Disney has done it again. For the second time now, the kid-friendly conglomerate has defied the odds and released a movie-licensed Chronicles of Narnia game that almost lives up to the source material, thanks largely to the talents of developer Traveller's Tales (best known for its Lego Star Wars and Indiana Jones games). This summer's Prince Caspian follows in the paw prints of 2006's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, giving C.S. Lewis aficionados a lunch-pail action adventure better than the kiddie dreck you were probably expecting. However, in both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, a number of issues still limit the game's appeal to fans of talking animals. These include the game's lack of imagination, as well as a confusing narrative and some oddly murky visuals.
Although the plot is a straightforward recounting of how the Pevensie kids return to Narnia to help Prince Caspian seize his rightful throne from the corrupt King Miraz, not much effort has been put into making sure this tale makes sense. Animated cutscenes and film clips book-end missions in such a haphazard way that it's often hard to figure out what exactly is going on in the game. You'll be lost if you haven't seen the movie or read the book. This is especially true in the beginning where you're dropped straight into some kind of flashback battle and then introduced to the prince just as he hightails it out of Dodge fearful of an assassination attempt. All you can really make heads or tails of here is that Caspian is obviously the good guy because he looks like he just stepped off the cover of Medieval Teen Beat.
Prince Caspian's gameplay is simplistic. Levels focus entirely upon mindless combat and finicky busywork where you pull levers, push buttons, or slap machinery together. You also switch back and forth between characters with special abilities, such as throwing a grappling hook or firing a bow. A second player can also join the action at any time and play through the campaign in co-op mode simply by picking up a controller (there is no support for multiplayer over the net). So you're either hacking and slashing through hordes of eternally respawning enemy knights, or you're looking around for the puzzles that need to be solved to open up the next area or reveal a quest item.
Nothing here is all that tough, though, because the game is geared toward the younger set. Combat is all about mashing buttons and you can wade through foes slaughtering at will, especially with tough characters like Peter and the minotaur or speedy ones like the centaur. Solving puzzles is equally undemanding. You step on a couple of platforms to cause a staircase to rise up out of the ground, pull switches to open up portcullises, smash through a wall by pushing over a statue, or fire an arrow at a far-off target to release a bridge. Essentially, you spend a lot of time performing the same sorts of tasks that you would expect from a traditional action adventure or a 3D platformer.
Prince Caspian doesn't reinvent the wheel, and the six or seven hours of action flow along so swiftly that you never get bogged down, even with a lot of repetitive tasks. Gameplay seems well suited to younger players. The action is not so dumbed down that it would insult their intelligence nor is it so challenging that they might just give up. Some of the platform-style puzzles are even a bit innovative, such as the windy caves where you have to keep torches lit to fend off bats and insects. There are some annoyances here, most notably the way you have to mash buttons to pry open chests and pull levers. But there isn't anything unduly offensive, save perhaps the automated camera that forever turns to face your character head-on. If not for the great 2D minimap in the bottom-right corner of the screen, you'd barely be able to find your way out of some corners.
Unfortunately, what you can see in the next-gen console versions of Prince Caspian doesn't look all that great. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game are extremely dark, and there is no way to adjust this in the game because the usual gamma tweaking option is MIA. Cutscenes are shadowy, and during gameplay, enemies are often so thoroughly obscured by the gloom that they're invisible until they attack. So if you're looking for visual clarity, stick with the PC edition, which is crystal clear. It's a shame that the game is so murky because the levels take you to all of the key locales in the movie, such as the ruins of Caer Paravel, Miraz's castle, and the battlefield of Beruna. All of the medieval architecture, grassy fields, and ancient ruins are also realized with outstanding attention to detail. Audio effects and music are much more vibrant, at least, with battle sounds and tunes that are vivid and cinematic. Large-scale skirmishes can knock you right off the couch if you've got a good surround-sound system. One surprising drawback is the lack of movie lines during gameplay.
Mediocre is the best word to describe The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. It doesn't do anything remarkable, but it's still a reasonably enjoyable way to take C.S. Lewis home.