Reviewed: November 23, 2004
Released: November 9, 2004
Before we get into the meat of this review let me save you some time and say, “If you have a child between the ages of 6 and 12 then you MUST play Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I’m not sure why this game is getting the mediocre reviews that it has been getting. I’m guessing we have a lot of jaded game reviewers out there who are swamped with holiday releases and they simply don’t have the time or desire to discover their inner child and immerse themselves in what is perhaps the best mix of entertainment and educational gameplay of 2004.
Based on the forthcoming movie of the same name, Lemony Snicket is a sinister tale that balances a disturbing storyline with charming gameplay, exploration, puzzle solving, and even some new vocabulary, object recognition, manipulation, and other useful skills that will teach kids and delight adults. The scarier portions of the film are kept in check so parents should have no problems with their kids playing this game.
As the title might imply, A Series of Unfortunate Events paints a bleak canvas that deals with three young children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, whose parents have recently (and mysteriously) passed away leaving them with a large inheritance and in the care of the eccentric (and obviously evil) Count Olaf. Olaf, who has no tolerance for children, is only out for the inheritance and plans to dispatch the children as soon as he can. After a quick adventure in Olaf’s mansion, the children learn of his treachery and escape, but Olaf is not far behind and unfortunate events are sure to follow.
Before it was a feature film or even a video game Lemony Snicket was a series of novels, a series that rivals Harry Potter, and to that end the production values of this game maintains a storybook motif. The game opens with a narration that practically begs you not to play. The opening movie and all the intermittent cutscenes are all animated pencil sketches that are drawn and shaded on the pages of a book as the story is read by none other than Tim Curry.
Gameplay hearkens back to the golden era of adventure gaming with a few oddities that irked me at first until I realized their usefulness. Lemony Snicket is one of those games that is so exquisitely simply that those of us who have evolved into the more modernized adventure games will have a bit of a reverse learning curve.
Throughout most of the game you can take control over Klaus or Violet to interact with the environments, fight enemies, and solve puzzles. Klaus is your classic book nerd who remembers everything he has read. He can spot a ventilation shaft and tell you about the architecture of the house or read the name on a piano and know that a certain note frequency will cause it to collapse. Violet is an inventor who can look at a problem for 10-20 seconds and come up with blueprints for some elaborate gadget that would make MacGyver proud.
When forced to battle giant rodents, a boxing glove, coffee can, broom, and spring work just fine. Need to battle a giant spider? An inflatable pool toy, electric fan, a funnel, and your lunch will make the perfect weapon. Almost as much fun as the off-the-wall ingredients to these contraptions are the clever names she bestows upon them, a skill Klaus doesn’t share.
Creating these inventions is a major component of the gameplay. Items are easily spotted with their sparkly glow but you won’t always be able to take an item, at least until you “know” you need it. This was a major issue for me, as I have become accustomed to picking up everything that isn’t nailed down and sorting the items out later. Here you might spot an item and the game will tell you, “We can use that later”. Annoying? A little, but then I realized what the designers were doing.
When you are given the list of items to create one of Violet’s inventions you are shown a list of icons for those items. These icons looks exactly like the in-game objects and chances are you have likely already spotted those items in the level and now you must tax your memory to remember where they were. Combined with the fact that most components are usually within a two or three room radius, building gadgets, or at least collecting their parts is fairly effortless.
Once you have all the items you must then assemble the gadget. Violet will explain each component, how it connects, and what function it serves. Despite the absurdity of most of these inventions, she can be rather convincing in her logic. You get to rotate each piece of the invention until you find the connection point noted with an “X” and then you can attach the next item. Once assembled and named you can then use it. Gadgets can even be enhanced later in the game with new components, like upgrading your fruit flinger to spit out peppermint candy.
Klaus is the man of action. He handles a lot of the fighting whether it be giant rats, or the evil henchmen of Count Olaf. His fan-propelled boots allow him to glide great distances later in the game for the obligatory jumping puzzles. Violet uses her fruit flinger to pepper enemies from long range and her telescoping stilts (another invention) allow her to walk through swamps and flooded cellars. She also carries Sunny (the baby) on her back who serves her own useful function.
Sunny is a rather creepy baby who can speak a single word that translates to a complete sentence. Her four razor sharp teeth allow her to chew through wood, pipes, or just about anything else that gets in her way, and her small frame allows her to crawl into pipes or holes that Violet and Klaus could never fit.
Sunny is seldom used in the game, perhaps once or twice per chapter, but her arcade-style action sequences are some of the most thrilling in the game. Sometimes she is on a slide and you must have her jump over gaps, hot steam, or other obstacles. Other times she must crawl along ledges or swinging beams, chewing through obstacles or pushing blocks around. She even has a Mario-esque jump/bounce attack that can squash a rat or lizard.
Snicket sticks in some random shooting gallery segments. The battle on the docks is perhaps the most difficult section of the game, even harder than the final boss battle with Count Olaf. There is even a rhythm game where you get to play the piano in an increasingly difficult stream of notes. The gameplay is always switching off to something new and even when you do end up doing the same thing over it’s somewhere new with new enemies.
