We write this review with more than a little wistfulness in our words, for FRU is an example of what could have been, should have been… Much has been written about Kinect, its mandatory status (quickly reversed) blamed for the high launch price and weak sales. The peripheral itself is now almost an embarrassment to the Xbox brand, and the new Xbox One S doesn’t even have a dedicated Kinect port. But FRU developer Through Games screwed their courage to the sticking place and held firm. They should be applauded for continuing to believe in FRU, and themselves, even as Microsoft pulled the Kinect rug from right under their feet.
FRU is a simple puzzle-platformer, your protagonist a small girl in a fox mask, her aim simply to leap from platform to platform, avoiding environmental hazards along the way. The world through which she traverses is actually two worlds, laid on top of each other like pages in a book, and she can traverse from one to the other at will, making use of features that exist in one world, but not the other.
Transition between worlds is through an ever-changing portal – and you are that portal. You, the player, not you the fox-girl. Your silhouette, at any rate. If Pokemon Go is responsible for a generation of gamers leaving their houses and exploring the world’s open spaces, then FRU manages the simpler goal of getting the normally sedentary gamer off the couch. And the much harder one of coaxing them into Downward Facing Dog or Bikram Triangle.
Kinect’s sensors track your every move and your silhouette is displayed on-screen; by adjusting your body position to reveal the second, hidden world. Fox-girl moves seamlessly through your silhouette, your body position determining which bits of the level are in the visible world, and which bits are in the hidden. It’s a beautifully simple design that no doubt required considerable mastery of Kinect; there’s no discernible lag (nothing that impacts on the game, at any rate) and Kinect tracks your movement perfectly from one screen edge to the other, and even when lying prone on the floor. And believe us – you’ll be using every inch of that space. The View button on the controller can be used if the game loses you – but in all of our time with FRU this only happened when we wandered completely out of the sensor’s range in search of a rest or a biscuit. Not once was a leap missed because Kinect failed us. Compared to many other uses of Kinect, FRU is astonishingly solid.
It is the interaction between you, the two worlds, and fox-girl that creates the challenge in FRU. There are no complex controls to master, no wall-jumping, gravity-defying acts of acrobatics needed. Move. Jump. Move and jump. Movement is on either the left of right stick, jump on either the left or right trigger. The requirement for such simplicity and choice is immediately apparent – after the first few levels it’s a rare occurrence to have more than one hand on the controller.
Simple does not mean easy, though, and there’s a surprising level of challenge here. But it’s challenge that comes from an unusual place. While gaming dexterity usually only involves a couple of fingers and opposable thumbs, FRU requires at first basic control – and later Yogi-like mastery – of your own body. Immediately, we knew we were going to struggle.
FRU’s levels are arranged into four chapters, each offering a slightly different alternate world that’s revealed by your silhouette, with accompanying changes in game mechanics. Chapter one is relatively simple; there are platforms that exist in one world or the other, or in both, and it’s simply a case of working out where to stand, and where and when to move across your living room floor to make sure fox-girl can always find her footing. Between each chapter there are hints at the game’s story – a tale of a ruler who desired to be the most beautiful in the land, and forced everyone else to hide behind masks – told through murals and poetic stanzas.
Even in the first chapter there are hints at clever mechanics. As you shift your body, a wall too high for fox-girl to leap over disappears, and she can walk past. If you step away again, she becomes encased in the wall, and you have a few seconds to rescue her from her stony prison before she succumbs and an (instant) restart is required. Get your timing and your movement right, though, and you can extend an arm and lift your pretty protagonist up through the stonework, and before you know it she’s on top of the wall in an area of the level otherwise unreachable.
Finding innovative ways like this to cross each level – and there’s rarely only a single solution to each puzzle – is vital if you want to collect the 24 Golden Masks scattered around the 110 levels of the base game. Grabbing them all – the trickiest task the FRU has to offer – unlocks the Bonus Mode, a co-op adventure that was revealed (in very early form) at E3 2014.
As fox-girl makes her way through the game, with your athletic and bendy help, naturally, puzzles get trickier; solutions are more difficult to find, and putting a plan into place requires greater dexterity. Nothing ever feels out of reach, though – and there’s never occasion to blame the game, only your own lack of co-ordination. In one memorable moment we had finally contorted into just the right position, the route through the level was clear, and fox-girl was almost home free. Our brains, however, failed to recognise we were partially inverted and facing away from the screen. A thumb stick went left instead of right and fox-girl fell to her doom.
The second chapter introduces a watery alternate world through which fox-girl can swim, avoiding the spines of poisonous plants as she goes. The third introduces buttons which have to be pressed – or avoided – while the fourth riffs on the ‘the floor is lava’ children’s game with blocks of molten metal that incinerate on contact. Each chapter offers a unique challenge; the water world, in particular, felt the most different, and we found ourselves pivoting slowly and gracefully (okay, in our heads we imagined it was graceful) like a Tai-Chi master in Central Park.
In a beautiful accident of emergent gameplay we discovered a different kind of co-op game – one where one person has the controller, working from outside Kinect’s laser gaze, and one front and centre as the portal. If you thought working with your team in Overwatch required good communication, give FRU a go with your significant other. It’s fun to force someone into a variety of amusing and embarrassing poses, and a good way to get non-gamers involved in the sheer joy of a wonderful, accessible game.
Technically, FRU is a delight. Quite beyond the robust understanding of what makes Kinect tick, FRU is a beautiful game to look at and a joy to play. Movement is butter smooth, and the pace nigh on perfect. Sound design is gorgeous, with themes that complement each of the environments exceedingly well.
In short, FRU doesn’t put a foot wrong in the three to four hours it takes to clear the base game (there’s a ‘Speed Runner’ Achievement for completing the whole thing in 40 minutes. This reviewer will never be able to exercise that much control over his aging limbs) and the time spent in FRU’s company is time well spent indeed.
It’s a sobering thought Kinect’s very best game is likely its very last.
FRU is available from the Xbox Store priced £11.99.
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