Double Fine have been putting out some great games recently; their focus on small games have allowed more room for experimentation and originality than would otherwise be viable. The epitome of this strategy is undoubtedly Double Fine Happy Action Theater, a downloadable Kinect title that is brimming with experimentation, but not much else.
The content comes in the form of several mini games, each using the camera in Kinect for either augmented reality or putting the player into the world of the game. You can choose which of these mini games to play yourself or you can let the game rotate between them. It's a cute set-up, where the directed experience is chosen from the menu by letting the actual director of the theater take over the 'play'. But that's the only direction you'll find in the game; there's no story to guide your actions and no structure that requires you to unlock anything.
In fact, you're free to do as you please. The game tries to encourage experimentation by never giving instructions, and so it's completely up to you to discover not only the quirks of each mini game, but also how to have fun with them. Having fun with Double Fine Happy Action Theater isn't hard, but the game doesn't offer a lot of fun up front, as the player is expected to supply playfulness and imagination in order for the game to be at its best.
Each of the mini games has been crafted to inspire this though, so your inner child won't be far off once you start playing. You'll find yourself inside pudding, on the sea floor, running around in lava, and many other setups that are executed fairly well. In fact, the most impressive accomplishment of Double Fine Happy Action Theater might just be its augmented reality and the way it uses depth to make your living room a small playground. The graphics themselves work well enough, but aren't really impressive, and the same thing almost goes for the sound design (the exception being a catchy soundtrack for a few of the mini games that makes you feel like a young John Travolta).
While the game tries hard to cater to your sense of fun and wonder, it often feels like it impedes on its own goals by providing shallow gameplay. This works well enough in the directed tour through the 18 mini games, where you don't spend more than a few minutes on each game, and one playthrough takes about an hour. But after going through that playthrough, you've likely seen all the gameplay Double Fine Happy Action Theater has to offer. And while you have the freedom to put your own twists on the gameplay, like only popping green balloons in a balloon popping game, that freedom also means that the game doesn't do much to support the rules you may want to play by.
The next issue in trying to put your own twists on the gameplay comes from the controls. While the Kinect implementation works very well graphically, the controls aren't fine enough for something like "pop only the green balloons" when you're wallowing in balloons. Not that the controls are bad by any means - the way you can interact with items in augmented reality is quite impressive in fact - but they just aren't capable of carrying the full extent of Double Fine's vision for the game.
The same can be said of the multiplayer. Double Fine Happy Action Theater supports up to six players at once, and while the controls actually hold up well enough despite all the extra players, playing with six people at once becomes really crowded regardless of how much space you have available. Kinect simply can't detect enough space to allow everyone enough space to play in. That's not to say multiplayer isn't fun, it certainly is, but including more than four people at once isn't ideal.
I've rambled on about the faults of the game for much of this review, but the bottom line is that Double Fine Happy Action Theater can be really enjoyable. The problem is that once you've had fun with it for an hour or so, there isn't much left discover, and what has been discovered doesn't really warrant coming back to, unless you've yet to play the game with friends at any rate. Had the game been 400 Microsoft points instead of 800, I would probably have recommended it as a fun distraction or something to entertain your kids for a while, because it is very good at those things. But at its current price, it will have to make do without such a recommendation.
Double Fine Happy Action Theater is a really tough game to score. It offers as much fun as you yourself can create, which is why children are probably much more likely to have a good time with it than adults. If you value experimentation and creativity it's a game that's worth looking into.
This review is based on a XBLA copy of Double Fine Happy Action Theater, provided by the developer.