It opens with a cinematic introduction worthy of the best of Disney or Pixar animation. And then it gets a heck of a lot better. Kameo: Elements of Power is that special something that Microsoft was praying for when it envisioned the Xbox 360, a startlingly original and exclusive game title that takes advantage of the system's unique hardware prowess while offering a thrilling storyline, immense playability, and colorful, fun graphics that everyone in the family can enjoy. I knew developer Rare was on to something when my four year old daughter walked in the room and declared that she wanted to "watch" Kameo. It just looks like a good, old fashioned fantasy romp.

But Kameo isn't just for kids. Indeed, I found this game virtually as addictive as my favorite Xbox 360 title thus far, Call of Duty 2. I ended up playing and completing the solo (single player) version of Kameo together with my seven-year-old son, both because it was fun to switch off with him and because he wasn't able to complete it himself (see "Nothing is perfect: A few Kameo quibbles" below for details). It was nice to have a video game bonding experience that didn't involve us shooting each other or trying to outscore each other in a virtual sports arena.

So what is Kameo: Elements of Power? Essentially, it's a fantasy action-adventure game with a healthy dose of puzzles, battles, and rescues. The game is typically played in third person view, though you can optionally switch to first person view if you'd like. (For this title, I don't recommend doing so.) Kameo has been in development for a long time, too: Originally planned for the Nintendo 64, the product was then seen as a show-off title for Nintendo's GameCube. But Microsoft bought Rare in 2002, and the target changed to the Xbox. With Xbox 360 looming, Kameo was put off yet again, and now it's finally appeared, a decade later, as a launch title for Xbox 360.

It was worth the wait.

Plot

You play Kameo, a female elf shape shifter who can turn into up to ten other Elemental Warrior forms on command, providing you with a much wider array of abilities than you might at first expect. In the amazing opening sequence of the game, which curiously comes before the typical "here is how all your controls work" introduction of a typical video game, you get to try out three of these alternate forms, Pummel Weed, a plant-like creature with a strong upper punch, Major Ruin, a spiked boulder that excels at jumping, and Chilla, an arctic ape who can climb up frozen waterfalls and throw ice daggers. Don't get too attached to any of these characters, however, because by the time the opening sequence ends, you've been stripped of your Elementals and forced to begin anew, without any additional powers.

From here, the game takes on a more typical adventure progression. Aided by the wizard Ortho, who's found inside the Whatnot book you can constantly access via the Start button on the Xbox 360 controller, and less frequently by a mysterious one-eyed lizard called The Mystic, you must rescue various relatives and ancestors who have been kidnapped by your evil sister Kalus and Thorn, the leader of the trolls. Thanks to a bit of betrayal by Kalus, Thorn and the Trolls are at war with the elves. It seems that Kalus is jealous, go figure, because your mother, Queen Theena, decided to pass her powers to you, and not her.

As you progress through the game, you'll witness and participate in various stages of this fantasy war, and also interact with a variety of other creatures and settings, all of them fantastical in nature and gorgeous to look at.

Game play

Kameo's game play is generally straightforward, but is set up to aid those in need of help with copious hints. Consider a typical sequence in Kameo: You enter a room or other area in which there are a number of baddies to vanquish and perhaps a simple puzzle to solve, such as a number of lanterns that need to be lit in a certain order. In such cases, there is generally a friendly non-player character who will provide you with a vague hint that should get experienced adventure gamers going. If you seem to be struggling a bit, Ortho will pop up a notification in the lower right corner and tell you that he has an idea. So you can open up the Whatnot book and see what he has to say. Ortho's first bit of advice will generally be very similar to that of the non-player character. But if you keep struggling, he'll pop up again, and this time he'll tell you exactly what you need to do in order to get ahead. This makes Kameo more approachable for inexperience players--and, I guess, younger players--but it can be a bit annoying if you already have the answer.

Over the course of the game, you'll work to rescue ten Elemental Warriors (including the three you started with) and several relatives and ancestors, all of which have been imprisoned by Kalus and Thorn. You'll explore and traverse a wide range of environments, all unique looking and offering diversified play styles. In those areas where it makes sense, you'll get an onscreen map to help you find your way. Unlike some adventure titles in which you wander around aimlessly looking for that last piece of the puzzle, Kameo doesn't leave you hanging.

