The Golden Compass captures its cinematic counterpart pretty well, but the gameplay will be boring to all but the film’s youngest and most easily entertained fans
The Golden Compass finds itself in a more precarious position than its young adventuring heroine; not only is it a movie-based game–a genre whose titles often fall victim to limiting production schedules and plot lines tied to the films on which they’re based–but it also features a young child as the primary playable character.
Anyone who’s played a Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia title has likely been stung by the frustration of navigating through a game with a prepubescent protagonist whose arsenal is limited by their already established character. At least Potter has his wand and the Narnia kids have some medieval weaponry, but how much damage can you do in a videogame with a compass? Given these limitations, the best this tyke-featuring title can do is capitalize on the coolness of the property it’s based on. The Golden Compass succeeds in pulling this off to some extent, but it also reflects the fact its source material doesn’t provide enough fertile gaming ground. How do you create a game around a film that offers few opportunities for gameplay translation? Well, in Sega’s and Shiny Entertainment’s case you wedge a variety of mini-games and challenges into places that gameplay probably doesn’t belong.
But before we get into the bad, let’s discuss the good. The Golden Compass looks pretty decent; not especially next-gen, but watching the armored polar bear Iorek lumber across snowy vistas and platforming through the roof tops of Jordan College does offer some eye-pleasing moments. And those that’ve seen the film will appreciate the many faithfully reconstructed locales and set pieces. Furthering the movie immersion is the inclusion of actual film footage. Some scenes in the game will morph from film clips to gameplay and vice versa, stressing that you’re actually replaying parts of the movie. Kids who’ve seen the film should enjoy these clips, while adults will get a chuckle out of seeing Nicole Kidman go from pretty to polygonal.
The game also does a decent job of stretching as much gaming out of Lyra–the film’s young heroine–as possible. So, she doesn’t carry a grenade launcher or broad sword, but she does have her daemon, a shape-shifting sidekick that, within the narrative, is actually a reflection of Lyra’s soul. For the purpose of gaming, this soul-inspired creature becomes a multi-tasking, platforming play mechanic. Lyra’s daemon, named Pan, can turn into a rope-gnawing ermine, a climbing wildcat, a gliding hawk, and an investigative sloth. Solving the game’s many puzzles and platforming bits will require you to utilize each form’s special ability. One particular platforming portion of the adventure sees Lyra sneaking into a secret-holding Magestarium (they’re the bad guys for those yet to read the novel or watch the film) building by performing various tasks, utilizing each of Pan’s forms to navigate an obstacle course of sorts. In addition, some of Pan’s alter-egos will go off on their own to perform specific games and tasks. One such challenge has players following on-screen button prompts as Pan’s wildcat form fights off Nicole Kidman’s character’s evil monkey daemon. Certain parts of the game also put players behind the powerful paws of Iorek; playing as Lyra’s polar bear warrior companion, you’ll be able to slash and claw your way through packs of angry wolves and the occasional boss battle.
Through mini-games, platforming, puzzling, and fighting, The Golden Compass packs plenty of variety in its play. The problem, however, is that none of the gameplay is particularly interesting or fun. Iorek’s battles are extremely simple and not very exciting, and despite the diverse offering of other mini-game challenges, none are very good. When Lyra “fights,” it’s by way of the player following prompts to make her simply dodge her foes, and even when she gets a bit more aggressive it’s for a boring game, like spitting pits off a rooftop onto clueless passerby.
The title’s worst offender of creatively-deficient gaming is the conversation “deception” games. In order to get out of tight spots when talking to suspicious adults, you need to perform mindless tasks to successfully complete the conversations. These include symbol matching, catching dropping balls, pushing balls into holes billiards style, and other such inane challenges that’d make even the Wii’s or DS’s worst mini-game compilation offerings seem hugely entertaining. They’re just not much fun and, unfortunately, they form a lot of The Golden Compass’ gameplay. Another of the game’s many mini tasks has you deciphering questions with the titular tool by matching symbols with their potential text meanings; a symbol of a tree on the compass, for example, may represent the word “shelter” in one of the title’s many riddles. The compass questions are a bit more challenging and fun, but don’t nearly make up for the shortcomings of the other mini-games.
Despite its uninspired gameplay, the simple tasks and challenges may appeal to a younger audience, especially those that’ve seen the film. But if you’re part of the “+” demographic in The Golden Compass’ “E10+” rating, then you’ll likely be bored soon after Iorek’s opening wolf-whuppin’ battle sequence. To the game’s credit, it does represent the movie pretty well through it’s visual presentation, cinematic score, and likenesses and voice work provided by many of the film’s stars. The movie clips are also a nice touch. The film’s and book’s youngest fans may be entertained by this one for several hours, but everyone else probably won’t.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
Not great, but a good representation of the film. 3.5 Control
Switching from Pan’s various forms is fluid and intuitive. Limited camera control. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Plenty of voice support from the film’s cast. 2.5 Play Value
Mostly an uninspired bore for gamers above the age of 10, but Compass’ young admirers might enjoy the simple fun. 3.0 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.