Reviewed: December 29, 2007
Released: December 4, 2007
It seems that Game Chronicles is quickly becoming the champion of video games that continually get a royal and unjust bashing from the so-called mainstream media. These elitist sites approach every title like the game in question is supposed to change your life, but truth be told, video games are all about having fun, and having fun doesn’t always mean you have to push the technological envelope.
Let’s take The Golden Compass for example. As of this review SEGA’s movie spin-off currently has a 37% score on Game Rankings, having been reviewed by no less than 11 “prominent” game sites. I’ve read most of the reviews and can say, from a gamer’s standpoint, that none of these reviewers got it right. Of course, I’m sure they’ll all fire back at me saying the same thing so who really cares about right and wrong. Let’s deal with the facts.
The Golden Compass is a game based on a movie based on the first of a trilogy of books. Who knows if the minor success of the first film will spawn sequels. I have neither read the books nor seen the movie, so perhaps I have a bit of an advantage when reviewing this game since I come with no preconceived notions.
What I do know is that from the moment I put this game into my Xbox I was hopelessly captivated; not so much with the broken story or minimal presentation values, but rather with some seriously solid adventure-style gameplay that had me exploring and solving puzzles in a way that I hadn’t experienced since my old-school days of Sierra adventures.
Unlike most of the recent movie games that try to explore tangents to the movie script, The Golden Compass merely retells the story of the book and film, going as far as to use actual movie footage for the between-chapter cutscenes. Since I have neither read the book nor seen the film I cannot vouch for how often or how far the game story diverges from the original. I do know that the storytelling is definitely broken in places, or at least leaving some serious plot gaps for anyone (like me) who is new to the story. One minute I am fighting against an army of witches and the next they are fighting with me. Only two chapters later do I learn there are two different clans.
The story is definitely rushed at the beginning. One minute I am scampering across the rooftops of Jordan College and the next I am working as Nichole Kidman’s personal assistant in her London flat, then just as fast I am hiding about a Gyptian ship on my way to the North Pole.
Then there is the entire backstory of daemons, which is never really covered at all until the very end, and then only very briefly. It seems that everyone in this magical world has their own personal daemon (pronounced demon), a sort of familiar that is magically bound to their human. These daemons come in all shapes, sizes, and species, and in the case of Lyra (that’s you), yours can shapeshift into a variety of useful forms.
Pan is not only your daemon and best friend; he is a useful creature that provides most of the gameplay opportunities in The Golden Compass. In the beginning you only have his Ermine form, which looks something like a ferret. In this form you can use his unique ability to scan your surroundings, revealing interactive hotspots and getting useful descriptions on a variety of objects and people. If you look at a person it will give you a name and a skill ranking required to defeat them in either deceptive conversation or evasive combat. More on that in a moment.
Later, Pan can assume a Sloth form allowing you to trapeze swing from horizontal bars or even get a boost to unattainable heights. The Hawk form is easily the most useful form allowing you to jump and then hover across great distances. And finally you have the Wildcat form, which allows Lyra to not only vertically climb certain surfaces, but also perform a handy tumble-dash move. Rest assured that as the game progresses, you will be required to use these forms far more frequently and even perform various combinations such as swinging as a sloth then gliding to the next pole and swinging again.
As with most adventure games, the action is limited, especially the combat, which unfolds more like a bullfight than conventional combat. Whether it’s Lyra or Pan doing the fighting, you will square off against the enemy in an evasive mini-game. You’ll be shown a direction and you must match that movement to dodge the enemy attack, thus inflicting damage as the pass by and smash into a wall or other object. Everything is quite passive in The Golden Compass, so parents should have no problem with the comical-style violence in the gameplay.
Of course the true magic of the game is revealed only when you start to explore the wondrous depths of the Golden Compass, or the Alethiometer. This magical device, in the proper hands of those with the proper knowledge, can provide the answer to any question you ask of it. Lyra is most definitely the proper person, and you’ll spend the entire game acquiring the proper knowledge to make it work.
