Reviewed: December 13, 2005
Released: November 15, 2005
It has been a few years since I last visited the metaphor-laden world of Narnia, but as I played through the first few hours of Buena Vista's new release,
It could have been a very bad game, and it could be a very bad movie (I haven't seen it), but even then, there would have remained something unassailably charming about the characters and places they deal with. And happily, this new game bucks the trend of movie tie-ins, holding its own admirably - though not without problems.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is basically two games melded into one. The slight majority of the game's elements are drawn from the adventure game genre. Specific interaction points, active puzzles and real-time combination attacks are all important aspects of Narnia's gameplay. The rest of the game - that is to say, the pacing, camera angles and general controls while in combat, can claim dungeon-crawling hack 'n' slash games like Champions of Norrath as their heritage.
As an adventure game, Narnia is surprisingly good. For all that it is a movie tie-in, the game feels as though it would have held up just fine on its own, even without the film release bolstering its visibility. Each of the four Pevensie children has a small array of special abilities he or she can use and/or unlock throughout the game. While all four children can fight if need be, Peter and Edmund are the primary combatants; most of the more interesting abilities belong to the girls, Susan and little Lucy.
To his credit, Edmund's agility and small size gives him a pole-shimmying climb ability that is crucial to advancing throughout the game. Susan, the primary ranged combatant, can close open ventilation shafts and hit various distant objects, play songs on a magic set of pan pipes and more. Lucy can heal the entire party a limited number of times, crawl through tight spaces to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the game world, and eventually learn to tame and ride the wolves that present a constant threat to the group as they adventure through the frost-bound lands of Narnia.
Most of the puzzles aren't terribly difficult, since an icon showing which child needs to use his or her ability invariably pops up at every crucial point. Many of the puzzles involve using the abilities of two or more of the children in a particular order, which creates the sense that the game was carefully planned and executed, rather than just dumped onto a disc. It also helps the ease of the puzzles (although it hurts the believability of the game a bit) that most special abilities, such as Edmund's climbing ability, can only be used at these pre-designated spots.
However, where craftiness comes in is in figuring out how to acquire all of the bonus items, statues and coins scattered throughout the levels. Destroy one barrier or cross one bridge, and you may not be able to get to some of them. A bit of critical thought is required if you're interested in getting the best ranking possible for each level. As far as I can figure, rankings don't grant any bonuses or alter the story, but for older gamers it's a point of pride and an extra challenge to master.
In this way, Narnia remains accessible and interesting to both twelve year olds and twenty-five year olds (though it definitely leans more towards younger teens). However, I did note that sometimes, the timed puzzles' objectives were very unclear, when they should have been the clearest of all. Narnia's strength shows most when players are allowed to freely explore without being under a time limit.
Enemies in Narnia come quickly and furiously, and often will not stop coming until you figure out a trick to get them to. The most common enemy in the early part of the game is the vicious frost wolf. They attack in packs of two or three, snapping quickly at the children but dealing little damage per strike. Later on, ghouls, ogres, minotaurs and more all make appearances. In the player's corner of the ring, there are three main tools for survival: the melee beat sticks, Peter and Edmund, and the archer Susan.
Narnia begins to run into trouble during combat. Although the distant third-person camera angle is convenient for fighting, and most of the unlockable weapon combo attacks are easy to execute, the system is rife with problems it could have easily avoided. For instance, when Susan is firing her projectile weaponry (anything from tennis balls to deadly arrows), there is no target lock or cycling system besides an auto-target feature that tries, often unsuccessfully, to guess at what the target is. This is only mildly annoying when trying to shoot a grate closed and aiming for a bat instead, but it becomes a deadly flaw during multi-enemy boss fights. Add to that the fact that if Susan isn't directly facing an enemy, she may very well fire precious arrows into thin air, and the omission of a player-controlled targeting setup becomes ruinous.
All of the characters suffer from inaccuracy during combat at close range, as well. It is difficult to turn the children to face an enemy for some reason. Without facing an enemy, Peter will slash furiously at the air in front of him until the cows come home, if you let him. Sword combos can and will be interrupted on a regular basis by enemy strikes, making that "instant kill against X enemy" combo you just unlocked nearly useless unless you're lucky enough to end up in one-on-one combat.
