Don’t Poke the Fairyfolk
When word spreads that a bestselling children’s book series is about to make the big jump to a movie adaptation, it tends to be a harbinger of bad multi-platform video game tie-ins to come. The Spiderwick Chronicles is just the latest in a long tradition of games pulled together to coincide with the launch of a corresponding kids movie.
The DS version certainly isn’t the flashiest edition of the game, but the inclusion of an interesting battle system and a few basic RPG elements make it a cut above your average licensed spinoff on the handheld. Like many other titles of its ilk, the Spiderwick Chronicles is destined for the hands of kids who loved the movie and bugged their folks incessantly to hook them up with the game. The problem is it may be a bit too much to handle for the younger audience it’s geared towards.
As can be expected, the game’s story largely sticks to a pared-down version of the movie plot. Siblings Jared, Simon, and Mallory Grace inadvertently stumble into a world of fantasy when they relocate with their mother to the secluded house once owned by their great uncle Arthur Spiderwick. After discovering a brownie named Thimbletak in the deep recesses of the house, Jared finds Spiderwick’s personal tome which contains extensive knowledge on goblins, pixies, trolls, sprites, dwarves, and other fairy creatures that dwell invisibly in the human realm. Unfortunately, the book attracts the attention of the ogre Mulgarath who covets it for his own twisted aims. The kids are faced with fending off repeated attacks from Mulgarath’s minions, exploring the mystical world they’ve encountered, locating Spiderwick, and keeping themselves and their family from harm.
One thing the game does quite well is keep up a genuine fairytale vibe throughout the adventure that’s refreshingly youthful yet heavily entrenched in the fantastic. The storytelling itself is somewhat sparse, and players will have to rely on a familiarity with the source material to truly follow all the plot details, but the overall atmosphere is enchanting. The musical score plays a big part in this. The music box style bells of the introduction sets the fantasy tone nicely, and the way the music changes throughout the game is more than mere happenstance. When traversing the brighter, autumnal section of the forest, the score is slightly eerie and playful; it turns darker and more ominous as you move deeper into the goblin-filled woods. Other vibrant sound effects, both environmental and those worked into the gameplay itself, are equally strong.
Most actions are handled with the stylus, whether it’s moving around, picking up items, shaking bushes, pummeling goblins or moving boulders. Tapping a location on the screen will make your character to move to that position (players can also move around using the d-pad if they prefer), and tracing a path will cause them to follow it. The microphone also comes into play since blowing into it will reveal a certain type of fairy at different points in the game. For younger gamers who may be far less jaded with the unique features of the DS, the stylus-heavy controls should be downright exciting. Otherwise, they’re still solid enough for the rest of us.
The game’s combat system is one of its high points, but it can be a little unforgiving for novice players. Encountering foes on the adventure map will trigger a turn-based battle. The combat screen is shown from a side view, and it’s arranged with the kids on the left side and whichever nasty creatures they’re up against on the right. Typically, players will get a chance to take action before their opponents.
Each child has their own method of attack and a unique mini-game that pops-up for bonus damage: Jared swings a baseball bat which requires players to trace a circular pattern; Simon uses his fists with players tapping out randomly appearing Xs in sequential order; and Mallory wields a fencing sword which has players swiping across the screen. Initiating an attack is as simple a tapping the action and selecting the opponent to fight. They’ll jump forward to battle, the mini-game then pops-up, and they’ll make their attack. Players can also throw rocks, use items, and release accumulated sprites for healing, defense, and magical attacks. Characters positioned in the back can only use ranged attacks or items, but if they’re attacked, their front-line companions each get an extra attack to exact revenge. The same goes for enemies, so players must consider their options accordingly. The high level of player interaction in combat makes it engaging and fun.
When it comes to defense, players can tap their character right as they’re being attacked to initiate a parry maneuver that reduces the amount of damage they’ll take. Enemy attacks come quickly, and often do substantial damage, so it’s imperative to attempt to defend against every single attack with precision. This soon becomes a chore, and a frustrating one at that, because it eventually gets to the point when fighting tougher enemies where missing even a single defensive maneuver can be catastrophic. When defeated, players are sent back to the last checkpoint, which means they’ll often be forced to play the same grueling areas repeatedly.
Sprite collecting is integral to the gameplay, and it’s actually quite rewarding. A range of different sprites can be found in all kinds of places: under rocks, hiding in bushes, in beams of sunlight, in trees, and elsewhere. Some sprites can be collected and used in battle while others are helpful for moving boulders, cutting through brambles, unlocking doors, and crossing streams. Certain sprites will also give player experience which can be used each time to increase health, sprite affinity or damage stats for one of the three kids. Hunting for new sprites and figuring out what they require to be lured out of hiding is a fun pursuit players will spend significant time on.
The game’s hand-drawn graphical style is initially pleasing to look at, particularly in the opening scene, the Spiderwick house, the early forest settings, and in a few of the game’s other areas of interest. The animated characters themselves are a little disappointing in comparison. Unfortunately, the game features lengthy maze-like sections with areas that begin to all look the same after a time. Getting lost is an irritating hazard since players will soon tire of the tedium of fighting the same creatures over and over again as they try to re-trace their steps only to realize they were going in the right direction in the first place. There’s no quick solution to these doleful areas other than to suck it up and plow through them.
Aside from some tough combat situations and a propensity for sending players around in circles a little too often, The Spiderwick Chronicles actually offers a reasonable level of fun for your troubles. It’s certainly put together a little better than some of its brethren. Younger players will probably nab this one up as a direct result of having seen the movie or read the books, but they may find the aforementioned issues tough to swallow.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.4 Graphics
The hand-drawn visuals are nice, but the environments get too repetitive too quickly. The character sprites are a let-down. 3.9 Control
Solid stylus based controls work well, but combat may be a tad tough for youngsters. In this case, touch screen and mic implementation actually enhance the game. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Great music throughout the game adds to the fairytale atmosphere. 3.0
An initially fun experience gets bogged down by repetition and a relatively short adventure. There’s little-to-no replay value.
3.6 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.