Reviewed: May 18, 2010
Released: May 18, 2010
If DreamWorks had a mascot it would definitely be their grouchy green ogre, Shrek. This guy along with his eclectic cast of storybook friends charmed their way into the lives of kids and adults nine years ago and he’s about to embark on his biggest and best adventure later this month, both in theaters and on your favorite video game system. This forth and final film gets the obligatory game tie-in with Shrek Forever After, and while I can’t speak for the movie just yet I can tell you for a fact that this is the best Shrek game ever.|
I recently had a chance to experience this fantastic magical adventure, not once, but twice in preparation for its upcoming release. Created by Xpec, the guys who brought us Kung Fu Panda, this latest Shrek title is so perfect in game design that it could stand alone without the Shrek license. Sure, it might lose a bit of its storybook charm and marketability without Shrek, Donkey, Puss, and Fiona, but this four-character-cooperative game design works on so many levels I would play the game if it had four stick figures labeled A, B, C, and D.
Borrowing from story elements from the upcoming movie, Shrek seems to be going through a midlife crisis and makes a deal with the wily Rumpelstiltskin to get a part of his "old life" back before he was reduced to being a husband and father. Of course these deals always backfire and Shrek finds himself in a twisted alternate reality where Fiona is a leader to a rogue band of rebel ogres who are fighting against the evil king, and she and Shrek have never even met. Shrek immediately regrets his deal and looks to exploit the “exit clause” by invoking true love’s kiss. Shrek has his work cut out for him if he wants to gain the respect of Fiona, let alone her love. Thankfully, he has Donkey and a slightly pudgy Puss in Boots to help him out.
Shrek Forever After starts off with a cleverly designed tutorial hosted by one of the Three Little Pigs. He gets you up to speed with all the characters and their various abilities, plus all the intricate ways they can interact with each other and will pop-up from time to time within the game to offer clues and hints. As a one-player game you will cycle through the characters with RB or tap a direction on the D-pad to quick-select the appropriate characters. When 2-4 people are playing you can each play a character and work as a team. I’ve played a lot of these co-op games and they usually range from gimmicky to unwieldy, but Shrek Forever After is in a league of its own.
By design the game not only encourages cooperative play, it demands it, so much in fact that some levels have a co-op only puzzle tucked away that will require you to have at least one other player, or juggle two controllers for a few minutes. But the best thing about the co-op play is that it never once seems forced upon you simply for gameplay or puzzle-solving sake. The abilities of each character are very defined and the puzzles make clever use of those abilities in surprisingly complex yet intuitive fashion.
Shrek is a brawler with melee attacks not unlike wrestling moves. His secondary attack is a yell that stuns enemies. Fiona is a warrior queen with a vicious sword attack and secondary stun ability. Puss is fast and furious with his blade and his wisecracks and his special move is those sad eyes that will stop enemies in their tracks. Donkey spins and kicks with his deadly hooves and can sing a few tunes to stun enemies. Throw in an assortment of special power-ups like disco balls and time bombs and you have some wildly fun and diverse combat ahead of you.
And then you have each character's special puzzle solving abilities. Shrek can carry things like barrels and bombs. Donkey can kick things like doors, mirrors, and carts full of oil barrels. Fiona can light fuses and ignite trails of oil laid down by Shrek. Puss can climb walls and perform skillful post jumps to get to far away places. So a simple puzzle might go down with Donkey kicking a cart and Shrek picking up the keg that just got knocked loose and carrying it over to a passage blocked with rocks. After setting the keg down Fiona strikes the oil trail igniting the liquid that races back and blows the keg and the obstacle up. Many puzzles require the use of multiple characters and their abilities – sometimes all four.
Puzzles also require a bit of thought on the player's part. You might have to mix various colored items in a pot to get a certain resulting color to generate a beam of light then reflect that beam through a complex series of mirrors to open a door or reveal a magical floor. There are a lot of sliding box puzzles that will require Shrek's strength, and distant switches that Puss will need to jump to and flip. Whenever there is a puzzle you can be sure the Three Blind Mice are nearby willing to sell three levels of increasingly revealing hints to help you solve it. It seems there is something new to do or someone new to fight each time the screen changes, and it never gets old, dull, or repetative.