The controller layout is reasonable and easy to master. You control Kameo and her alter egos via the thumbsticks as you'd expect, and the left and right triggers (or a combination of both) are used to perform attacks and other special tasks. The Start button brings up Ortho and the Whatnot book, while the X, Y, and B buttons are used to cycle between your three available Elemental Warriors; A is always reserved for Kameo herself, and you can assign the other three to any three of the available Warriors you may have. Note, however, that you will eventually rescue far more than three Elemental Warriors, so you'll have to figure out which ones to use. As you might expect, each time you rescue a particular Warrior, they're needed almost immediately.

If you push in the right thumb stick, you'll be presented with Kameo's first person view. This is all well and good, but we found it too easy to push by mistake in the heat of battle, and the sudden view change was often the cause of problems.

For the most part, Kameo is easy to play, though a few of the sequences were exceptionally difficult. One obvious example is the end sequence mentioned below, in which you must battle a monster both on land and in the water in order to complete a game section. It's hard for me to believe that most people who got that far would be anything but frustrated by the difficulty of that level. And in such a case, Ortho's endlessly offered advice is pointless if the required actions are too difficult to actually complete.

Occasionally, you get to see the scale of the world in which Kameo inhabits. The opening sequence is one such example, but at various points during the game, you get to ride a horse through amazingly large armies of trolls and elves fighting each other, blazing a path through the mayhem as you seek to help fellow fighters and get to the next part of the game. These sequences are more than a little reminiscent of certain parts of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" movies, and serve to put the course you're taking into the perspective of the larger events surrounding you. They're epic in scope, breathtaking to behold, and fun to play through.

Graphics and sound

The graphics in Kameo are superb if cartoonish, though that seems to have been by design. You aren't presented with the realistic battlefields of Call of Duty 2 in Kameo; but you'll marvel at the pixilated Pixar-like cartoon graphics, augmented by great sound design and a wonderful movie-like score (indeed, you can actually buy the Kameo soundtrack on CD if you're so moved). In the epic battle scenes, you can see that various trolls and dragons, presented in record numbers onscreen, are simply duplicates of each other, moving in synchronization. But that doesn't really take away from the overall effect.

Nothing is perfect: A few Kameo quibbles

No, Kameo isn't perfect. In the second third of the game, you rescue a water-based Elemental Warrior named Deep Blue who, predictably, looks like an octopus, can breathe underwater, and uses a water hose-like weapon. No surprise there. But inexplicably, the controls for Deep Blue are reversed when compared to every other character in the game: When you push up on the left thumbstick, Deep Blue goes up, instead of down like every other Elemental Warrior in the game. This incongruity makes the Deep Blue levels in the Water Temple section of the game extremely frustrating to play. This is particularly true of the section end sequence in which you try to rescue your aunt Lenya from an enormous monster that hops between land and water.

Also, Kameo offer only partial closed captioning, which made the game unplayable to my hearing-impaired child. Instead, we had to play the game together, which was fine, but with all the sound and music cranking constantly, he required a lot of help, and pausing of the game to explain what was going on. What's odd about this is that all of the sequences involving the Whatnot Book and non-player characters who give you tips do include captioning. None of the other in-game talk is accompanied by captioning, however, and there is chattering going on almost all the time that would be important to know about.

Conclusions

Despite a few issues and the occasionally difficult game play, Kameo is a magical game title that should fascinate the entire family. Unlike the other Xbox 360 games I've reviewed so far--Call of Duty 2, Quake 4, and Condemned: Criminal Origins--Kameo is that rare universal title that won't appeal just to fans of certain game types, like first person shooters or sports titles. Instead, Kameo takes an epic storyline straight out of fantasy blockbusters like "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" and couples it with Pixar-like computer graphics that are both cartoonish and gorgeous at the same time. You can't take your eyes off this game, and you can't put down the controller either. I recommend it highly, regardless of which types of games you typically enjoy. And that's advice I cannot give for any of the other 18 Xbox 360 launch titles. This one is special, folks.