Whether you are playing in 3D adventure mode or Sunny’s 2D action scenes the control is intuitive and works really well with the exception of the auto-targeting system. The game will lock onto the nearest enemy, which can sometime create camera problems like running toward the screen fighting an enemy you cannot see. The lock-on is quirky, especially when you find yourself in a cellar full of rats, but a twitchy trigger finger and rotating the analog stick will get you through most battles.
There are numerous bosses in the game that range from a giant spider to several key henchmen that just won’t go away. These battles all use the familiar attack patterns that have been a staple of boss fights since bosses were invented. Most involve circle strafing, dodging incoming fire and making your strike at just the right time.
Parents worried about violence can rest assured that no humans die in this game, at least as a result of the children’s actions. Human enemies simply get knocked down and deliver a cheesy one-liner. Rats, crabs, spiders, and any other enemies simply “pop” out of existence when they get hit with the boxing glove or fruit.
Last but not least is the way the game handles the bonus content and secrets, which has to be one of the best implementations in gaming history. Throughout each of the levels you will collect various colored puzzle pieces. For every 25 pieces you collect you reveal a photo in the secrets gallery. Examining this photo will reveal a location somewhere in the level that you can return to and activate to access a hidden room where you can find a package. Each package corresponds to some bonus content in the Extras menu like movie stills, trailers, or my personal favorite, a three-part storybook reading by Olaf.
Just in case you missed a few pieces (like I did) once you finish the game you unlock the world map that allows you to return to any of the levels where puzzles pieces can be found. This is a great way to collect those missing pieces without having to replay the entire game. My one complaint is that you are only allowed to explore the section of a level with the puzzles pieces, so if you have a favorite section of the game (like the house getting ripped apart by the hurricane), you cannot go back and replay that section. The clumsy save system is more to blame here.
Lemony Snicket gives you three save slots, profiles actually, and as you play the game it will autosave frequently, after unlocking a secret, building an invention, or any other significant milestone. It’s a great safety net but it’s also constantly overwriting your progress so you cannot relive your favorite moments.
A Series of Unfortunate Events features a very unique visual style that starts with the aforementioned sketch art and carries over into the charming characters and surreal level design. The artists and level designers were allowed to tour the set of the film and take thousands of photos. Those have been meticulously converted into textures for the various levels, so the game mimics the sets from the movie in uncanny detail right down to actual paintings, pieces of art, and other set pieces.
Special effects are amazing with great liquid textures, splashing drops from leaky roofs, real-time lighting and shadows (the moving shadows on the Great Tree level left me speechless), volumetric fogging and vapor effects that create a horrific hurricane experience, fire, rain, and just about anything else you can think of. Even though it’s colorful and storybook-like, it’s surprisingly real.
Animation is excellent, not only for the characters but all of the crazy contraptions and creatures you will encounter in the game. With the exception of the target lock the camera is flawless. You have full control over the camera but you will seldom need to adjust the view, and you can always auto-center the camera behind your current character.
The bonus material is your standard MPEG quality. Some of the imagery gets a bit grainy, mainly because they are zooming and panning around still images. The movie trailer looks great and the CG storybook readings are simply but fun.
Despite the progressive scan support; there were some jaggy edges on some background objects as well as the characters, but the majority of the game was crystal clear with smooth framerates throughout.
Jim Carrey reprises his film role for Count Olaf, but I couldn’t help but feel he was simply doing a “reading”. I think a lot of his acting ability is physical and his movement feeds his performance and you just can’t get that same level reading a script in a studio. It’s still a decent performance but I think the movie will be a lot better.
Of course Tim Curry steals the show as the narrator who has much more dialogue than Olaf and speaks with that charming English accent that just captivates you. It truly is story time when Tim is reading. He even manages to sneak in a few sophisticated words then tells you what they mean without sounding the least bit condescending.
Sound effects aren’t terribly noteworthy but they get the job done. You’ll hear the sounds of a thunderstorm and the splash of dripping water through a leaky roof. Sunny chomps through steel and wood with a disturbing crunch and giggles with delight as she bounces down bumping ramps. In the garden level you will hear insects, frogs, snakes, and wasps. The hurricane level features howling winds and the sounds of wood flooring ripping apart.
The music comes and goes leaving you in silence for long periods of gameplay. When it does rise to the occasion it has a very “Tim Burton” feel to it, a bit sinister but a bit charming, making me wish there had been more of it.
Lemony Snicket is undeniably a short game by anyone’s standards. I finished it in less than six hours and that was with me going back for three missed puzzle pieces and a secret package. The game is very linear and the puzzles aren’t that challenging. Invention parts are usually in the same room or not far away from where you need them and even the boxes, urns, and other containers that hide puzzle pieces are noticeably different from unbreakable objects.
Some copies of the game are coming with movie tickets, which helps sooth the sting of the $50 price tag, but I can’t imagine even the youngest of children getting more than 10-12 hours out of this gaming, putting it in the rental category, at least until the price drops to $30 or less.
I must confess I haven’t read the books but I am told the game follows the basic story quite well. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a delightful game that will entertain all who play and possibly teach your kids some basic object recognition and problem solving skills and maybe even enhance their vocabulary (in a good way).
My only caveat has to do with the game’s length and lack of replay value combined with the steep price. This is certainly one game that every child should play, even if you have to rent it. I’m also betting that more than a few adults are going to get hooked on the simple old-school adventure gameplay that oozes with charm and a unique vision that mirrors the movie and the novels that inspired them both.