Publisher: Buena Vista Games
Developer: Traveller's Tales
Release Date: November 15, 2005
If there's one thing that this version of The Chronicles of Narnia has taught me, it's that the Nintendo DS was easily capable of a serviceable port of X-Men Legends, and we should have gotten one, darn it all.
I'm being totally serious here. Let's go through the bullet points:
Narnia certainly looks nice enough — polygons that are just above Nintendo 64 quality roam detailed landscapes, and there's a great deal of them to boot. The four kids — Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, the star characters of the book series — are all playable (how well they play, mind you, is a different story), and all four of them are on the screen at once, hacking and slashing away at multitudes of enemies. There is very little slowdown, and what occurs only does so for a few seconds at most.
The sound chip is also put to good use — orchestra-quality music often bursts forth from it, and the sound effects, such as swords clashing against their targets, are quite convincing. The tunes make for an epic, if not all that otherwise interesting, atmosphere.
Even the use of the touch screen lends well to the game style; when characters level up, management is done via touching the bottom screen to assign attributes and special talents. Maps, upgrades, everything; it's all at your fingertips. Unless you're drawing a symbol for one of Lucy's spells, you don't even need to use the stylus, which allows for non-stop action.
There is, of course, no load time since all of this is on cartridge. We've got seamless action through and through, no matter where the kids go.
To sum up: the machine's power isn't much of an issue for this type of game, and the hardware's extra features actually give it an edge in the gameplay department. So why have Griptonite and Buena Vista Games been the first ones to really try something like this, with an awkwardly adapted franchise?
At its core, this Narnia game is a dungeon-crawler of the most generic variety. The four kids have different weapon affinities (the boys have swords, Susan arrows, Lucy a dagger) and armor types. These can be bought at shops scattered across the land. When you're not busy buying things or on a subquest for random animals, you're running around Narnia, hacking and slashing at anything from malicious wolves to the White Witch's evil henchmen and agents.
Leveling is done in typical RPG fashion, with attribute points being given to spend whenever a character gains enough experience points from killing. A somewhat novel twist in the game mechanic takes Narnia's eternal winter (the White Witch's doing) into account; if you stay outside too long, you'll become partially frozen, which drastically reduces the amount of experience you'll gain in battle unless you find a warm place to rest. The children have special abilities that can be learned and that are innate; do enough subquests and you'll be able to shatter barriers, learn magical spells, or songs for Lucy's repertoire that have a wide range of effects.
On paper, and partially in execution, this game's a winner. However, once it's in your hands, you end up trampling through repetitive areas that are easy to get lost in, and aside from some character powers based on the book, the characters really don't feel all that different. The leveling system is about as basic as you can get, and in the end, it's just very easy to get bored with this game if you take even one wrong turn.
Control is easy enough to get the hang of, but sometimes the fighting doesn't go as well as it should. It's almost impossible to tell in a fight which attack has more priority; yours or the enemy's. This can result in a lot of cheap deaths (since your party all shares the same life bar) unless you try to spam from afar with one of the long-range weapon characters. However, there's less incentive to do this, because the game rewards close-up melee combos with super-powered slashes. Wonderful.
There's also the fact that, well, aside from the last few parts of the book saga, Narnia really wasn't known for a whole lot of fighting. I'll be the first to admit that I don't exactly remember the book word for word, but at least for me, a lot of the gameplay just feels… strange, and out of place. The game follows the book's plot darn near to a fault; lots of lines are copied from it word-for-word (kudos on the Star Control II-esque dialogue system that this game sports, by the way). This means that even when the kids are supposed to be powerless and on the run, they're instead portrayed as fighters that can take on anything, and who have to in order to reach their destination. A lot of the fighting and questing seems shoehorned into the main plot simply because it's supposed to be a videogame.
Yes, the kids do eventually become warrior heroes in their own way, but using their fighting skills during most of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plot-wise, is just the slightest bit unnerving. Perhaps if the game had incorporated more role-playing and adventure aspects, and just left the fighting to the parts of the Narnia saga that had actually had them… ahh, well. I ramble now.
When all is said and done, Narnia for the DS isn't a bad game, there's just little outstanding about it. A less awkward handling of the franchise would have worked wonders in this case, as this is the game's major flaw — even then, this is a special case that's not entirely the developer's fault. It's proof that dungeon crawlers can be done and done well on Nintendo's handheld system; now, if that can just be extended to a franchise more suited to such a genre (not to mention, one that more people would actually care about, videogame-wise), then all would be right with the world.
Activision, if you can hear me: X-Men Legends DS. Please.
The groundwork's already been laid.