Kung Fu Panda on the DS is a competent handheld beat-'em-up. While it captures the fun and humour of the cinematic release with its attractive visuals and quality audio both of which elevatating it above its competition in the genre, its lack of multiplayer support, occasionally clumsy controls, and cakewalk difficulty mean it stumbles on the way to the finish line.
Like its film namesake, this game follows the adventures of Po, a bumbling fool turned hero as he makes the transition from mild-mannered noodle slinger to Dragon Warrior panda-ninja. There's a surprisingly large amount of backstory here for a side-scrolling beat-'em-up, and for the most part it remains based on the source material. You’ll attempt to rescue your father and fellow Furious Five members with a final showdown against Tai Lung to return peace to the village.
Once rescued, each member of the Furious Five will teach you a special move. Leaping Monkey is the first one you'll learn. It lets you latch onto items or enemies in midair and use them to leapfrog to platforms or to collect items. When you use it alongside the basic aerial attack, you can grab enemies, toss them upwards, and then smack them before they hit the ground. You’re never required to perform this move, but it’s still satisfying to use because it shows off the robust physics system. Mantis Fury allows Po to throw objects at high speeds, turning regular barrels into impromptu projectiles that are capable of knocking down destructible doors and clearing a path through adversaries. Viper Crush is performed by clicking enemies to grab them and then tapping the screen a second time to squeeze the targets right out of their armour, which causes a stun effect so you can deal the killing blow. Spinning Feather Blossom is a hybrid gliding and attack move that's useful for clearing long cavernous gaps in the platforming landscape, while Iron Claw transforms Po into Tigress briefly, as she unleashes a flurry of Wolverine-style Berserker swipes with her long claws.
Both the D pad and the face buttons (the latter for left-handed stylus grippers) have the same movement functions: left and right control movement, up performs a jump, and down curls Po into a panda ball to help him travel faster and roll into inaccessible gaps. There's no option to remap the controls, but they're easy to use and the inclusion of a lefty mode is handy for southpaws.
Combat in Kung Fu Panda is confined to the DS's touch screen and sees you upgrading your skills periodically while learning new stylus gestures to perform the moves. Initially you're limited to basic swipe attacks, which are performed by touching the screen with the stylus and then dragging the stylus in the direction you want to attack. Once you've made contact with the screen, the game enters a paused state that gives you time to adjust your angles as required or to ensure you're properly squared up on your target. Po's attack reach is limited, and while the temptation is to draw longer lines on screen to damage enemies further away, doing so won't affect your distance travelled.
This stab-and-swipe gameplay remains constant throughout but slowly comes undone as you gain new abilities, simply because there are only so many ways to gesture on the DS touch screen. The solution is a prod-and-hold trick with the direction determining the skill used. This problem comes late in the game once all your abilities have been unlocked; the system occasionally has trouble differentiating between your Spinning Feather Blossom move (used to glide across long cavernous gaps) and your Iron Claw move (a short dash skill to deal damage), for example. Even though the action pauses when you place your stylus on the touch screen and gives you time to consider your next move, it's still easy to perform the wrong moves in the heat of battle.
Like the platforming and action that leads up to the bosses, the battles themselves are a total cakewalk. Inevitably you'll need to rely on only two of your many skills: either jumping over something as it runs at you, then landing and dealing damage, or plucking an item out of the air and hurling it back from whence it came. There are a few flashes of puzzle-solving, but they never go beyond clearing zones before a timer runs out or placing objects on touch pads to open doors.
Kung Fu Panda looks good and uses scrolling 3D backgrounds to give the world a sense of depth. Lush, verdant environments greet you as you pass through bamboo-lined locales, while snowy peaks and trees in various states of shedding give each zone a unique and appropriate feel. Likewise, audio is a strong standout, and the themes dovetail neatly with their visual counterparts to help establish the mood and setting. There's also a surprisingly large amount of voice-over work, including fully narrated boss-battle smack-talk introductions and messages of thanks when you free a captive member of your crew. Though the celebrities from the film don't lend their voices, the actor impersonating Jack Black does a convincing enough job to help put you in the story.
Even with its backtracking gameplay, this is a short game that clocks in only a few hours longer than the film. It's an enjoyable romp, though the lack of any form of downloadable content, multiplayer, or additional bonus items to unlock means it's unlikely you'll pick the game up for another go once you've finished the story mode. There is a collectable element here, but our play-through netted over 90 percent of the possible items without much deviation off the beaten path. Kung Fu Panda does a good job of capturing the fun and humour of the source, and while it's only a short handheld extension with the odd control stumble, it's fun while it lasts and is more than capable of standing on its own two furry feet.