The Alethiometer has 36 symbols surrounding the outer edge. Each symbol has three unique meanings that make total sense (when you really think about it) to the symbolized object, but you’ll have to discover their unique definitions by scanning the real world with Pan’s Ermine form. It’s quite clever actually, and the designers have done an amazing job of seamlessly integrating the symbols into the detailed environments.
It really makes you extra-aware of your surroundings while you play the game. You’ll even need a telescope to find a few of them.An apple on the table will reveal one of the three definitions for the apple symbol on the compass, or the stencil of a tree on a shipping container will reveal a definition for the tree symbol. A globe in the ship’s cabin offers up a definition, as does a drawing of a camel on a tropical mural. There are 108 definitions in all, and the more you know, the easier it becomes to use the compass.
Using the Alethiometer is a sophisticated multi-step process that is much harder to explain than to actually do, but here goes. Lyra maintains a Journal, which in addition to Tasks and Story elements also has a list of questions and a section on definitions. Questions will be either revealed through gameplay or asked directly by others you encounter. Once asked, you can access these questions in your journal, which also shows you any symbols you may have already learned to ask that questions.
But you do not need to know all three symbols to ask a question. You can often guess, using common sense works well, but even if you only get one or two correct you can still pose the question. It just gets harder to reveal the answer. So how it works is any symbols already known to you are locked into the compass and you must move any additional hands on the compass to point to the symbols that best match the definition given.
Once you lock in your selections a fourth hand starts to spin around the compass revealing the answer. During this time you must use the analog stick to keep the crosshair as close to the center of the compass as possible. The crosshair will drift away from the center by a force dictated by how many symbols you matched. Three matches means very little drift while one or two matches means more work for you. If you stray outside the compass you fail and must re-ask the question. The fourth hand will stop three times and briefly display a button that you must press. The closer the crosshair is to the center of the compass the longer you have to push the button. If you manage to match all three button presses your question will be answered.
There are 48 questions in the entire game, broken up by chapters. It’s quite likely you won’t reveal all the questions or symbol definitions in a single play through, but you can always replay previous chapters to seek out those questions as well as any overlooked symbol definitions.
Another major gameplay element are the conversations that trigger some interesting, and slightly repetitive mini-games. Known as Deception games, Lyra will be forced to spin some creative stories to reveal certain plot lines and obtain useful items. Sometimes this is as harmless as playing to someone’s ego, but other times you’ll be exaggerating or outright lying to an adult…just in case this concerns any parents.
The way the Deception game works is that each person you talk to has a rating of how many times you’ll have to exchange dialogue before you win or lose the conversation. Each time it’s your turn to say something you’ll have to play a mini-game. These games require you to perform a variety of tasks quickly, to build up a success meter before the timer expires. Success tilts the Deception meter toward the green while failure moves it to yellow and red. These are the only three colors (and positions) for the Deception meter and you can bounce back and forth during the conversation as long as you end up on yellow or green. Bonuses are often awarded for ending in the green.
There is no real penalty for failure other than having to try again. In both the Evasive combat and Deception conversation you will also be able to use a variety of items you will have acquired during your travels. These offer a variety of perks and assistance. You can use a Spice Cake to make your mini-game conversation meter fill faster or use Yellow Oil to slow the timer, and that bag of marbles will make evading the enemy that much easier. Personally, I found little use for these items until the final chapters where things got a bit more difficult…especially a certain conversation with a Polar Bear king.
Speaking of Polar Bears, Lyra isn’t the only playable character in The Golden Compass. In the beginning, and a few missions in the middle, and at the very end you will play as Iorek, a giant armored Polar Bear. Sometimes you’ll play alone and other times Lyra will be on your back and you’ll have to work as a team. The game definitely becomes more action oriented when playing as Iorek, as he will actually fight, grapple, smash, and throw enemies. It’s pretty violent at times, especially with some slow-motion camera work, but there is no blood or severed limbs…just a lot of flailing bodies.
