

# of Players 1 - 4

ESRB Rating: E (Everyone!)

Official Site

Score: A

Some anti-gaming types (and a few other folks out there who should be spending their time doing more important things) often complain that spending time in front of your TV doing things you'd normally do outside make for a less than acceptable means of physical activity. In the words of imaginary character Tony Stark (as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man), "I respectfully disagree." Bandai's new Wii game Active Life Explorer presents one great answer to that interesting paradox these exercise-based games present. Sure, you can overpay for a real gym membership or drag the whole family out for an expensive vacation somewhere with sunny vistas, starry nights and overpriced meals, but in this age of yawn-worthy "staycations" and penny-pinching "fun" ideas that make for more sour faces than smiley ones, here's a game that kills both of those birds (and a few more) with one stone.

Active Life Explorer turns one to four players into Indiana Jones-inspired treasure hunters and drops them into a bunch of colorful 3D environments with the goals of exploration, adventuring, loot finding and plenty of arm and leg pumping mini-games. Yes, you can use your Miis if you like, but the set of virtual kid adventurers the game gives your are more than likable enough. Oh, forget about the Doritos and Dew on the coffee table, folks. In this game, both hands and legs are going to be in motion and when things get hectic, you'll be too busy huffing and puffing to take that snack break. That and the fact that the coffee table will be taking a coffee break of its own in the corner since you've moved it away to get your mat action on. However, I'd recommend a few bottles of water and maybe some fruit if you need a breather (the back of the game box recommends Chiquita Bananas in a not so subtle bit of shameless product placement).

Anyway, setting up the game is simple stuff. Pop the game into your Wii, plug the included Mat Controller in, plop it onto the floor, pick up your favorite Wiimote and Nunchuck and GO. Bright, cartoony 3D visuals let you know you're in for a fun time, but the game is no joke when it comes to doling out the calorie-burning stuff. Horseback riding, running like heck away from angry natives who might want to put you into a pot for supper, hoofing it through a mine while poking around for gold and gems all work as they should, meaning you'll be working up a sweat with a smile on your face. Controls are based around simple motions, timing and repetition, all important in calorie-burning, i suppose, but this is one of those game where you won't care about calories because you'll find yourself having too much of a blast.

In the main game, you move around a nicely sized field map, and once you pick a location, you talk to and get quests from NPCs which send you all around the map and into assorted environments whereupon it' mini-game time. What sort of environments you ask? Well, you'll see a mine cart stage (complete with lava!), a snow level, a jungle area and more. Yes, the game is chock full of Gaming 101 stock characters and situations you've probably seen in dozens of platform, action and adventure titles. However, if you're that jaded, this isn't the game for you. Actually, I'd say that the further away from trumpeting yourself as a "hardcore" gamer, the more you'll really appreciate the goofy yet exhilarating sense of pure fun ALE exudes. Besides, there's a huge difference between sitting on the couch with a controller in your hand and actually going through the physical motions of clambering up the side of a biplane, jumping over fireballs or shifting from side to side on a fast moving dogsled.

As a single player experience, what's here ranges from fairly easy to surprisingly tricky, but add a second player and things get... interesting. Let's just say that the better you know someone, the better you'll do at certain events. Coordination is key in many of the faster-paced games where moving in tandem to keep a rhythm makes a huge difference in winning or losing. The mat is laid out so two players can use it simultaneously and if your partner is the clumsy sort, you'll be elbowing him or her off the mat and calling the dog or cat for help. I'd imagine that twins would be perfect at the game, particularly in those areas where double-timing it comes into play. then again, the game is pretty funny at times, so you might just screw up a round because you're laughing at what's happening on screen.

Visually, ALE looks nice and clean enough (it's perfectly geared toward the all ages crowd), but don't expect any massive graphical bells and whistles. You'll more than likely take note of how well the levels are laid out and how the game map lends a mixture of board game and RPG to things. The cut scenes are nicely cinematic, but don't expect the "story" here to knock you out of your socks. Remember, this is an exercise game after all. There are a few intentionally silly and humorous animations, but nothing really negative in the presentation to knock the game around or dock the score for. Sounds and music are fine with a bit of repetition here and there, but again, nothing that will have you jumping out a window with that Mat Controller to cushion the fall.

Amusingly enough, the Indiana Jones influences are so well done that with a few visual tweaks and a high-def upgrade, I could see this as some sort of family friendly Move or Kinect game with that particular license. That or Namco Bandai can gloss up the visuals and just release this on either platform under the Active Life branding (just a thought). If you're into the Wii Fit games and expect ALE to count calories for you or unflinchingly judge your weight like a cruel parent or spouse (as Wii Fit does), well, neither are present here. As noted earlier, the game will have you working out without all that feedback, which means it's perfect for those who don't want a virtual overlord keeping track of every duck and jump you do

My complaints are minor - there's sometimes a tiny bit of lag between your movements and the response on screen, which can make certain tricky sections mildly frustrating. Also, two players on that mat can get a bit painful if you get a toe stepped on or an elbow goes flying somewhere it shouldn't. I have a pair of big paddle feet, so let's just say I needed to make sure I wasn't crushing anyone toes from time to time. By the way, the mat is soft but durable and should work fine with the other games in the Active Life series. It's not laid out like a Dance Dance Revolution mat, so I wouldn't recommend trying it with the Wii version of that game when it ships, but who knows? We may see Namco get into the dance game market now that they've got their own pad.

Overall, Active Life Explorer is a very solid bundle that's definitely worth a buy for fans of motion-based games. I can also see a few "core" gamers getting into this one as some sort of guilty pleasure thanks to the adventure elements, humor and high-spirited tone throughout. Either way, this is one of those games where you'll find yourself having a pretty good time with even if you wouldn't admit it in public.

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