The game world is wonderfully designed with multiple stages set in unique parts of the world, all centrally accessed through the Ogre Camp that serves as your hub and place to purchase upgrades and power-ups from Cookie. Even the Ogre Camp is host to numerous puzzles, many of which cannot be accessed until you unlock each characters second level of special ability. In a way, this is the training ground to learn new abilities before venturing forth into the world ouside the camp.
Some boxes and chests cannot be opened until Shrek gets a strength boost. Puss cannot do wall jumps until he gets his “boots”, and Donkey cannot kick through gold lock doors until he gets his special shoes. Fiona cannot ignite the larger piles of wood until she gets her kerosene lantern. You will encounter all of these unsolvable obstacles during your first pass through each level, so you’ll want to make a mental note and return later when you have the means to access those areas. Each level tracks treasures and secrets so you know where you need to go back.
You get to explore wonderful levels like Shrek’s Swamp, the Dragon Keep (from the first movie), the Peasant Village, the Catacombs, the Docks, and Rumpelstiltskin Palace. There are usually several minor puzzles as well as one larger puzzle that spans the entire level and plenty of combat in-between. Each level is full of awesome enemies like witches, bats, rats, and pitchfork wielding humans. There are also special guest appearances by Ginger, and Pinocchio as well as pirates and Robin Hood’s not-so-merry men.
Perhaps the best guest is Magic Mirror, who appears in key locations throughout the levels and grants you the ability to temporarily transport back to the unaltered reality. These shifts in time are marked with a unique visual style as well as new gameplay potential that seamlessly integrates into level exploration and puzzle solving. Your way may be blocked by a gate in one reality, but a quick use of the Magic Mirror might remove the entire wall. The most visually striking changes from the Mirror are in Shrek’s swamp where you go from a dried up crusty bog to a lush green swamp.
This is easily the best-looking Shrek game to date with fantastic character designs and intricately charming animations. The level designs are exquisite, and while admittedly a bit linear in their maze-like construction, never feel to constrained. You are never prevented from backtracking within a level and you can always revisit any level from the Ogre Came hub. Special effects are excellent with fire and smoke and evil pumpkins that rise out of the patch and attack or creepy skeletons that rattle up from the cemetery. I love the bubble hint system that pops up a portrait of the character required to interact with any specific item. Many of the textures border on photo-realistic, especially the water. The cutscenes are fully rendered in 3D with a CG quality that rivals what you’ll see in theaters.
This latest Shrek game features some excellent sound-alikes, or at least they sound authentic enough for me. It’s been over a year since I’ve seen a Shrek movie so I don’t have fresh dialogue to compare, but it all sounds pretty much exactly what I remember. Donkey is sassy, Puss is suave, Fiona is feisty, Shrek has his Scottish accent, and Pinocchio and Ginger sound as annoying as ever. There is also plenty of idle chatter from the various characters that inhabit the world.
The worlds come alive with fantastic environmental sounds and special effects for explosions and such, but the best audio comes from the music. Not only do you get an immersive score to carry you through the adventure, from time to time you will get into these Action Battle Theater events where the game will mirror those epic fight scenes from the movie complete with licensed music cues that will play through the duration. I normally detest these types of game-padding events, but the music totally made it part of the experience.
Shrek Forever After is a 6-8 hour game for a single pass and you can double that for the mandatory second pass required if you want to get a 100% on each level. What could have easily become artificial game extension are complete sections of levels that open up after your characters earn their second-tier abilities, so it’s almost like playing a whole new game, even if you do have to backtrack on familiar ground.
The game is obviously designed for at least two players although I did manage to get through most of my first pass solo. I did bring a friend onboard for the co-op puzzles and the final two stages and found that the game works surprisingly well either way. You will have those moments where you are fighting for control of the screen as you move in opposite directions and there are some moments, like trying to steer a paddleboat by walking to one of four sides, where it might be better for all other players to temporarily drop out of the game. And that is the beauty of this game design. Players can drop in and out with a mere press of the Start button and start helping out. Shrek Forever After is the epitome of a family friendly game.
I always approach these obligatory movie cash-in titles with a bit of hesitation, especially when the franchise has slowly been going downhill with each subsequent film since the first. But all the movie ads and media hype are declaring this the best movie since the first, so we can only hope Shrek gets the theatrical sendoff he deserves. At least when it comes to videogames, Shrek is going out with magical style. Share the fun, share the laughs. Shrek Forever After is easily the best Shrek game I have ever played on this or any previous generation system, and is one of my top three “movie games” of all time.