Review: Panda Craze (DSiWare)

At least they're endangered

Hey, kids! If you like pandas, disorientation, horrible graphics, pressing buttons that only sometimes work, and games ported so lazily that they completely disregard the limitations of the console you're playing on, then Panda Craze is for you!

Panda Craze finds you controlling Tik-Ling, a panda who must climb ladders and collect lanterns, which will cause a magical portal to open, sending her to the next level. Because, hey, why not.

But the moment the game begins, you'll know something is amiss: the top screen is entirely black. It goes completely unused throughout the entire game. And, no, of course that's not a game-breaking problem in itself, but once you spend a few minutes playing through the stages, you'll see that this is quite clearly emblematic of a poor, slapdash work ethic by a developer more interested in your money than your enjoyment. As this is a game with scrolling, maze-like levels that are often vertical, the top screen could have been used to display more of the stage. As this is a game that has a map feature, the top screen could have displayed the map. Heck, as this is a game starring a panda, the top screen could have displayed a big smiling panda head that exploded when you died. Or something. Anything is better than the looming black rectangle.

Well, maybe not everything. In fact, the black rectangle might be preferable to this game's graphics otherwise. You'll see from the sprites in the help section that they look decent enough. They're not particularly imaginative or exciting, but there's a level of visual competence with which we can live. Play the game, however, and you'll find that everything is a cramped, mushy smear. Yes, Panda Craze was designed for an aspect ratio totally different from the display size of your DSi, and rather than reprogram the game to understand this (or... you know... scale the thing down properly), the developers just squished it horizontally, making everything tall and disproportionate as well as losing pixels in the process. This makes the already amateurish presentation look downright awful, and it renders certain instances of text impossible to read. In a game the primary goal of which is to strive for a good completion time at the end of each level, it's pretty disheartening to find that your best effort is displayed as an unreadable smudge.

Your experience of clumsily guiding Tik-Ling through the muddy soup that constitutes these stages is further dragged down by the soundtrack, which consists of a six-second loop that cycles irritatingly until you quit the game. On top of this, the developers for some reason thought it wise to have Tik-Ling become winded by even the smallest physical exertions. This doesn't affect gameplay, but it does cause her to start breathing heavily, meaning that, yes, you get to listen to the main character wheeze loudly as she arduously shuffles left to right. If Tik-Ling smokes any fewer than twelve packs a day we'd be surprised, and, judging by the disgusting sound of phlegm in her breath, she's not going to be around long enough for a sequel. It's honestly as though the developers are daring you to turn the sound off. We kept expecting Tik-Ling to turn to us at some point and ask, "Why haven't you muted the game yet?" Of course, we wouldn't be able to read her question, because the condensed visuals and missing pixels would just turn the sentence into incomprehensible word-barf.

Panda Craze also features an innovative control scheme in which the protagonist only obeys your commands about half of the time. Tik-Ling can only dig a hole while standing on dirt, but standing on dirt doesn't seem to be the only prerequisite, as she will sometimes do it, and sometimes not, for no clear reason. When you're simply navigating a level this isn't very problematic (though it certainly is annoying) as you can keep moving her around and trying again and again until she decides to cooperate. But when you're attempting to dig a hole to, say, trap an approaching enemy so that it doesn't kill you, her inactivity becomes downright unfair.

The reason she will sometimes refuse to dig (or perform other actions) is that she can't do these things while she's positioned between tiles. Why? Who knows. But with the cramped graphics, it's impossible to tell where one tile ends and the next begins, so it's not even a problem that can be avoided by careful playing. Furthermore, if Tik-Ling can't do anything between tiles, then there's no reason she shouldn't snap to the middle of a tile when she stops moving. Otherwise she just becomes unresponsive with no clue as to why.

As the game progresses, you will receive more items and abilities to use, but Panda Craze isn't interested in teaching you what they are, what they do, or how to use them. The help section contains all of this information, but to access it you need to quit, which is a tremendously clumsy implementation of this feature. Of course, you could just brush up on all of the controls before you start playing, but good luck remembering how to use an item that you don't even get until the game is halfway over. The lack of any in-game assistance is frustrating at best as you're bound to forget you even have certain abilities to begin with, especially as several of them are granted (or unlocked, we guess) without the game indicating that anything has changed. The level titles can sometimes give you a hint as to what ability you'll need to use, but these don't display automatically; you need to quit the level and reload your save for that level's title to show up. Why?

Furthermore, the abilities aren't distinct enough from each other to imbue the game with any real sense of variety. They basically range from digging straight down through tiles to digging slightly off to the side to blowing tiles up, all of which just results in the elimination of tiles – a simple concept that gets irritatingly spread over several different buttons and combinations of buttons to the benefit of nobody.

All of this could perhaps be overlooked (to some extent) if the game itself, beneath all of its flaws, was entertaining in its own right. But it doesn't take long for the endless cramped corridors connected by ladders and pits to start to feel the same, and Panda Craze never sees a need to introduce an interesting gameplay twist or surprise in order to keep you engaged. It's a game that you'll already be tired of the first time you play it, and if you do choose to muscle through, you'll always be waiting for that moment where things will just click. That moment, however, never comes.

Oh well. At least Panda Craze includes a suicide button. We just wish it wasn't the most enjoyable aspect of the game.

Conclusion

DSiWare gamers should be outright insulted by Panda Craze. No attempt was made to make the game display or function properly on the console, let alone take advantage of its features. The graphics are atrocious and improperly scaled, the soundtrack is barely tolerable, and the main character may or may not be consistently interested in doing what you tell her to do. It's difficult to think of a worse way to invest 500 Points, and that's saying something.

Also, for the record, a panda would totally disembowel you in your sleep. And it wouldn't even feel bad about it the next day. Just sayin'...