Publisher: Buena Vista Games
Developer: Traveller's Tales
Release Date: November 15, 2005
The world of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the Xbox is the opposite of the literary and cinematic Narnia. In narrative incarnations, skittish but intrepid for a tot, Lucy Pevensie discovers an expansive, wondrous land awaiting redemption on the other side of the wardrobe. Narnia the game reduces that potential for epic adventure and high fairy tale drama to disconnected tidbits, squeezing it into tiny environments and lacing it with simplistic combat and errand-running. The sufficiently glittery frozen forest may be enough to lure some Narnia fans deep enough into the game to get a glimpse of Aslan, but the slight treatment of the Pevensie brood's story is just as likely to send more serious devotees weeping back to the bookshelf. OK, or the multiplex.
Of Minotaurs and Minoboars
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – if you've not read the books or seen the blockbuster currently snatching box office dollars from King Kong – tells the tale of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie. Retreating to the country mansion of a kindly old professor to escape Nazi bombs, the kids find an antique wardrobe that holds some old coats, yes, but also acts as a portal to the frozen land of Narnia. The White Witch, in the absence of the revered but mysterious Aslan, has bewitched Narnia with dark magic, bringing all the wintry weather and amassing an army of like-minded enforcers. When the Pevensie lot stumble out of the wardrobe, they find themselves key players in the struggle to break the White Witch's spell and restore the reign of all that is good in Narnia.
The visual treatment of this fair land doesn't reach the current-generation peak, but neither is it ineffective in rendering the deceptively pure-looking snow that conceals the dark creatures scurrying behind icicles. The Pevensies themselves are the least striking among the visuals, looking flat and animated jerkily, especially when compared to the authentically menacing pig faces of the raging Minoboars. Much movie footage fills in story gaps between the action segments, but in such great quantities, it begins to feel like a crutch rather than a treat. The score complements but does little to strengthen the presentation, feeling a bit too epic-lite to communicate the dramatic weight of the story.
If the presentation merely hints at a certain sketchiness, the gameplay quickly confirms your suspicions. Narnia bears the weight of an unholy repetitiveness. The one-trick combat and relay-race-style running back and forth are punctuated only by some frustrating pushing around of stick bundles and other busywork. A particularly maddening episode sounds good in theory: Fight off advancing wolves while keeping a pair of ghouls from toppling a rock bridge, and protect Mr. Beaver as he chews open an exit. Sounds like a challenge, but it's little more than running to the right spot to mash X, running back to the other end of the level to mash X some more, and slashing at the ghouls attacking Mr. Beaver along the way. It's an exercise in patience rather than skill.
You do learn some new abilities as you progress, including a handful of unspectacular combos and a bane for every evil – wolf, boggle and ghoul. These are easy to master and useful when battling stronger, armored enemies like Minotaurs and Minoboars, but most of the time the game offers little encouragement to use combos, as more often than not, rank-and-file enemies mob around you mindlessly, letting you pound X until they're dead. Advanced powers relating to defense and exploration are much more practical, with abilities like Susan's panpipes melodies that sometimes reveal hidden statues and other times put enemies to sleep, giving you a short respite from the unrewarding combat.
The team-up mechanic also makes and breaks a promise to add some gameplay variety. Lucy can team up with Peter, for example, to use the protective powers of her Dryad Cloak, or she can join with Susan to bring down a Rain of Fire on helpless ghouls. The combinations prove thin, though, making Lucy's ability to get slung through chunks of ice and other environmental obstacles the most useful of her skills. Edmund's team-ups suffer a similarly trivial fate through much of the game, though at least he offers an offensive rather than defensive advantage, even if his contribution is to be swung around as a weapon of blunt force. All told, few of the advantages of teaming up with your siblings compensate for the friendly AI that, when neither you nor a pal playing co-op are controlling them, tends to have your brothers and sisters shuffling around the battlefield disengaged from the enemy, seemingly confused every time you run in a different direction.
Those bits of comedy may sound like a draw in themselves, but the fun of slinging your sister through a pile of kindling wears off quickly in the face of all the menial tasks the game has in store for you. The run-and-hide segments, including a couple particularly uninspired encounters with Mrs. Macready early on, are prime examples, as are the intro-to-stealth sequences that follow later in Aslan's camp. To be fair, though, Macready's grumpiness seems justified given the amount of abuse the professor's antiques suffer as you beat on them to collect coins. And that's just a prelude to all the other coin, statue and shield collecting you must endure to purchase new powers and earn bonuses.
While the Pevensies' combat repertoire may not be particularly fun, you do have to consider who can do what to keep moving through the five-to-seven hour Narnia experience, often just to get past a pile of rocks or other similarly contrived barrier. Why, for example, when facing down a Cyclops as they're following Aslan on his somber walk to the Stone Table, must Lucy, rather than Susan, push a boulder down a slope to make a path? Well, because the boulder's only reachable through a small cave, which requires the use of one of Lucy's other skills – the ability to crawl through small caves. Never mind that she can't even walk through deep snow by herself. If you need help remembering the kids' individual skills, goofy pictures of their faces appear over the tent curtain Susan has to target with her bow, the tree Edmund has to climb, and so on.
Narnia organizes these elements into missions corresponding to events from the book and movie, cramming them into small levels that feel caught – in terms of size and structure – somewhere between actual levels and combat arenas. Protect the Beaver family, kill chief evil wolf Maugrim, knock stick bundles into giants while the interesting fighting goes on in the distance. Several levels pass before much is revealed about Aslan, so the game does have a bit of delayed gratification going for it. Narnia fans may get a modest thrill upon hearing tell of the prophecy about two Daughters of Eve and two Sons of Adam, but be warned that several tedious pathfinding and rapid-running missions still stand between you and the moment when you get to lay eyes upon the Great Lion himself. The truly dedicated may want to tape down the X button and try to reach that point, as the thaw that accompanies his appearance does lend some visual diversity to the few levels that remain.
Narnia's one standout successful element is a sense that a lot is going on around you. In fact, there does seem to be an epic in progress...somewhere. Where else are the legions of Minoboars marching beneath your rocky perch if not to a great battle in which you're not allowed to participate? The chaos never really becomes more than a nuisance as flying ghouls drop rocks to bust holes in the ice and dwarves lob arrows from the sidelines while you're trying to down an ogre. All that secondary action mostly lurks around the edges and never really follows through with much real threat or even an atmosphere of menace, but at least something appears to be happening, and this is a game where you have to take your epic where you can get it.
Beyond Good and Evil
Often discussed alongside the Lord of the Rings trilogy as fantasy literature touchstones, the Narnia stories are told in much broader, fairy-tale strokes than the Rings books, often leaving much unsaid or told in summary. Wardrobe gives more dramatic import, for example, to Aslan instructing Peter to clean his sword than to the fight that bloodied it in the first place, but it's not even an emphasis on the lesson at the expense of the action that breaks this interactive expression of the Narnia universe. Fairy tale, religious allegory about pure righteousness versus heartless evil, or charming kids' adventure yarn – no matter how you see the story in book or film form, the game feels aggressively set against its subject matter, with the occasional exception of its graphical depiction of the bewitched, frozen forests and rivers. Whether your interest in Narnia is religious, literary or both, little of the wonder that accompanies Lucy on her first trip through the wardrobe makes its way into this Xbox version of the journey.