Though the movie doesn't hit the big screen until late next week, gamers are treated to an early taste of what The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe has in store. Even though the handheld game doesn't shine as brightly as the console counterparts, players still get a decent, quality dungeon crawler.
The main game opens with the four children discovering the magical wardrobe, and one by one they make their way into the land of Narnia where they discover that it is their destiny to free the cursed land of the terrible White Witch. The majority of the game is presented in an isometric view, and is a typical hack-n-slash adventure inspired from the Lord of the Rings series on GBA. After a brief intro, all four children are available for play, and control can be switched from child to child on the fly. While most of the game is played with all four characters, story elements will split the party up for character-specific moments.
Each of the four children have their own attributes and use unique fighting styles that add a good chunk of balance to what could have been a total cluster of cast members. Peter uses regular swords for a mix of strength and speed, while Susan keeps a distance with bow and arrow. Edmund uses great swords for melee specific attacks and Lucy, the smallest of the four brothers and sisters, uses only a dagger for offense, making use of a magical panpipe for casing assistance spells. While this is a great mix of styles, the game becomes increasingly difficult when the player is stuck with only one character at a time, emphasizing even more the importance of teamwork. When battling as a team, each of the characters perform their specific duties pretty well. There were a few times when Susan would stand behind objects, making her range attacks useless while the other players took a beating, but luckily it didn't happen often. Mobility can be a bit choppy since the screen's scroll rate is a little slow, and the game lags tremendously when more than eight total characters are on-screen, making four on four the largest battle without slowdown. Luckily the game is saved by an entertaining combat system, which is where the majority of the adventure is played out.
The micromanagement during battle has been kept to a minimum, offering the player control over the unused heroes by simply tapping the bottom screen. Each character can be set to attack, defense, or a third unique setting such as "heal" or "support." The ability to switch strategies on the fly is a little difficult, however, and an option to pause and set up strategy during battle would have helped tremendously. While attacking is relatively simple, requiring only timing mixed with button mashing, finishing attacks and special techniques are given to each of the children as the game progresses. These abilities are a great addition to the game, and really give some added depth in what could have been a very shallow dungeon crawler.
Environments in Chronicles of Narnia are simple but beautiful, and set a great stage for entertaining battles to unfold. The Witch's curse has left the land in a frozen state, and though the world is covered with snow and ice the design of the story mode saved it from disaster. Rather than simply running screen to screen in bland whiteness, the designers included a dungeon system much like Untold Legends for the PSP. The map in the main world has dungeon markers, and when entered players are taken to a standalone level. The system works great, keeping the action separate from the main game and allowing players to get a break from the bitter cold, which actually affects combat speed and experience collection. The only downfall of dungeons is that, unlike the overworld, there are no maps. Later dungeons in the game will simply drive players mad, and the fact that these dungeons can be explored by four players simultaneously means that there will be a lot of lost gamers. Luckily there is no shortage of baddies, so getting lost simply results in more experience. Each dungeon ends with a boss and a rescued ally, and for every quest completed more experience is gained. Hey, it may not be original, but at least it's entertaining!
Along with the dungeon system, there are a ton of design decisions that make Narnia rise above its faults. The level up system, for example, is purely custom. Any time one of the children gains enough experience, a level up occurs. This is handled on the bottom screen, and is simple enough to do during combat. When leveling up, a "virtue point" becomes available for distribution, and can be added to Valor, Magnificence, Gentleness and Justice. Adding a point to any of these categories will up strength, dexterity, hit points, and will power. Since leveling up is custom, players can either chose to follow the implied path for each character, such as adding more will power to aid Lucy in spell casting, or go a completely different route. It sure is great sacrificing every level up point for strength, and then watching even most difficult enemies get smoked by a little girl and her dagger.
Leveling up is just one of the areas where Narnia breaks the mold. When battling outside, for example, the cold can affect the heroes. The main emblem on screen changes from a lion's head to a snowflake, and all characters suffer from weaker attacks, less experience gained per kill, and slower reflexes. While this addition can seem annoying at first, it adds a ton of flavor to adventuring since the actual environment becomes an adversary along with the enemies. Another of the more noticeable design choices deals with the health management system. Rather than having each character's health bar on screen, the entire team's hit points are added together and displayed on one bar. As long as the bar isn't empty, all players can continue to battle. Once empty, however, any hero that is knocked down will stay down for a long period of time. If all heroes are on the ground at once, the battle is over and the game must be restarted from the last checkpoint. While this is a very different concept to most dungeon crawlers, it is a great way to ensure that players can continue to progress rather than constantly running back to a town for healing potions or resurrection items. It is all or nothing for the four children, and it proves to complement the gameplay very well.
While the core gameplay can be clunky at times due mainly to system limitation, Narnia is saved by not only an inpressive design, but amazingly solid presentation. Everything from sound production to graphical style and screen management is very well implemented. The musical score for Narnia takes themes straight from the movie, and the composition sounds great from both DS speakers as well as in headphones. Sound effects are high in quality as well, though no real voice acting was included. The presentation of the entire front end is simple but stylistic, offering a focused sense of style even in the menus and intro screens. Unfortunately, the only way to control these opening screens, along with many of the future options screens, is in touch control. There is no way to use D-Pad navigation, which can be a bit frustrating after the novelty of touch wears off. The two screens are used very well, having all gameplay on the top screen and all stat management on the bottom. At any time, touch can be used to switch to a bottom-screen map, player stats, inventory, or quest logs. This is a great way for play to remain active while managing multiple interfaces across the bottom screen
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