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The Golden Compass

Welcome to the second of three games which promises to take you into a strange world, though with less violence than usual. It's The Golden Compass, not to be confused with mild cigarettes from Wigan. Or coherent storytelling.

The simple, like me, could be forgiven for confusing Philip Pullman and C. S. Lewis. They share the city where kindly writers grow in university gardens, as their rosy-cheeked target audience experiments with vodka outside McDonald's. However, Philip Pullman is alive, so has no excuse for letting this happen.

The Golden Compass is laughable, because the alternative is crying. It's relentlessly trivial, shoddy, and rarely thinks beyond the next moment. The Narnia game was Lego Jesus: irreverent, but fun. This game makes me question the nature of God.

Once upon a time, there was an omniscient being. Knowing the fiscal and emotional pain inflicted by every terrible game was a bummer. So, they arranged The Shining, but with this game and an axe-resistant PS2 for company. The voices demanded either 100% completion, or a year's subscription to The Phoenix for every disappointed customer, and they all lived happily ever after various degrees of therapy.

Imagine trying to watching a film with a temperamental projector, and the soundtrack on a different reel, occasionally drifting out of sync. That's the technical state of this game, and the fact that it never crashed to a permanent halt was a mixed blessing.

Imagine the characters were so thin or unlikeable, and the storytelling so obscure, that you'd be relieved if the ending was hastened by missing reels. This game rarely bothers to introduce plot developments or people, so at least there's no drama lost when somebody reels backwards from a bullet then screams two seconds later.

There are a few good moments, such as this pleasant view from the rooftops of Jordan college. However, even that's hampered by one of many part-implemented ideas. Environments are rendered with subdued brightness which, in theory, leaves room for highlights and effects to sparkle. In practice, there are hardly any, so the look is more washed-out than dynamic.

With a little more effort, the puzzles could have been engaging and distracted from technical foibles. For example, the rooftops are preceded by a protracted, exacting escape from bath-time through a window. Another possible solution, such as opening the window to misdirect your soapy assailant then hiding in the room, would have primed players to think, rather than listlessly follow prompts.

Have you read The Phoenix? It's a children's comic that credits readers with far more intelligence than the average newspaper. This game features challenges no less trivial than Narnia's, right down to specially-marked hiding places and snow extinguishing fire, only with more frustratingly obscure cues.

The conversations could have been interesting, rather than repeated snippets from the dawn of arcade games with less responsive controls. For example, multiple choices to reward the attentive, and failures causing ongoing twists, rather than immediate restarts. Maybe even learning about characters first, to help choose the right demeanour.

The Narnia game did retain one pivotal story moment: the wardrobe is improbable, but the adventure happens because Lucy has a reputation for being truthful. Lyra, protagonist of The Golden Compass, lies, even to her friends. I felt little sympathy as she was snatched by a bigger liar.

Though journal notes and voice-overs protest otherwise, she comes across as selfish and thoughtless. The two main topics of conversation are what she can get, and what the plot demands. The former reduces people to temperamental vending machines. The latter often flips her from cynical to heartfelt like a gangster parading borrowed children.

Alas, poor Iorek, bear of little brain with no patience for trickery. The first encounter is a missed opportunity for introspection, for Lyra to grow from comfortable lies to difficult truths. There's no friction, no entanglement in her own web of deceit, only magical destiny.

Rampages, compromised by an age rating prohibiting explicit violence, resemble a dog with rubber toys. Dignity evaporates with gloating lines, victory dances, and proud natives who taunt like teenagers.

Another half-done idea, independent bear legs, sometimes add a sense of weight but mostly contort at ledges. With consistent physics, lumbering power pitted against agility, combat could have been tactical. Charging would mean commitment, controlling the battlefield through feints and herding. As it stands, mashing one button wins every time.

The antagonists are totalitarianism meets ChuckleVision, moments of menace crushed by crashing into things. Foes occasionally pop out of the ground. Falling off ledges elicits a blood-curdling scream, silence, or the conversation continuing as normal. It's a mid-refurbishment ghost train ride, more surreal than tense.

Concepts collide. The Magisterium can create flying, homing surveillance cameras, but not rudimentary alarm systems. Daemons are important, but Iorek has none, and they might as well be vestigial battery packs for all the difference that makes.

My favourite aspect of The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship was the sense of the sea. The characters became real in the minutiae of sailing, the intersection of the magical and mundane. This has a long boat section with flat water and scant detail. Even swabbing the decks looks wrong.

Finding the story would test the patience of an ardent post-modernist. Firstly, complete a level to reveal bonus criteria. Then, replay the level to meet them. Finally, and if you've acquired enough symbols throughout the game, consult the alethiometer to work out why.

The alethiometer is the first part of Braxx Bluff, and symbol matching. There's no explanation why it is entrusted to a liar, and setting up questions is slow. However, once running, the controls are remarkably smooth, and the idea of such a device is intriguing. I started to consider what those symbols could mean. I was invested.

Then, a further myopic design decision killed my interest. Having finally worked out one symbol, it didn't quite count, because I hadn't used the approved, dumber, method.

Involvement is constantly thwarted through rigid linearity. Finding Iorek's missing armour: after hitting every invisible wall, and noting one suspiciously uncommunicative child, the only way forward was to speak to Iorek. Child of interest became responsive, leading Lyra to a train carriage, which she then climbed automatically. This was previously off-limits, despite gliding eight feet clear of the roof.

Later, I failed to hide because I'd run too far ahead to the wrong identical hiding place.

Despite several mandatory balancing sequences, Lyra uncontrollably falls out of an airship to imprisonment. Her cell contains some suspicious patches of bare earth, which you are unable to dig until instructed by a cellmate. Who apparently dies if you check the alethiometer before returning their possession, though this isn't made clear.

The daemon forms are temperamental keys. You can only grab significant ledges, gliding areas are boxed-in, insight can't be acted upon out of sequence, and rolling matters twice.

Once it was over, I hardly knew what the people, witches, and bears were fighting about. The idea of an organisation callously using children to discover new worlds stuck, until it reminded me of something else.

The Magician's Nephew features a child-trapping uncle who dabbles with materials from another world. The female protagonist is confident, but unassuming. Characterisation highlights traits that run from the pathetic to powerful. Self-deception has consequences.

Like the books before philosophy was refined into fairy tales, there's probably something worth reading in His Dark Materials. However, it's fortunate that the films fizzled out before God could be killed via an awkward timed button sequence.

If you've never played a game or heard a story, this risks putting you off both for life.

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Uploaded 02-02-2018.