Reviewed: December 8, 2005
Released: November 15, 2005
Another blockbuster movie, another movie based game. This time around, the subject is the first in CS Lewis’ classic series of books The Chronicles of Narnia, called The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
The stories – mythological allegories of the triumphs of Jesus and his Christian followers over the evil of the world – have been cherished by readers for decades. Generally, long-time loyalty like that spells the kiss of death for developers as they try to make the conversion from book, to screen, to gaming console.
Thankfully, the developers behind the DS version of Narnia have done a wonderful job introducing the dungeon crawler genre to the DS audience, and do some really cool things with the touch screen to boot.
The Chronicles of Narnia follows closely to its source material, telling the story of the four Pevensie children, who happen upon a portal to the mythological land of Narnia during a game of hide and seek. The kids become entwined in a fight to free the peaceful inhabitants of Narnia from the evil clutches of the White Witch, who has shrouded the land in a century’s long blanket of snow and ice.
Throughout the quest, the “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve” will be tasked with befriending, helping, and then enlisting the help of, the various creatures and other inhabitants of the frozen land.
Much like the dungeon crawlers Gauntlet, Diablo and Baldur’s Gate, the game is plays from an isometric point of view, with adventure segments that utilize any number from a single onscreen character to parties of two, three, or four on the quest to find and destroy the evil witch.
The combat is simple hack-and-slash fare from the boys, with a dash or two of ranged and magic attacks from the ladies. Individual party members each have their own special weapons and abilities – Edmund with his massively powerful great swords, Peter with the quick and nimble long swords, Susan with her ranged archery assault, and Lucy with her magic and healing powers (as well as a useful little dagger). The team shares a communal health bar, which can be refilled with foodstuffs, found by killing enemies or inside of old logs and other destructible objects – and downed characters will revive as long as one of the four remains standing.
Enemy types abound with everything from small swarming goblins, to weapons-wielding warriors, to large boulder-throwing behemoths. The enemies are all relatively smart and try their best to spread and flank during battle making them difficult to take pinpoint or take down. If a character lands three successive blows on an enemy within a certain time limit, and without receiving any blows in turn, he or she will be awarded with a special attack or flourish. These could be anything from a roundhouse slash or power thrust from the bladed characters, to special magic and ranged attacks from the lady folk. Luckily, the four Pevensie children are immune to each other’s attacks, so the gamer is free to hack away without worry of injuring the communal health of the team.
Gamers can buy new weapons or armor for his or her characters, plus a handful of other useful gifts and gadgets to present to Narnia’s inhabitants, from any of the squirrel vendors scattered throughout the world. The items are exchanged for ice shards, the currency in Narnia that can be collected from the bodies of fallen foes or by smashing the various ice sculptures throughout the land. Because each area refreshes with enemies upon returning, gathering enough ice shards to purchase an upgraded weapon can be awfully time consuming – but is never very difficult.
The world is broken up into a loosely circuitous array of areas, all laced together by a series of intertwining pathways. What this means is that there is usually more than one way to get from point A to point B, because you can keep heading in the general direction you want to go, and you will eventually find a combination of paths to get you there. Then again, it also means that there is a lot of wandering around trying to find fetch quest items or characters hidden in lesser-used mid-level areas.
And herein lies one of the game’s biggest downfalls – the map system. The game features an inventive real-time map system on the bottom screen that shows the players location within each area, and a general idea of where pathways converge, dungeon doorways are, etc. – the problem is, the map system is utterly useless for just about everything else.
You would think that in a game where a fox send you off on a quest to defend his hollow tree from wolves, that the map might just give you some idea where this hollow tree is, right? Wrong. You just wander from screen to screen to screen trying to find the blasted tree. And when you do finally wander through enough areas, whacking every wolf in sight, constantly checking your quest screen to find out whether or not you were making any progress, you suddenly realize that you have absolutely no idea where the fox was and how to get back to him.
Also, as I mentioned, each area refreshes with enemies upon leaving and returning – and this includes enemies involved in area conquer quests. For instance, a quest may require you to clear an particular area of its raiding Boggles, and then gives you a hard goal of eight. The problem is, let’s say you have cleared six Boggles and only two remain, and in your search for those two, you happen to wander too close to a pathway leading to an adjoining area. If the game sees you as close to the hotspot and accidentally moves you to that next area – which it often does – you lose your entire conquer mission progress and have to start all over from the beginning. For this reason, I found it prudent to save frequently mid-quest to avoid losing too much progress.
