Complain all you want about Rare taking its time - four years of it in this case - to deliver a true AAA title for Microsoft. With Kameo: Elements of Power, the notorious perfectionist has bided its time until a console powerful enough to deliver the ultimate visual goods came along.
Graphically, this is easily the best thing the developer has ever done. Its mastery and understanding of the new hardware, and its panache for character design is a dreamlike combination. Almost the instant you crack into the dramatic opening level 'Thorn's Castle', you're reconnected with key traits of Rare's back catalogue; the cooperative puzzle solving of Banjo-Kazooie, the engaging characters of Jet Force Gemini and the chest-beatingly satisfying gameplay of Donkey Kong Country.
Almost half of the game is puzzle-solving, while the rest is a potent mix of combat and exploration. After the heady excitement of the opening mission - a perfect example of giving you a few characters to experiment with and letting you get on with it - the action slows to a couple of rather flat training missions set in Kameo's tweeelfi n castle.
You're then eased extremely gently into the puzzle-solving element. As you beat the first couple of Shadow Demon bosses, you start to build up a team of elemental warriors with various abilities. Most of the obstacles or enemies in Kameo can only be overcome by fi guring out which of the elementals should be used. In some cases, this is as straightforward as using Ash the dragon to incinerate some monsters made of wood and leaves. As you progress, you'll have to use two or more elementals in combination. For example, some trolls carry indestructible shields and you have to first distract them with Rubble's storm attack. When they turn away from you to look for the commotion, you must transform into a fighting character like Pummel Weed to take advantage of this momentary vulnerability.
NO MORE HARDCORE BEATINGS
It's a fairly classic formula. The sheer quantity of puzzles keeps you engaged, although some are repeated to the point of going through the motions. They're not that diffi cult either, but if you do somehow manage to get stuck, a selection of tips can be accessed from the Start menu - another indication that Rare isn't out to give this generation of gamers a hardcore beating like it used to.
In fact, you'll be dealing out most of the beatings in Kameo, especially during the game's awe-inspiring battle scenes. These dramatic encounters with a couple of thousand trolls at once are a stark demonstration of Xbox 360's immense power. But more importantly, they're also a chance to run around indiscriminately hitting stuff. It's a pretty shallow attempt to shoehorn an Xbox 360 tech demo into the game and there isn't any real point to it (unless you want to kill every last troll, but that'd take hours), but you just can't argue with how much fun it is.
There's very little fear of dying either. When you're killed by an enemy or if you fall off the map, you're simply put back in the same room. There's no real punishment and so you start to feel rather too confident after a while. Only the bosses provide a challenge that you can get your teeth into. It's a bit of a shame because the enemy AI is one of the game's biggest advancements.
Kameo's characters are arrestingly lifelike, both in animation and behaviour. Trolls duck and roll to avoid your attacks, then retaliate just as you're recovering. If you manage to isolate one of them, they'll often run away and hide, quaking with fear. And although there's something way too dainty about the eponymous elfin heroine, the cast of ten elemental warriors is superbly realised. Each starts out with three different attacks which can be upgraded when you find special elemental fruits, usually awarded for completing sub-missions. Morphing between warriors is as simple as going to the Start menu and assigning them to one of the face buttons. You can then swap on the fl y and execute special moves using the L and R triggers.