I’m beginning to wonder if every
movie that’s released will have an accompanying game. Such is the case with Chronicles of Narnia, the fantasy/fairy tale blockbuster that recently stormed into the box office. Buena Vista Games has just about all the bases covered with a game release for each major platform, DS included. So, is this outing the typical bare minimum churn-out, or was there an effort to take advantage of the DS hardware?
Well, the answer is a little complicated. The developers obviously had to scale down the gameplay for a portable, and they chose a dungeon crawler format. You’ve probably played this kind of game before, whether it was in its raw form of classic Gauntlet or cleverly disguised in X-Men Legends. Hack n’ slash dungeon brawlers work great in an action setting, but Buena Vista has done a good job molding the gameplay to the austere character of the Narnia universe. I’ll leave the story comparisons to the fans (I haven’t seen the film or read the books) but on a gameplay basis alone this title works pretty well.
The main game starts from the perspective of Lucy, the youngest of the story’s four protagonists. She discovers a pathway to Narnia through an old wardrobe, and soon meets up with a magical creature named Mr. Tumnus. Tumnus serves as the obligatory tutorial, explaining the basics of combat, environment, leveling up and special items. After a few solo sequences Lucy teams up with the rest of her siblings and the game is afoot.
Each character has a predisposition toward a distinct skill set, and they possess weapons that are appropriate for those skills. Lucy is armed only with a tiny dagger, but excels in casting healing spells and other such magics. Older sister Susan is a good shot with the bow and arrow but doesn’t fare well in melee combat. Peter, the eldest, is a sword expert, and his younger brother Edmund has similar abilities but can also solve certain puzzles that Peter can’t.
This setup is typical of RPG/crawler hybrids, but it offers a surprising amount of customizability. If you like, you can upgrade Lucy’s combat skills to make her the jouster, while Peter can become a spell caster. There are four areas of skill including combat strength, charisma and the like, and what each character focuses on is up to you. The skill set interface is totally controlled with the touch screen, as are the other menus, and the setup feels elegant and organized. My only problem here is the inability to pause while you modify options—this gets hectic and distracting during a heated battle.
The health system is more refined than is typical of this genre, and keeps stamina management simple. The health of all four characters is combined into one bar on the status display; as long as there’s health left in the bar, all the children will keep on fighting. This common hit point pool eliminates the hassle of cycling through characters to check each one’s health status, or the need to gather replenishing items among all the children. When a health powerup is collected, it simply fills up the pool.
These well-balanced gameplay elements work very well in principle, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Controls and movement are rather sluggish, which makes the already complicated task of managing four characters even harder. Response time in combat is slow, depending on the temperature outside; as it gets colder, the characters respond less quickly and lose more health. This adds realism, but ends up more annoying than immersive, as the characters must find shelter to warm up before their reflexes can return to normal.
In addition, the dungeon crawler aspect is exacerbated by the lack of maps in the actual dungeons. This leads to endless minutes of wandering around, battling a constant supply of respawning enemies. The gratuitous fighting does lead to a quick accumulation of skill points, but it feels more like a cheap way to extend gameplay. The maps for the overworld are helpful, but not nearly as effective as something you’d find in Zelda or Metroid. Narnia did a good job in the conceptual department, but the implementation needs a great deal of polish.
Traversing the complicated wastes of Narnia is at least pleasing to the eye. The frigid snow dunes, the environment that literally drops in temperature, and the well constructed character models present the world in a quasi-realistic form—Narnia feels more like Lord of the Rings than Harry Potter. There is a set culture and accompanying laws between the intelligent speaking animals of the kingdom, and interacting with these disparate factions is a key to the game. Mr. Tumnus and other allies you meet along the way have a great deal of detail and polygons for a handheld and sport a rough, worldly look. Narnia could be considered a kid’s game, but older fantasy fans should find plenty to like.
The audio is only a few rungs below the graphical presentation, due mainly to the lack of voice acting. This absence is excusable, however; there is a great deal of dialogue in this game, and cramming all the voice work into a DS cartridge could have been prohibitive. Sound effects are suitable, but a little on the bland and recycled side. Music is sweeping and orchestral, ripped right from the movie, and fits each situation nicely. You’ll find that the atmosphere is augmented in almost every situation by the ambient tracks from the film.
Rounding out this modest-sized package is a competent multiplayer component. Up to four players can tackle the quest through Narnia in cooperative mode, given they each have a copy of the game. The multi-card only play is something of a gripe, but considering the size of the game and the popularity of the franchise, it’s an acceptable shortcoming. Once they see the movie, most DS owning kids will probably pick up the game anyway.
So, whether you liked the movie or not, Chronicles of Narnia for DS is worth a rent at least. Any fantasy or dungeon player will find it an entertaining diversion, if not wholly engrossing. I had some significant qualms with the speed and tightness of the combat, but the average gamer will get past the inconveniencies within a few minutes, and find a decent licensed title just inside the initial awkwardness
As with many movie games, Narnia has a large helping of content but a rushed interface. Controls are slow and a bit unresponsive, and the inability to pause during menu management is confusing. Multiplayer co-op doesnâ€™t support DS download play, but with the movie being so popular, there will probably be an abundance of other people to play with.