Disney's Bolt Review

Family games based on newly-released movies are perhaps the game industry's most persistent wild cards in terms of quality. They can range from excellent (Kung Fu Panda), entertaining but far too short (TMNT, Surf's Up), to absolute garbage (The Golden Compass). It's hard to know what you're going to be getting before you start playing. In time for the holiday shopping rush, and the release of their new movie Bolt, Disney has released a tie-in game to appease fan's appetites, and siphon from the wallets of parents everywhere. Will kids (and their parents) get a kick out of the super powered pooch, or wish they had kryptonite doggie treats?

Instead of following the story of the movie, the Bolt game presents itself as episodes of the TV series that Bolt stars in. Penny's scientist father has been kidnapped by the nefarious Dr. Calico, who wants to complete some weapon, because bad guys are contractually obligated to want better weapons. Players will have to platform, fight, and "sneak" their way through the game to rescue Penny's father and save the day. While the story isn't very original or inspired, it is carried out in an appropriately cheesy manner typical of most Saturday morning cartoons. Ultimately, breaking free from the confines of the movie's plot works for the best to give the game its own identity and allow the developers to be more creative than literally trying to make the movie a playable event.

Penny platforms across her levels...

Both Penny and Bolt are playable characters, and each offer completely different play experiences. Bolt's levels are the mostly combat-oriented, requiring skillful use of his powers to defeat wave upon wave of masked and extremely generic grunts, platform over obstacles, and solve some simple puzzles. The super-dog can shoot laser beams from his eyes, deliver a powerful ground pound that damages and knocks back enemies, and a super bark that can stun enemies and break some walls. Over the course of the game, these powers will level up to become even more devastating, and this progression is well paced, with a new power-up coming every few levels. Racking up a high hit combo on enemies will allow Bolt to temporarily become "uber powered," with more powerful special attacks and a rapidly regenerating energy bar. The combat system flows well, but provides very little depth to the action, making fighting through successive waves of grunts increasingly dull as the hours stretch on.

Penny's levels are "stealth" oriented, and rely mostly on sneaking passed guards, and platforming over obstacles. She has a wheel bar that allows her to move left, right, up, or down on rails, pipes, or the edges of buildings; a temporary invisibility shield, and knockout gas to deal with groups of guards. Figuring out where to go is rarely difficult, because a simple press of the Y button highlights in yellow, key pieces of the terrain or switches that need to be hit, making it easy to see how to progress. These skills combine to give Penny the power to easily slip by guards unnoticed, however, there's virtually no penalty for being discovered, since enemies can be defeated with a single timed button press, making the use of stealth feel almost pointless.

...while Bolt enjoys laying the smack down.

Interspersed throughout Penny's levels are hacking minigames, which must be completed in order to continue. Using a mobile tank-like turret, players must maneuver across a virtual board while shooting at attacking enemy programs, and trying to collect weapon powerups. Defeating all the enemies opens a portal to the next floor of the game, or ends the minigame. These hacking events are a blast to play, with simple controls and a game style very reminiscent of XBLA titles like Geometry Wars; it's unfortunate that a minigame ends up being the most entertaining thing on the disc.

Whilst the platforming and combat mechanics are technically solid, Bolt's biggest problem is that it completely misses the mark on what an acceptable difficulty level for a childrens' game should be. Enemies can be very aggressive, and deal decent amounts of damage, requiring fast action and wise use of powers to win. As an experienced gamer, I found myself replaying checkpoints several times before finally defeating all enemies. It's highly unlikely that children in this game's targeted 6-11 age range would be able to play through it without substantial frustration. Likewise, some platforming challenges are surprisingly hard, like a sequence where Penny must jump through gaps in laser fields, or the final level of the game, which demands absolute perfection to complete. I don't mind a challenge, but the level of difficulty here is unreasonable for their target audience, to the point that I wonder if they even had any kids playtest this before releasing it.

The audio component of the game is as uninspired as everything else in the game, with music conspicuously absent in some places, while bland and unmemorable when it does show up. Bolt has somehow lost his ability to talk, and while some of the movie's actors, like Malcolm McDowell and Sean Donnellan are good sports and lend their voices to the game, others (read: Miley Cyrus) apparently couldn't be bothered to provide voice work. Bolt's graphics are far from a visual treat as well, as the game looks like an original Xbox game in SD, and barely looks any better in HD, where some things, like the load screens, remain embarrassingly low quality. It's painfully obvious that Bolt was developed for simultaneous release on graphically inferior systems and then simply ported over.

"Seriously! The fish was thiiiiiis big!"

Perhaps the biggest mystery in Bolt's generic and predictable achievement list is why so many of them are secret. Is it really necessary to hide that defeating 100 enemies with a specific power will unlock an achievement? While the internet makes discovering secret achievements easy, the fact that many achievements are secret makes it difficult to see what you're missing while you're playing the game, or compare achievements with someone else. There's simply no reason for any of the achievements not tied to the story to be secret. Collectables, the bane of my existence, return here, and while most are easy to find, others are well hidden, and may require the use of a guide to find. Getting 700 to 800 points here isn't too challenging, but completing the whole list is a bit of a chore, including getting a 30-hit combo, which is much harder than it might seem.

Although technically solid, Bolt is a painfully bland and unoriginal game, with little to recommend it. The level of difficulty is completely inappropriate for its intended audience, and the game both looks and sounds inferior. With no replay value to be found after completing the game's five or six hour story, there's simply no reason to buy this game, and even renting it is a stretch. Anyone looking for an entertaining family game would be advised to look into Kung Fu Panda instead.

Music is strangely absent in some places, while bland and uninspired elsewhere. I appreciate some of the movie actors lending their voices to the game, but some noticable absences remain, and the voice acting seems as generic as everything else in the game.

In standard definition, this game looks like an original xbox title. Actually, many original Xbox games looked better. Things look better in HD, but the game remains far from pretty.

The controls are solid and easy to work, but the difficulty level is far too high for most children, and could even frustrate some adults.

Bolt offers a generic experience in every possible way, presenting a set of levels to play through, a hacking minigame, and nothing else. Combat is shallow and quickly grows stale, whilst stealth in Penny's levels is pointless, since enemies can be so easily defeated. Replay value here is nonexistent.

The list is incredibly generic (like everything else), and there's no reason for so many of them to be secret. Mercifully, 700-800 should be easy enough to obtain, but finding all the collectables is a chore.

Disney's Bolt is an utterly generic game, which suffers the unforgivable sin of being too difficult for a young audience. Children and adults alike are encouraged to play something else.

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