Although it's very unlikely to be remembered as such, 2005 proved to be a great year for movie tie-in games. From Batman Begins to Fantastic 4 and Aeon Flux, developers no longer seemed content with simply rushing a game to market for the sake of cashing in on a movie's opening. Lucky gamers saw games with style, intelligence and great gameplay stem from countless films and it by year-end, it was hard and almost impossible to dismiss a game due to its affiliations. The closing of 2005 gave us another great title to add to the list; The Chronicles of Narnia, published by Buena Vista Games and developed by Traveller's Tales.
Based on the famous C.S. Lewis book (and series), TCoN: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrode, follows (and quite well actually) the adventures of the Penvensie siblings as they magically journey to the world of Narnia by way of an old wardrobe. Once there, they are caught up in your typical epic fantasy adventure where all manner of creature and animal exist. When these then begin to talk however, you tend to see the difference between Narnia and every other fantasy story in existence. While C.S. Lewis' books have a definite allegorical feel to them, fans of the novels will still find enough substance to enjoy the movie and game even though a lot of little things have been changed to provide a less heavy-handed context (read: Biblical) to the proceedings. Also, many may wish to see the movie before playing the game as it is filled, quite literally, with enough clips from the film to ruin a few key and magical moments.
The game plays from a third person view with a camera that tries to follow the action but fails more often than not. Broken into fifteen levels, some of which are simply boss fights, the game generally gives you control of two or four of the Penvensie siblings to alternate as you see fit. The boys, Peter and Edmund, are generally the rough-housers of the group and are better used for melee and close-ranged attacks. Peter, as the oldest and strongest of the siblings can also break through certain areas while Edmund with his natural athleticism can climb certain obstacles and traverse others unscathed. The girls, Susan and Lucy, are slightly more awkward to use in certain instances (Susan's melee attacks a fitting and funny at the same time) but each carries certain skills that are irreplaceable. Susan can use ranged weapons like bows while little Lucy can not only heal your party, tame and ride certain animals, but she easily fits in certain areas the others are too large for. The game allows you with the squeeze of a trigger to switch between the active sibling, but having to press three times sometimes to cycle through the lot gets annoying in places. The only other small drawback is that while a picture of the active sibling is clearly shown on the screen, the two boys look enough alike to have confused me on more than one occasion. Luckily, the pictures are also color-coded which helped things out immensely.
Instead of giving you a large world to explore, Narnia gives you fifteen levels to play through. While this may seem limiting at first, the levels are large and diverse enough to overcome this issue. The fact that you can replay any level to acquire more coins, shields and free Narnian inhabitants from their frozen statue states is reason enough to play each of the levels over at least once. The fact that you can play each of the levels cooperatively is also incentive to go through them again and again with various combinations of Penvensie siblings (and co-op players).
The Chronicles of Narnia differs from many similar games out there (most notably Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) by varying its gameplay enough in each level to keep you guessing as to what's coming up and also keep you on your toes and entertained. The gameplay is highly clever in certain areas and always well thought out even though there are a few frustrating areas along the way where you will wonder what you possibly have to do at a given moment. The game always offers clues of some kind, but these are sometimes hard to interpret and the odd camera positioning doesn't always help matters. For the most part, you will be fighting your way through levels as you solve some pretty interesting problems. The game allows siblings to team up and perform additional actions that sometimes are required to further the plot. The combat, for its part, is the weakest part of the Narnia game and feels a little tacked on. The collision detection isn't always perfect and there are moments when you will feel that you are playing a Dynasty Warriors game. Narnia also allows you to buy upgrades for the siblings in the form of skills, attacks, combos and health bonuses. These are quite useful, but the attack combos feel a little shallow since they involve combo button presses which are just to demanding for their use. Mashing the attack button will generally get the job done in any circumstance. But rest assured, Narnia is filled with enough problem solving, story development, exploration, collection and moments of pure bliss that you'll hardly notice the weak combat elements. Having to use all four siblings during boss fights is well handled and clever as well.
Narnia features two difficulty levels, but neither one fixes the most glaring problem with the gameplay; the artificial intelligence is always terrible. Whether it involves foes of your computer-controlled siblings (luckily you can always play co-op), the A.I. always seems to be doing something inane and wrong. Your siblings never help you or heal you and the enemies sometime run around in circles looking for the active sibling to attack. This doesn't really affect the gameplay too much since Narnia can be enjoyed as an adventure game and not a hack-and-slash anyway.
Graphically, Narnia doesn't push the Xbox in any way, but its graphics are crisp and busy. Each location is well designed and features many objects to gawk at and explore. The true brilliance of Narnia comes in its clever morphing from the film clips to the in-game graphics engine. The first time you see it, you will hardly believe what has happened and as the game goes on, you will never fully stop being surprised by how well the transition is made. In one instance you are watching a long clip from the film which sets up the story of the next level, the next moment, the film clip has become the in-game characters and you are now in control of the Penvensie siblings yourself. As noted, Narnia features lots of clips from the movie and may ruin a few surprises for those who haven't seen it yet. For those who have and can't wait for the DVD, the game is the second best option.
In the audio department, the game takes very few chances. Most of the dialog is done through the film clips and so you have the blockbuster production values to lend a hand. Musically, Narnia follows the themes from the film as well and it's only in its handling of various effects that it takes a misstep. The sound effects are not only repetitive but show significantly different production values than those in the film.
In the end, The Chronicles of Narnia may not bring any radically new gameplay concepts to the table, but for fans of the books and movie, this is a great re-creation of the Narnia world and its characters and it is a joy to play through. The abundance of film clips, the clever puzzles, the collection of items and the feel of the game are all spot on. Non-fans will probably not find enough to keep them happy, but as millions know, that is their loss. While not for everyone, The Chronicles of Narnia comes highly recommended for fans of the Penvensie siblings.