I think that about covers it all. You have the exploration and discover gameplay of Lyra, complete with the magical puzzle solving using the Alethiometer, as well as the platforming jumping and swinging sections with the shape shifting Pan. And when you add in the fierce combat of Iorek you really get an amazing game that spans multiple genres and appeals to young and old alike.
The Golden Compass, despite supporting all the fancy high-def modes looks more like an original Xbox game on steroids. Aside from the ice and snow levels at the beginning and end of the games, there wasn’t much next-gen detail in the levels. Sure, you had puddles that showed reflections, and some nice lighting and shadow effects, but it wasn’t anything the old Xbox couldn’t have done.
The cutscenes were a mix of in-game graphics and FMV clips from the film. While not grainy, the film footage was much darker than the game graphics and the subtitles were a bit annoying. The clips also started and ended with abrupt editing and often didn’t make any sense within my limited knowledge of the story. One minute I’m breaking out of an arctic prison-laboratory for kids and the next I’m falling out of a sky ship and thrown into Polar Bear jail. Other edits were confusing like when Roger rejoins with his father in the game then the movie clip shows him in his mother’s arms.
Character design was original and I was impressed that Lyra often had a new outfit for each chapter. Characters in the game resembled the stars from the film, which was obviously more important since game and film footage were blended together often. I really loved the design of Iorek, with his lumbering gate that kicked up a spray of snow nearly to the point of blinding your view.
Speaking of view, there is no camera control in The Golden Compass but I never really found a need to change my view. There was no clipping or tearing issues anywhere in the game, and on the rare occasions when I did need to see something just off the screen Pan’s Ermine form zoomed out and allowed me to “pan” (no pun intended) around just enough to see it.
The mini-game designs were simple and easy to figure out and the Alethiometer was gorgeous in both its design, rendering, and subtle floating animations that had it tipping around while you were using it. My only quibble with the interface would have to be the extremely large button prompts in the lower corner telling you what to do. These could have been half the size and half as invasive.
The score in The Golden Compass is epic in quality and scope. Performed by a full orchestra, this music is worthy of being in the film…for all I know it was, but it is that good. There are all sorts of subtle uses for specific instruments to fit with each chapter, the environments, and the emotional tension of the moment. It really draws you into the game.
The voice acting was excellent for the most part with proper British accents for most of the characters. Sam Elliot always comes off with his distinctive “cowboy” style, and if Polar Bears could talk, I believe they would sound just like they do in this game.
There are all sorts of magical sound effects used throughout the game. I was surprised and a bit disappointed that the game didn’t support Dolby Digital surround, although I do have to give props to some serious sub-woofer effects when Iorek was galloping across the snow pack.
I do have to mention there were a few instances of the sound glitching, usually when multiple sound layers of music and effects were trying to happen and it would stutter or drop out for a moment then catch up. This only happened 8-10 times in the entire game.
My first pass through The Golden Compass took me 14 hours and 18 minutes, but nearly 90 minutes of that was me getting stuck on a certain level because I totally failed to see the “obvious” switch to the exit door. So deducting my time for being stupid this game lasted a solid 13 hours. At the end of the game I had only acquired about 76 of the 108 definitions and unlocked 33 of the 48 questions. Perfectionists and those looking for an extra 300G points will certainly want to replay this game until they find and unlock it all.
The rest of the Achievement Points are uniquely awarded for boss fights and reaching certain milestones in the story. Those who play the game quite thoroughly the first time could conceivably get all 1000 points in a single pass, but with easy access to previous chapters, it’s recommended to have fun the first time then pick up the missing bits later.
There is also a host of unlockable content, cheats, movie clips, artwork, and other bonus material available in the Extras menu...at least once you unlock it all through dedicated gameplay. Some of the cheats are actually useful like a permanent Rage mode for Iorek.
Despite the mere average visuals and sound presentation (music not withstanding), The Golden Compass was a fun adventure and a fantastic gameplay experience that took me the better part of two days to complete. Having not read the books nor seen the movie, I cannot say how well the game stacks up with or complements those other works, but on its own merits, any gamer of any age would really have to try hard to not have a great time playing The Golden Compass.