Based on the film of the same name released earlier this month, Zathura is a game that was obviously intended for a very young audience. The question is: where do you draw the line between when simplistic gameplay intended for a child becomes a bad game. Zathura definitely tests this boundary, and in the end winds up rocketing from the realm of charming children's title to deep in the realm of unsatisfying play experience.
Anyone remember Jumanji? Dated looking special effects? Some silly looking hunter with an accent? Robin Willaims in a dress as he babysits his kids in his ex-wife's house? Same movie, right? Regardless, Zathura follows along in largely the same vein. The game starts off with two kids, Danny and Walter, arguing in their house. Eventually Danny gets tossed into the basement where he finds a board game called Zathura. The brothers start to play the game and the results of their moves turn into real life consequences. As soon after they start playing their house gets tossed into space, they get a huge battle robot, travel to weird planets, and fight huge bosses. Sounds pretty good, right?
It's Not Good.
Zathura is a third person adventure title. In each of the game's levels you'll control one of three characters: Danny, Walter, or the robot. The game assigns you which character you'll be playing as, so don't expect to be switching around at will. Each character has a different skill set. Walter melees with a wrench and throws a variety of projectiles like snowballs and toxic wads. Danny uses a slingshot to do the same projectile attacks, though he has an unlimited amount of his base ammo, called moon rocks. The robot can blast lasers, a charged shot, do a running charge, and jump a lot higher than the two kids.
As you guide each character through the game's levels, you'll find each character is presented with specific challenges. For instance, Walter does a few hand over hand sequences, both boys do turret sequences, and the robot just constantly shoots. The problem is there really isn't anything significant that differentiates them beyond this. All the sequences feel almost exactly the same.
The other problem is, you don't really need to watch out for enemies or environmental hazards because of the way the game restarts you in a stage after you die. Enemies in Zathura will pop into existence in front of you. Instead of fighting them, it's way more effective to just run right by them. The A.I. is so bad you'll hardly ever get hit in the process. In a few cases we had run past a large group of enemies and eventually gotten killed since a few of them were spitting projectiles at the backs of our heads as they chased us. However, instead of having to restart the sequence, the game respawned us at the end and had wiped away all the enemies leaving us free to continue unharmed as if nothing had happened.
A few other instances had us drop into arena-like areas where we assumed we'd have to defeat all the enemies in order to proceed, but this wasn't the case. As the enemies spawned and charged us, we just hopped on a lava turtle and went on to the next area. In The Dead Planet level, all we had to do was run over a hill along the way and groups of five or so enemies would give up chase. Of course, as we were sprinting through groups of enemies we were taking damage, but the ridiculous amount of health powerups made it impractical to be cautious. Enemies killed and the hundreds and hundreds of breakable level objects drop health as well as ammo power ups, so there's never any need to try and be careful. Even the few boss sequences, of which some were admittedly entertaining, particularly the stone goddess fight, gave you enough health to easily last through the battle.
"I Don't Want to Play Anymore, Walter."
Enemies are not just really dumb, they're spectacularly dumb. In many cases, if you're on a platform and an enemy is on one close to you, they'll walk right at you regardless of whether the platform continues under their feet. In many cases, the outcome is a large number of enemies taking nose dives into pits of lava or other huge crevasses as they topple over the sides of platforms. This was most notable with the fire dogs of Tsouris-3 and the Zorgon warriors. So in some areas, the best strategy isn't to run straight through, but to wait on the edge of a platform while all nearby foes voluntarily plummet into the pit in front of you.
The camera is also an issue. Though you're able to control rotate it around, there are times it will lock up. This happened to us on the Robot Planet and was especially notable in the final boss fight, making it very difficult to see what was going on around us. In other cases the camera will switch to a fixed position for some platforming sequences. This is problematic as well since it's extremely difficult to tell exactly where your character is standing and will jump to. It becomes even more of a problem if you're trying to use the game's lock-on system. By itself the system works fairly well, but runs into problems with the inexact camera. The result: lots of unnecessary death. But hey, that's not so bad since sometimes you repawn after the sequence you were trying to pass.
Simplistic character models, environments, and level architecture prove that this game's graphics were clearly designed to appeal to children. Character models are big, round, and cartoonish, environments are simple and none of the enemies are particularly scary or frightening (though the Zorgons might be scary to a little kid). Textures are bland and nothing jumps out as particularly detailed or impressive. The framerate is able to remain smooth for most of the game, though occasionally it stutters.
Of equal simplicity is the stage design. Each place you go through has you travel from point A to point B along a straightforward path. Often the path through a stage is highlighted by a trail of power ups. Again, more evidence that this is a children's title. What children might not understand is how Zathura advances story. While there are some sequences with an impressive amount of spoken dialogue, there are also a few glaring holes in the game's plot. Your characters will often start a stage and you'll have only vague notions of how they got there. Other times the game will stop in mid battle and go into a cut scene.
The music is the best aspect of the game, it's at least somewhat interesting to listen to. Like the cut scenes, however, it too will randomly stop or skip a track when you advance into a new area.
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