April 19, 2008
Sometimes I despair, I really do. I already knew not to expect too much from this film tie-in simply because the film itself has been pretty much universally panned so it’s hardly likely that the game will fare much better, but this is almost too much to bare. When you consider this game has been developed by the once lauded Shiny Entertainment and published by Sega you’d expect there to be some kind of pedigree involved, sadly it’s more a case of Pedigree Chum as everything to do with this game is torturous at best and it’s hard to find even a glimmer of hope in the bottom of a very mouldy glass.
The Golden Compass (known as the Northern Lights in countries that book publishers don’t patronise) is the first story of the His Dark Materials trilogy penned by Phillip Pullman. The books tell the story of Lyra and the events that transpire in her alternate England, which is similar to our own while at the same time wholly different. The fact that Lyra’s world is occupied by witches, talking polar bears and daemons (who are aspects of each person’s personality given form) is a telling diversion from what you’d find on your everyday high street at the moment. The first story centres around Lyra’s search for her kidnapped friend Roger and missing uncle, Lord Asriel, in the frozen north. Along the way she requires the help of her own daemon, Pantalaimon, and that of a banished bear, Iorek Byrnison. While the books often focused on matters of faith and religion, the film and game have decided to head into simpler territory and thus removed much of the symbolism that took place in the books. Whether such an action is part of the problem is debatable but the story will make little sense to someone not familiar with the books.
Playing the game is generally spilt into two parts, platforming and puzzling with Lyra and Pan, then some fighting with Iorek. The Iorek sections are very straightforward as you will roam the frozen tundra’s smashing aside any enemies in your way until you reach the end of the area you are in and have to fight a boss of some kind. Sometimes you will be accompanied by Lyra who can be dropped off at certain areas in order to explore and find items beyond Ioreks reach. The combat is just a button bashing affair with only bosses requiring any kind of strategy, though even then that usually only takes a couple of presses rather than the standard solitary push. It’s all a bit repetitive and the missions only ever involve you smashing certain foes or equipment, so it gets pretty tiresome to do the same thing over and over again. Not to mention the fact that the game is so easy that you will pretty much crush any opposition that gets in your way.
As Lyra you are required to solve puzzles and perform a variety of tasks to progress, usually with the aid of your shape shifting daemon. Pan can transform into a variety of creatures to help you; a bird so that you can glide over long gaps, a sloth to swing from poles, a cat for climbing and ermine insight to spot hidden items and clues. All of these abilities are required to get where you need to go and are all fairly straightforward to use. Though considering your daemon can take any form it’s a mystery why it only ever takes these four instead of that of a lion or slightly miffed rhino. The quests and platforming sections are pretty boring and straightforward and Lyra’s seeming inability to balance for very long on a beam that’s only one foot long will constantly frustrate. The camera angles can also be fairly annoying, especially when using Pan to fly in order to make long jumps as you can’t always judge where you are about to land - leading to instant death as our heroine never learnt to swim. The scenery also contains a number of poorly hidden collectables; that will either aid you in one of the combat or deception mini-games or help you learn more about your quest through the alethiometer (which is the golden compass of the title). Never let it be said that I didn’t mention the shockingly bad stealth sections that have been shoe horned in here as well, I really thought developers were past the phase of thinking every game could be Splinter Cell Lite.
As you stumble through your quest you will have to participate in a number of mini-games, some of which are unique; like tag with the tanners or plum spitting and others which happen constantly such as combat or deception. You will be required to use Lyra’s well honed ability to spin a yarn (she can lie like a trooper) quite often in order to deceive a variety of people. The deception games take the form of a number of extremely poor mini-games that revolve around catching, avoiding or controlling green balls of light. Fail to trick certain characters and it’s game over, plus the games get harder as the game goes on. You can tip the odds in your favour however by using a number of items that you can collect to make things a lot easier. From slowing the time limits to allowing you to play only easy games; each of the collectables can help you succeed if you are struggling, though they only have a single use each.
Combat with Lyra and Pan takes the form of a mini-game as you simply have to dodge your opponent until they are knocked out. This is achieved by simply pressing the button that flashes up on screen in a prompt manner and, as with the deception games, can be made easier by using certain collected items at the start of combat. To be honest the number of times you have to fight are few and far between but every time you see Lyra go into a shaky combat pose you’ll let out a sigh as yet another mindless waste of precious minutes of your life presents itself.
Throughout your quest you will also be required to collect certain symbols, either by picking them up physically as you pass by or by using Pan’s ermine insight on certain key items and objects. These symbols will then be deciphered on your alethiometer and used to solve a variety of questions that Lyra will scribble down in her journal as her quest progresses. The questions are sometimes forcibly answered to progress the story while the rest are there merely for your own curiosity and for achievement purposes. You can guess at the symbols needed to answer certain questions but it’s better (and necessary) that you find them all anyway. When you lock in the three symbols needed to answer a question you then have to play the worst mini-game in the world™ which consists of keeping a light in the middle of a circle and then pressing a button prompt when told to. Truly this is cutting edge gaming at its finest.
The graphics on offer are bad, no, shocking, in places and it wouldn’t surprise me if this had been developed on the PS2 first and then ported over to the 360 as it really does look that poor. Considering all the wonderful CGI that went into the film how can this game not look anything like what the film serves up? If computers were used to generate the effects in the film then they must have been using Spectrum 128k’s to create the graphics on show here. I kid but the characters look blocky not to mention poorly animated and the scenery is drab and bland. The voices have been taken from the film but the fact that the characters look nothing like their real life counterparts makes swallowing the story all the harder. Barring the cut-scenes from the film the production values on display are woefully inadequate.
The achievements are pretty easy if you take a little care and attention while playing through the game and everything should be easily attainable in a single run through the game. The list is pretty generic and is mainly for completing certain parts of the game, with the only other achievements being for collectables and success in the mini-games. As long as you use the power ups you find to get through every conversation flawlessly and search out all of the hidden symbols then you’ll be fine. The game isn’t large enough to get lost in and even if you have to replay the odd level you are still looking at about ten hours maximum to get it all done.
While they’ve used some voices from the film, and the odd clip as well, seeing the dialogue emerge from the mouths of badly drawn puppets kind of spoils the impact.
Ugh, rough animations and drab, uninspired backdrops point to the fact that this game certainly wasn’t made with the 360 in mind. The unhelpful camera angles don’t help matters either.
The mini-games are fun the first time you play them but soon get repetitive and the combat sections are tragically short and easy with no skill involved at any point.
A terrible depiction of the book, but not much of a surprise to anyone that saw the film. It does a very bad job of turning a story that isn’t suited to it into a game, as everything about it feels tacked on and not in keeping with the story in the slightest.
A very easy 1000 points on offer if you take due care and attention, but having to replay levels for one missed symbol is amazingly tiresome and the list lacks even a glimpse of imagination.
DO NOT BUY THIS GAME. I can’t say it any plainer than that, if you are after points then that’s one thing but otherwise don’t waste your cash. The fact that this was the tenth best selling game (over all formats) of 2007 makes me die a little inside.