Release Date: November 10, 2004
Just as a note before we get rolling here: The Gamecube version of the Series of Unfortunate Events game is completely different from the PC edition.
Back when famous children's book author Roald Dahl died in 1990, his soul split into five parts and spread across the Earth, looking for suitable host bodies to carry on the spirit of his writing (and perhaps, one day, come together to form Voltron). One of these pieces has surfaced in J.K. Rowling, who at least at first seemed to be carrying on the 'mean-spirited family oppresses intellectual lad' torch Roald used in several of his writings. Luckily, another piece has recently fallen into the lap of Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket. His 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' novels are sharp-witted and silly in a fine Dahl-esqe fashion, enjoyed by adults and children alike, and (in the case of the first three books) are currently in theaters in adapted form.
Oh. Also, there's a game version. This is a review of it. Let's get moving on that, shall we?
The lives of the Baudelaire children have been pretty rough, all things told. Klaus, Violet, and Sunny used to be three perfectly happy children, until the unpleasant business with the house fire that converted them from the Baudelaire family into the Baudelaire orphans. Klaus, the eldest child, loves to read, and he remembers every bit of information he finds out that way. Violet is more of the creative type. A natural inventor, she can take a handful of household objects and MacGyver them together into pretty much anything that needs making. Meanwhile, young infant Sunny just likes to chew on stuff. She can gnaw through anything from wood to metal, which is really impressive when you consider she only has four teeth.
The game picks up just as the children are being sent to live with Count Olaf, the world's least subtle evil villain. He has them at work doing chores (gasp!) almost instantly. The little things, y'know. Cleaning out rats larger than their heads, hunting spiders bigger than the rats, and hiking through the flooded pantry to find dinner ingredients. It soon comes out that Olaf wants them dead for financial reasons. (Namely, so he can inherit their parent's fortune from them.) To make a long story short, the children are shuttled between Olaf, their good hearted Uncle Monty the reptile collector, and their hyper-paranoid and grammar-loving Aunt Josephine.
Olaf never does leave them alone, though. He keeps showing up in disguise. Luckily, the children are smart enough to set new Seeing Through a Bad Disguise land speed records whenever he does. Now, if they could just get someone else to believe them, they might be on to something.
Enough plot. A Series of Unfortunate Events is actually a pretty good game for what it is, which is a movie tie-in aimed squarely at the 'age eight and up' set. All of the really good parts are lifted from the film itself, it becomes very obvious when the game is incorporating hunks of filler to pad out the length. The other interesting thing is that without the filler parts, this game would be about three hours long. As it is, it's padded out to about six hours of straight playtime total with a little more tacked on if you want to harvest all of the extra unlockable bits.
By and large most of what you'll be doing in Unfortunate Events is racing around the home of whoever is playing guardian to the orphans at the time, collecting small shiny objects (used to unlock secrets in the gallery) and completing mission objectives. The mission objectives range from things like simply wiping out of the rats in Count Olaf's house, to sending Sunny crawling through a hole in the wall to collect an item for Violet's latest invention, to diving and leaping through Uncle Monty's hedge maze on a quest to retrieve his lost snakes.
Violet's inventions tend to keep the game moving forward, as each challenge seems to require a new tool be built to cope with it. I'd estimate about a third of the game is spent on gathering up various items for her to build things out of, while another third is using her inventions to progress. (The last third is A Series of Unfortunate Jumping Puzzles.)
Aside from the platforming segments, there's also a heaping helping of odd little mini-games to play. These things are where the programming staff cut loose with the weirdness... or maybe the original author did, I'm honestly not sure. Either way, you'll end up playing a sealed-shut grand piano to death using a tune helpfully provided by Klaus in a PaRappa-style button hitting mini-game, rearranging library books for Count Olaf's neighbor in search of a cookbook, and playing a quasi-Virtua Cop style shooting game in which you fend off Olaf's henchmen. They are armed with tomatoes; you are armed with a gun that shoots stale peppermints at high velocity. As a follow-up, keep the deadly Lake Lachrymose Leeches off Aunt Josephine using the same weapon. Fun for the whole slightly deranged family! There are also a number of levels I hesitate to call mini-games, but don't consider proper levels of their own, scenes where you control Sunny in a side-scrolling jump-and-slide fest.
