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The Spiderwick Chronicles Review

The Spiderwick Chronicles pack shot
Developer:Stormfront Studios
Publisher:Sierra Entertainment
Genre:Action adventure
Platform:Xbox 360
Official Site:http://www.spiderwickgame.com/
Release Date:March 14th, 2007 (UK)
Reviewer:Duncan Lawson (sinna01)
 

Does anyone still take their lunch to school anymore? Sandwich, biscuit, juice box, packet of crisps, gummy bears and all the e-numbers that would ensure I wouldn't have the attention span to handle a single bit of learning for the rest of the day. All of this would have come in a fetching plastic lunchbox (matching thermos included) emblazoned with the superhero, pop group or toy franchise of choice. The exact choice of character and colour of this box, especially on your first day, would irrevocably determine you social standing, degree of bullying, ability to make friends, academic success, university chances, career, and attractiveness of future spouse. Such nuances made me and my peers select such outward shows of allegiance very, very carefully indeed. We absolutely *had* to have the right lunch box at all costs, regardless of whether we actually liked whatever was on the front of it. If you thought actually liking what was on your lunchbox was important, you were missing the point and unlikely to survive to see the end of lunch break.

The Spiderwick Chronicles screenshot 1

Now, with a vat-grown Jamie Oliver in every school canteen, children are molly-coddled with all manner of actual protein and nutrition. The poor movie studios can just about still make ends meet, but have had to switch their tie-ins from pyjamas and duvet covers to computer game ports. Odds on if you wander into your local Waterstone's and check out the teen fiction book section - if it has a movie, it will have itself a game adaptation as well. And rubbish it will be too. I cackle well into the night in my padded room, drawing yet another picture with the nub of my occupational therapy crayons of me burning down the whole movie tie-in game section using the teen fiction section as kindling.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is the latest offering of the shameless tie-in title, with nothing to personally redeem it. So insipid in its construction and imaging that not even the cheapest studio would have created its like without a major movie release to prop it up. Its not that games aimed at younger or broad-spectrum players are by any means intrinsically bad, as the Kingdom Hearts series would attest, but for the life of me I cant think of any game worth the time that was based on 'young fiction'.

The Spiderwick Chronicles screenshot 2

The basic game structure of Spiderwick will have you playing one of three siblings (one fast, one strong, one ranged - natch) and a little house-elf helper, with whom you will enjoy a series of go-fetch missions with similar looking goblins to grind through there and back. Most of these will be sorties into the woods surrounding the safe base of Chez Spiderwick. The opening couple of chapters of the game are actually quite promising. You explore a creepy old house, things skitter and bump behind walls, and you can't disagree with the child when he decides to arm himself with a baseball bat before poking around. The design of the locations are all lifted straight from the feature film, so with a full Hollywood set design team as backup, the actual look of many parts of the game are quite impressive. The problem solving is still go-fetch, but the slightly creepy ambience carries it along nicely.

The Spiderwick Chronicles screenshot 3

When the mystical tomfoolery actually turns up it still manages to remain engaging in its own right. Sprites and spriggans flit around the house grounds and the surrounding woods, which can be caught in a net and catalogued. A short, vacuous mini-game later will give you a power-up to employ later - health, speed, invulnerability, etc, For a little while, this pokeMôn type action looks promising, but pretty quickly it becomes apparent the lack of diversity in your prey will make this more of a resource gathering chore than any abiding interest.

When the first few bad goblins turn up, there is a certain amount of fun to be had, and the resulting violence is surprisingly visceral and satisfying. You can have your 12 year old character slide in to the fray, lay down a Thor-style area stun attack, deck a wee hobgoblin type and whale on him a while on the floor. Pop the abused Gob up into the air in a spray of green goo, and if you time it just right you can obliterate it on its way down in a slow-motion bit of ultra violence that really wouldn't have looked too girly in Manhunter. A little further in and you even upgrade to an aluminium bat for some extra goblinoid skull-splitting. At this point it looked to just be a nail-gun and a chainsaw away from bearing some serious promise. The combat itself is all based on one-button bashing, which makes the games claim to have a combo system ( X, X, X then X, with X as a finishing strike - not kidding) a little baffling. Many very good games are entirely playable with the mono-button approach, but this just doesn't have the depth or monster variety to be one of them.

The Spiderwick Chronicles screenshot 4

Alas, about 30% of the way through the game, when you start having to spend serious amounts of time as any of the other siblings, the interest very rapidly stagnates. It exactly this point that the competent sets copied from competent set designers are no longer enough, the bad guys are more abundant and as such their very limited variety becomes clear, and the poor overall balance becomes clear. At this point the film had obviously got down to the meat-and-potatoes of its family orientated action and special effects, which meant the game designers suddenly have to produce something competent on their own back and quite clearly can't. The atmospheric set up very quickly gives way to deeply tedious grinds of collecting a set number of fairies, kicking a set number of goblins, or solving quite exquisitely uninspired environmental puzzles. As a big grown up boy, quite used to MMORPG's demanding an act of online obeisance, I am more than used to extensive go-fetch grinds, but there's enough of it in here to make even me quite bored. I can only assume that Spiderwicks target audience will be turned off even faster.

The Spiderwick Chronicles screenshot 5

The third character that the player will find himself in control of will be the little friendly house elf - Thimbletinky. That's not his name, but it's something equally camp and forgettable. Thimbletinky speaks entirely in piercingly awful rhymes, which does little to make the time you spend playing him in a deeply derivative and uninteresting platformer any more bearable. Within two or three minutes you will have encountered all of the environmental hazards you will ever see, but will come across again and again in levels that seem to have been randomly generated rather than designed by an reasoning intelligence. Death to Thimbletinky.

The feature film took all of the money in the whole of the free world in its opening 9 seconds, so the inevitability of the game selling well is pretty much right up there with the inevitability of death and the extinguishing of the Universe through inexorable entropy. From my experience of the game itself, it actually looks like The Spiderwick Chronicles movie might actually be worth a Sunday afternoon with the DVD. A little of the atmosphere and good clean fun of the movies comes across in the opening few minutes of the game, but soon becomes bogged down when the game makers actually have to pull some of the creative weight themselves.

Summary

Actual gamers will nearly certainly be bored by The Spiderwick Chronicles, and any fans of the movie will only have a little more novelty to hold on to. An unusually pointless multiplayer feature that pits two players trying to swipe as many fairies into a net before time runs out or a set number is reached really is more dull than drying emulsion and strikes me as a deeply cynical way to shoe-horn in an extra feature onto the back of the box.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is not the worst tie-in ever made, and we will all no doubt see worse yet to come with the return of the family Fantasy and Marvel movies. Best avoided, and doubly so if you actually enjoyed the film.

The bottom line
4.5 / 10

Good stuff

  • Promising start
  • Decent visuals, propped up by good set design
  • Simple, accessible interface

Not so good stuff

  • Repetitive combat
  • Dull go-fetch mission basis
  • Pointless multiplayer mode and achievements


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