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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

I like fantasy and computer games. There's an abundance of both, but most leave me cold. In an attempt to pin down those interests, and summarise what's worth playing, here's the first in a series of three games which transported me to magical lands. With varying success.

For fair comparison, I am reviewing the PS2 version of each, as played from start to finish on a real console. All screenshots are emulated through PCSX2 using software rendering.

It's hard to fault the service on this first flight of fancy. Shame about the destination.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe arrived in a knackered case, but the previous owners liked it enough to care for the disc. It's not a bad game, just a bad Narnia game.

The problems start with a film I haven't cared to watch. Glimpses suggest a minor scuffle between literature and Peter Jackson's accountant, resolved by mixing characters that mean something with fights that don't. The game doubles down on the fighting, though artfully hides the trick that makes it especially pointless.

I admire the opening as a statement of intent. The concept, smashing furniture for coins in the middle of The Blitz, deals mercifully swift heartbreak, then the developers focus their attention on bringing a touch of horror and panic to Finders Keepers. Swift pacing and impressive effects distract from the stupidity of looting an inconsistently-burning house.

Lowered expectations rise as the next level begins. The atmosphere is mellow, with time to admire the scenery and roll around on a giant snowball. Then one barrier later, the largely ineffectual hordes are released, and Narnia becomes merely a scene for constant danger. Sibling-bowling wolves to death is fun, but not really in the spirit of the book.

If you like to try the unexpected, prepare for further disappointment. The snowball can be ridden to, but not over, a snowdrift obstacle. Puzzles and solutions are rarely far apart, and mostly about choosing the right character. The cues are clear, so frustration is rare, but so is satisfaction.

Then, a jaunt through a country house suggests that the rhythm may be more than beatings repeating. Though linear, it's craftily arranged to feel like exploring, and even has a slight twist on mandatory crate destruction. Bats attack, possibly through fear of boredom, but that aside it feels like taking part in the story.

Back in Narnia, most of the book is wasted. There's no space for the thrill of discovery, or fear of being lost. The secret police are swapped for a stream of petty irritations, with no cosy moments of respite.

The levels are punctuated by clips from the movie. These usually finish with a cross-fade to the game's character models, carefully posed and framed for a smooth visual transition. Such consistency is in stark contrast to the narrative mess resulting from constant danger.

The children are eager to explore, despite narrowly escaping a wolf pack on their previous visit. The White Which grooms Edward, then launches an all-out assault before that plan can come to fruition. With her intentions clear, there's no reason for betrayal. With children handily taking out her armies, there's no need for Aslan.

The epitome of word-pummeling is the showdown between Peter and the wolf captain. This is the first fight in the book, and a correspondingly swift, confused, awkward mess. The game already spills wolves from bushes by the dozen, so there's farce dressed as drama.

After some more regulation wolf multi-packs, Susan, the ranged character, is obliged to hide up a tree. Peter must then endure rounds of respawning health and uninterruptible attacks, until automatically knocked to the ground. Susan comes back down, bow malfunction presumably sorted, and it all keeps going long after involvement is dead.

Interest in what happens next comes to rely on constant, frantic pacing. Once that falters, any daft premise comes into focus. The boss fight isn't unusually stupid, but seems that way for dragging on so long.

You're unlikely to be surprised by joy. There's no chance to appreciate the transition from winter to spring, and no point in Christmas gifts which are also disposable pickups. There's no post-resurrection playfulness, no relief while liberating captives, and no opportunity to explore Narnia after the fighting's over.

As a game of attacking that which attacks, it's fine. The controls are responsive, the action is clear outside of the odd monster mash, and there's usually enough room to manoeuvre. There are light tactical moments, little intermissions between fights, and some brutal failure scenes give death more impact than a few hundred grunts can muster.

It runs smoothly, free of technical distractions. Weighty animation makes the ludicrous combos and team-up attacks believable, and it's a shame that there's rarely time to appreciate the scenery. If you don't care why things are happening, it's quite easy to go with the flow, and a baseline of polish hides the main mechanical flaw.

There's no finesse, no reason to play well. The designers admit as much, spawning recovery items when health falls below a fixed threshold. Paying for upgrades, aside from being grossly unfitting, mostly feels an obligation to keep pace with monster resilience.

It eventually feels wrong as a single player game too, due to your elegantly thick assistants. The uncontrolled children knock monsters back, but don't actually hurt them. This works for keeping melee mobs at bay, but not as reliable cover from ranged damage.

Worse, some monsters are immune to anything but bundles of sticks being rolled in their direction. Positioning is slow, fiddly, and leaves you defenceless, so it's a matter of luck if you're kept safe long enough to line up the necessary shots.

Story aside, the biggest disappointment is the final battle. It's a great concept: every turned-to-stone ally you mark in the earlier levels is freed to help you in the climatic showdown. Sadly, they merely fund weak smart-bomb specials, so it's far more efficient to wade in and beat out a steady supply of health drops.

Ignoring the source material, this a reasonable diversion, especially for two players. It's polished, with a touch of variety between fights, that were good enough to largely hold my attention until the final third. There's some excellent use of animated sprites, giving the impression of huge armies in the background as you fight much smaller groups.

If you care for the book, this is more Friday night aggro than Narnia. However, through their skill and dedication to ridiculous concepts, Traveller's Tales have sprinkled some of their own wonder into this waste of talent.

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Uploaded 26-01-2018.