But the overall gameplay makes up for those issues with it fairly ingenious system of on-the-fly leveling up of characters. Through inventive use of the touch screen (to be discussed later) , players will be afforded experience or virtue points that can be assigned to one of four different abilities – strength, speed, health, or magic. The game gives you a fairly simple visual of where you character currently stands with respect to each of these abilities, and then allows you to quickly assign the new point to whichever column you like, thereby customizing your character to your liking.
Much of the game is played in outdoor areas, but a many of the levels will take you into the homes, dungeons and castles through Narnia. The levels are generally on a fairly even elevation, but a few will require the characters to scale vines or skitch down steep slopes to reach distant objectives.
The game basically has the teens traveling through the land accepting a series of fetch quests to appease various beasts throughout the land. Once each of the beasts has been satisfied, he or she go off and gather more of their kind to help in search for the great lion Aslan, and give support in the final battle against the White Witch.
The action is quite enjoyable, in a button-mashing sort of way – and while the game can be a bit tedious at times, it really picks up steam once the characters have been leveled sufficiently to really lay the smack down on the swarming foes.
All of this is pretty standard fare for a dungeon crawler. So, other than the fact that this is one of the first solid titles of its genre for the DS, what is there to make you want this game? The touch screen, of course. The Chronicles of Narnia integrates the touch screen into play so completely, that you absolutely must use it to play the game.
Since the directional pad and face buttons are hard-keyed directly to the real-time top screen action, everything from on-the-fly leveling up of characters, to calling up the map, to simply saving the game must be completed on the bottom touch screen. The nice thing is that the developers have made all of the touch screen buttons large and extremely sensitive, so you do not have to keep flipping out the stylus whenever you need to check on quest status or load a particular level – a simple swipe of the thumb will suffice.
The Chronicles of Narnia is one of the best looking games to ever grace a handheld – featuring impeccable textures and shading that give the visuals a rich feeling of detail of depth. This includes the bottom menu screen, which features realistic facial mapping and shadowing to give the buttons and objects a wonderful three-dimensional look.
There are many times where characters will be hidden or lost behind trees or outcroppings – but that is a problem more of the dungeon crawler genre’s industry-standard isometric view than it is by any developers’ wrongdoings. In fact, I almost preferred having the trees and rocks remain opaque rather than dissolve out of view as they would in other Baulder’s Gate influenced game.
When the action gets thick, the framerate can tend to slow down to a crawl, and simple actions like picking your character out of the crowd can prove to be rather difficult. This results in quite a bit of blind button mashing – but again, that is the nature of the beast, and thankfully your AI companions are good enough to pick up the slack should you need help.
The trek through Narnia is accompanied by an excellent musical score delivered in a wholly orchestral arrangement that ebbs and flows with the onscreen action.
Narnia’s sound effects might be heavily recycled throughout the game, but none are irritating or grating enough to cause annoyance – which is a direct result of their exceptional quality. Everything from the metal-on-metal sound of sword meeting armor, to the shattering of glassy ice sculptures and crumbling of stone pillars has an organic and realistic sound. Even little details, like the eerie rumbling in the background, or what sounds like the distant cries of the wolves help build the appropriate mythological atmosphere.
The game features absolutely no voiceovers, but thankfully the developers have kept any of the interactive reading segments short and sweet.
For a handheld game, Chronicles packs one long quest through Narnia. Granted, a lot of the time is spent wandering around trying to navigate the awkward map system or backtracking to complete the endless fetch quests – but the game still packs a healthy dose of adventure in one little cartridge.
The game can also be enjoyed with a friend (or even a couple of friends) locally via the ad-hoc wireless connection, but only as long as each player has his or her own copy of the game.
Finally, a certain amount of value can be attributed simply in the unique integration of the touch screen into the gameplay. The Chronicles of Narnia can be added to the short list of third-party games that actually uses – nay requires – the touch screen to play the game and as so, the game is the perfect tool to showcase the unique power of the DS to doubtful gamers.
The Chronicles of Narnia is a surprisingly deep dungeon crawler that makes ample and ingenious use of the DS’s touch-screen. The game plays well, sounds awesome, and looks absolutely stunning on Nintendo’s handheld wonder, and if it were not for a handful of nagging annoyances, it would be getting top honors.
Still, Narnia is definitely a game that fans of the movie – or even just fans of the dungeon crawler genre – will need to check out.