Speaking of Count Olaf's henchmen, these are the source of the boss battles in the game, which are sort of tedious to be honest. Part of the problem might be that Olaf, being the cheapskate that he is, clearly opted to pick up the Bargain Basement Jumbo Pack of Reusable Evil Henchmen, because you end up fighting the same guys four or five times before they go away for good. There are a pair of White Faced Women, a Bald Man, a Guy With Hooks... these are the only designation the game gives them. Each has a gimmick, and once you've fought them and worked it out once they don't mix things up for the next encounter.
That kind of leads me to the major complaints I have with Unfortunate Events, the game is both a little too easy and a little too short. I've mentioned the length of the thing before, so let me explain what I mean by too easy. Most combat challenges in the game are surmountable by sending out Violet, who has the Fruit Flinger 'gun', and whaling on the fire button like a cymbal-clapping monkey. For fights where you have to use Klaus, who's armed with the short-range Brilliant Bopper, you can often use the helicopter shoes Violet made for him to glide back and forth out of the way of attacks before lunging in and smacking the bad guys silly. These two strategies will see you nicely through almost all of the game.
To those major problems, you can add a couple of minor ones. The framerate in this game gets really quite choppy and sticky-feeling as you rotate the camera in any place more complex than an enclosed room, and there are a good number of locations like that towards the end of the game. Additionally, a number of goals don't really provide the clearest of instructions as to where to go and what to do. I spent about a half hour wandering around one room looking for what to do next, when it turned out there was a small hole next to a door I had to stuff Sunny into so she could open the way to progress. Also, Klaus and Violet have oddly slippery feet; getting them to make a solid landing anywhere near the edge of a platform is just a no luck proposition. (Drat that Polygon Grease.)
So why would you play this game, exactly?
In style and tone this is one of the closest other media-to-game adaptations I've ever played. If you're a fan of Lemony Snicket's work and young enough to be challenged by this game, you can't go wrong picking it up, and even experienced gamers will want to hang around and listen to the clever dialogue being tossed around.
Tim Curry fills in doing the voice of narrator Lemony Snicket, and he does a fine job being dry, sharp-witted and, well... Tim Curry. The narrator always has an appropriate comment for whatever you've just failed to do, full of misery and woe and snark. To add to the funniness, some of the unlockables have a heavy splash of humor as well. ("Uncle Olaf's Story Hour" in particular is a hoot.) While I'm on the subject of the movie cast, Jim Carrey turns up to do Olaf's voice and he's actually bearable to listen to, the kids are all played by their respective movie actors. Music is incidental and repetitive. I can't really remember most of the music from this game; nothing sticks in your head for later. Sound effects get the job done, but no more.
On the visual front, this is a cool looking universe. It's obvious that the development staff for the game spent a lot of time looking at the movie sets; they have the same very slightly Dr. Seuss-styled cast to their houses and landscapes. The between level cutscenes are done in a style I find quite pleasing, hand-drawn while you watch in dark, Tim Burtony-looking sketch-ins that tie the material to the book illustrations. Each of the characters resembles the movie actors nicely, although the models are rather simplistic compared to the PC version. Generally, the visuals don't offer anything surprising, although there are a few sequences that stand out as impressive. A scene where you're escaping from a crumbling house in the middle of a hurricane makes for a good example of both excellent graphics and gameplay, as the boards of the house crumble and random scenery becomes hurtling weapons, tossed at you by the wind before spiraling off into the lake miles below.
On the whole, this is a pretty good start for the series. Inevitably, there will be more Lemony Snicket based movies, and of course, there will be tie-in games. If they build off the base they've got going here, those could be pretty fun in their own right, but this is really best left to die-hard fans to play through.
Still, hey, if you're really bored this makes a good source for your USDA of Tim Curry, improbable inventions, and children who are refreshingly smart. You can't go wrong there.
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