Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series is certainly off to a painful start. The award winning book's film adaptation has been greeted with some less than favorable reviews. The movie can take solace in the fact that as bad as it is, it's not the worst adaptation of the book, an honor firmly held by video games. Thanks to the A2M developed The Golden Compass
for the Nintendo DS, literature fans can be even more frustrated at the half-baked rehashing of a once great novel.
The Golden Compass isn't just one crappy game, it's three. By virtue of playing as three different characters, players get to suffer through a bad platformer, a bad beat-em-up, and a bad... animal morphing type game.
Players take control of Lyra, her daemon Pan, and panzerbjorne Iorek as they try to rescue Lyra's friend Roger and learn about the mysterious Alethiometer (the gold thing that looks like a compass). Don't expect scenes from the film, or really, cutscenes of any value, since the majority of the story is told through talking heads, and not even decent looking ones. The character's portraits are so muddled from the compression that they disfigure the actors. The portraits for extras are even worse. Curiously, the servants look like Ralph Fiennes if he was comprising his roles as John Steed and Voldemort simultaneously.
Even more curious is the lack of chronological story telling. The game starts at the end of the story, with Lyra and Iorek fighting off Samoyeds and racing to rescue Roger. Then after three levels of action and adventure it jumps back to Jordan College, before Lyra even got the Alethiometer and met Iorek. Those first few levels aren't very good, but at least stuff is going on. We got to fight people, and defy death, only to have the game become a ridiculously boring stealth game. It's a jarring switch, one that kills what little pacing and fun the game was starting to have.
Lyra gets help from Pan and Iorek to fight her fights.
The following levels are usually centered around Lyra either jumping bottomless chasms, or pushing boxes. There is a small sense of exploration, but the areas players can actually go to is so limited that it is hardly even noticeable that exploring is being done. We understand the need to beef up the game since the film is mostly character development, but walking around and flipping switches in kitchens is barely a game at all. We would have been fine with a shorter game that hit the major plot points and kept the action up than to have a rather lengthy title that stretches out everything into a chore.
Eventually The Golden Compass returns to the more action based system of the Iorek and Lyra tag team, but it takes multiple levels of running around doing essentially nothing to get that far. In the mean time Pan acts as the action component, since he can fend off dogs when he's in his cat form. Pan feels like the third wheel for the entire game. It's a really cool character that gets shoehorned into the game as a door opener.
There's a real lack of flair when playing the game. While the developers managed to capture the freezing environments of the artic fairly well, places like the college and cities come off as generic and bland. There is very little animation for anything besides the most basic tasks. For instance, Pan can morph into a variety of different animals, but these transitions lack any animation. It's just an instant model switch. Or take Lyra's running animation, which is just a sped up version of her walking. It looks cheap and ridiculous.
A2M seems to be using the same engine from Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, with the 3D running on the top and bottom screen simultaneously. Unfortunately this seems to be too much for the game to handle, and significant slowdown occurs whenever it happens. We were bored when there was just one bear sauntering about onscreen. Giving us two, frustratingly slow bears does not help the situation.
The Golden Compass is not worth picking up, even for fans of the novel or film. Since the story has to be read through terrible talking heads, it would be far more enjoyable to just pick up the book. Then the reader can use their imagination to picture characters that don't look deformed, environments that aren't even blander than real life, and action that isn't repetitive and unfulfilling. The worst part of The Golden Compass is the sense of dread that comes with knowing there might be two sequels.