Perhaps worst of all, the Pevensie children have utterly brain-dead AI in combat. In fact, 95% of the time, the three children you are not controlling will just stand there dumbfounded as enemies swarm around them, slashing and clawing. I kid you not: 95% of the time. Oddly, the gentle Susan is the most warlike of the four when not under player control, bursting into her truly silly-looking melee combat technique relatively often (say, 15% of the time instead of 5%).
Two players can control two children side by side at the same time, which is obviously the ideal setup for combat. But if you want to play the game by yourself, prepare to find yourself yelling at the screen: "What the heck are you doing?! That's an ogre in front of you, Edmund-- no, don't wander off, you dolt... arghhhh!" It's ugly, no joke. And if any of the children die (under your control or not), itís game over and you're reset to the last checkpoint. Even the most generous checkpoints seem a bit lacking after trying the same battle six times.
Lastly, it's worth mentioning that the story is paced deliberately and well. Of course, it has classic source material to work from, but it could very easily have ended up a boring (or too-quick) generic title wrapped up in the trappings of a shiny new movie. Instead, the plot points that are told through the game's generous cutscenes and in-game dialog keep players' interest throughout, making each completed level a rewarding experience. Luckily for Narnia, this, coupled with the fact that more of the game is puzzle/adventure than hack 'n' slash, keeps it in good standing overall.
The graphics in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aren't bad. The scenes from the actual movie are enchanting, to the point that even I was tempted to go watch it (I'm not usually the type to see a film based on a book I grew up with). On top of that, they were crystal clear, as good in quality as any full-featured DVD movie.
In the game, things are mostly par for the course. I admit that I was pleased to see that the Pevensie children, especially Lucy and Peter, looked almost exactly as I have always imagined them, but the movie's more to blame for that than the game. The character models have pretty low polygon counts by today's standards, but that fact is offset by the large number of enemies that can be on screen at once. Besides, it's hard to tell from the distance of the zoomed-out camera.
There are a fair number of jaggies on the PS2 version of the game -- again, pretty much to be expected on most multi-platform releases. Draw distance is fine, but really of no importance in a game that's a step away from being top-down like Narnia. Effects are clean but not eye-popping.
Overall, the game does a good job of translating the look of the movie into its levels. The dramatic, snow-bound landscapes, towering evergreens and imposing rock faces of the film and book translate well into a dramatic backdrop for the action. Characters and enemies look all right, at least. And those movie clips, for once, don't feel extraneous, being as they are smoothly integrated into the flow of the game itself. Narnia isn't the best looking game on the PS2 - not by a long shot. But I found nothing to really complain about either.
I can only assume, having not seen the film, that the music in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the same for the game as it is for the movie. This, of course, means that it is very good, by and large. Sweeping and dramatic in general, it can also convey a sense of wonder and enchantment -- or wickedness and evil. It isn't the most memorable score in video games (you've still got to turn to the likes of Koji Kondo, Nobuo Uematsu and Akira Yamaoka for that), but it's probably the single strongest aspect of the game.
Voice acting is also top-notch, since (as far as I can tell from the cinema sequences) the actors from the film did their own voice overs. There isn't a terribly large amount of it outside those cinema scenes, mind you. But what is there is good
The game by itself is no ordinary piddly film fare. Like Spider-Man 2, this movie tie-in packs a lot of meat on its bones. Players can expect to spend at least eight to twelve hours completing it - quite respectable for a game that adheres to a strict storyline. If the game clicks well with you (and it could very well become a favorite for fans of the movie), expect to spend at least a few more hours ferreting out all of the collectable items in each level in order to get the best scores possible.
Levels can be replayed after they are completed, so you won't have to give up all your progress and start over again just because you missed one or two items. It also has a dinky 84-kilobyte save file, which makes it economical from a memory card standpoint.
Like any movie-based game, the charm of this adventure will inevitably wear somewhat thin as the months pass. However, the well-designed vision of Narnia presented in it makes for a fantasy world that transcends its business roots and can go toe-to-toe with any generic realm in gaming today. That alone, plus the good music and at least decent gameplay, should make it a go-to for many rainy days to come.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is far from perfect, but not as far as the White Witch is from Aslan. It's got a pretty shell of graphics and sound that help the shaky combat system go down more easily, and although it isn't as absorbing as a truly great game, I found myself playing longer sessions than I intended to several times throughout the course of this review. To me, that speaks more about the overall worth of this game than any singly criterion ever could.
I don't give it my highest recommendation, but fans of the film should be delighted with the game, and the rest of you may be pleasantly surprised by it.