Developer: Curious Pictures, N-Fusion / Publisher: THQ / Price: $49.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 (Kinect) / ESRB: Everyone
It’s tough justifying ownership of the Xbox Kinect. At this point, I use the peripheral more often as a fancy Netflix remote than for any gaming purposes. As such, I jumped at the chance to review Deepak Chopra’s Leela, which is touted as a meditation video game. In many ways, Leela should be applauded for its attempt to do something different in a video game—and for even succeeding in many ways. But on the whole, Leela’s shortcomings kept me from achieving the peace and inner-harmony I craved.
Gameplay and Control
When gamers first boot up the disc, the Love Guru star and peace-promoting millionaire Deepak Chopra explains that “leela” is a Sanskrit word for “play.” True to its name, Leela offers you seven different minigames that correspond to your seven different chakras, each of which centered on a different area of your body from the base of your spine to spot slightly above the top of your head. In addition, these chakras also correspond with different elements—think “Captain Planet” but inside your soul. In addition, each minigame offers seven levels (except the very last one), requiring completion to unlock the next one up the chain.
Quite cleverly, each game makes use of a control scheme centered around each chakra’s body region. For instance, the game for the root chakra (whose element is “earth”) has you swivel your hips left and right while bending at the knees to rotate an on-screen planet. The navel chakra’s element is fire, so you aim and charge fireballs by placing your hands by your belly, shooting the fireballs at space-rocks by opening up your hands.
When the controls work, they work exceptionally well. The aforementioned root chakra game responds to your subtlest movement, giving you the feeling of tight control over the earth to which you must bring life. Seeds rise from the planet’s core, and you rotate the world to place the grass, trees, or mushrooms the seeds bring forth. Rotations also allow you to bring the plants water, sunlight, or moonlight, all of which causes life to flourish and the planet to come to life. With no enemies or time limits in this game, it’s easy to just lose oneself in the game experience. Playing this minigame through its seven levels was an utter joy, bringing me a sense of calm and tranquility—exactly what I’d hoped Leela would do.
But then I continued to play through each chakra’s game, and that’s where the problems showed up. About three of the seven games made great use of unique motion controls—like swiveling my chest to guide a ball through an air chamber to collect energy, or using my hands to shoot soundwaves through the galaxy from my throat-chakra. Unfortunately, the rest of the games suffered from poor motion detection, lousy game design, or both. For example, the second game is based around the lower belly, and, using your hips, you direct an amoeba-thing around a watery environment, tasked with linking seeds to eggs via its tail. Even when you manage to get the amoeba to go where you want by swiveling your hips just right, if you run out of tail-power, you fail and have to try again. And the amoeba moves sloooowly, meaning that your retry is going to be the ultimate test of your patience.
Likewise, in the third-eye chakra game, you rotate a tunnel by tilting your head from side to side, causing your spaceship-thing to slide over icons of a particular color. Hitting your chosen color enough consecutive times fills the tunnel with your light, and clears the level. But the game needs utterly honed twitch-reflexes to succeed as you progress through the levels, and when a progress-shattering X icon is introduced, the game goes from “kind of neat” to “god fucking dammit”—an attitude that doesn’t really help foster a sense of calm.
Leela is ambitious in its goals and execution, and when it succeeds, it does so in a big way. But it’s more than a little counter-productive to have minigames with so much rage-inducing brokenness in a package that “invites you to utilize natural, full body gestures to unwind and relax.” Unwind? More like unhinge.
When you’re not playing through one of the seven chakra games, Leela also has meditation modes, all of which fall under the heading of “Reflect.” Reflect ranges from breathwork, to guided meditation, to silent meditation. The breathwork mode uses the Kinect’s sensors to actually monitor your breathing by analyzing how your body moves as you inhale and exhale. Three bars on the screen expand or contract corresponding with different areas of your body. While it’s not perfect, it’s pretty accurate most of the time, and seeing your breath on screen does help you focus, which, in turn, helps you relax and stop thinking about the stupid junk you’ve had to deal with throughout your day (like, say, that batch of Leela’s crappy minigames).
Guided meditation gives you auditory prompts as to how to sit, tips on your posture, and seems to replicate what you’d get if you went to a meditation class. Silent meditation monitors your breathing, but doesn’t offer speech—it just plays music. For the Reflect mode alone, Leela may be a great buy for those looking to simulate classes on the cheap from the comfort of their own homes. That said, you might be able to achieve the same results with a book or CD of sitar music. Just about the only feature the game offers over those alternatives is the breathing monitor, though whether or not that’s enough of a hook, I don’t know.
Visuals & Sound
The sights and sounds of Leela seem tailor made to help draw you into the experience, and when the brokenness of the bad games doesn’t get to you, they usually succeed. The visuals offer smooth textures and framerates, except in the aforementioned fireball minigame, which for some reason looks rushed and has a chunky framerate. Colors are vibrant and otherworldly, and eastern-influenced aesthetics and designs can be found in each game and menu. Think of the kinds of inspirational posters you might find in a store that sells crystals; you’ve just properly visualized the worlds of Leela.
There are great little auditory flourishes throughout the game, too, like in the game’s menus. When you move your on-screen cursor over each of the seven level-select icons, you hear a different pitch—which also corresponds to each of the seven notes on the major musical scale. And the voice of the game’s female narrator/meditation-instructor is quite pleasing. You know that crystal-selling store I mentioned in the last paragraph? Imagine the woman who works there, but less annoying, who now lives inside your TV and tells you how to breathe right. Not only that, the music is great in every game, menu, or meditation mode. The Indian and Asian styles of music is never stressful, though it can sometimes be exciting during play. As you play through the games, the music changes dynamically to reflect your progress, sometimes with harmonious chimes, sometimes with a driving backbeat. Overall, the elements of sounds and visuals combine to help you calm yourself and become immersed in the experience.
It’s very difficult to judge Leela in the same ways we judge other games because it’s so different from top to bottom. Not only that, the unique aspirations of the game should earn it more credit than other, more traditional games, which travel routes of more standard gaming experiences. That said, when a game’s stated purpose is to relax the user, but it winds up doing the exact opposite, that extra credit can only carry it so far. Above all, there are some wonderful experiences to be had in Leela, but they’re forgotten as soon as the frustrations set in. The game is worth a look, and those seeking a new kind of experience from video gaming will find a lot to enjoy. But beware: while the path to enlightenment is rewarding, it is fraught with peril, danger, and lots more F-bombs than you’d otherwise think.