Developer: Stormfront Studios
Release Date: February 5, 2008
Nothing strikes fear into a gamer's heart quite like the phrase "licensed movie game." Those three words, when used together, are basically synonyms for abysmal, awful, dreadful and terrible. Indeed, Ever since E.T.: The Game, movie-based titles seem to have the ability to crash and burn harder than pretty much anything else. That's why, when an honest-to-goodness decent licensed game comes out, it is cause for celebration. Well, break out the streamers and prepare the feast, because The Spiderwick Chronicles is a truly fun, simple, family-friendly game.
The story of The Spiderwick Chronicles parallels that of the recently released movie, which is in turn based on Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's book series. Following a messy divorce, the Grace children (Mallory, Jared and Simon) move with their mom to their great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick's abandoned mansion. Jared, being the adventurous sort, begins exploring the house and soon stumbles upon his great-uncle's secret laboratory, as well as a mysterious "Field Guide" that is filled with drawings and descriptions of all sorts of fantastical creatures. All is not well, though, as there are evil goblins in the forest, led by the nefarious ogre Mulgrath, who wishes to steal the guide and use it to conquer the world. The children, thanks to a special stone lens, are the only ones who can see into the invisible world, so it's now up to the Grace children to put a stop to Mulgrath's plans and unravel the mystery of Arthur's disappearance.
The title is heavy on exploration, with early missions mainly centering around coming up with the parts necessary to construct useful items and weapons that will be needed in the battles to come. These opening levels familiarize you with the game's mechanics and introduce each character's particular skills and tactics. The early missions also bring you in contact with Thimbletack, a "Brownie" who helps the children find important items that are hidden in the very small spaces only he can reach. While the kids' missions consist mainly of exploration and combat, Thimbletack's trials mainly involve platforming, with some light puzzle aspects thrown in. Also, whenever he makes a comment, he speaks in rhyming couplets, most of which are quite cute and clever. Since the title caters to a mainly younger crowd, the gameplay is simple, and the missions are relatively straightforward. Every item you need to find to complete an objective is listed on your quest screen, and you are always given the character best suited to perform the task at hand. What separates this game from so many mediocre titles is that everything is executed very well, and it manages to be fun no matter what age you are.
While the gameplay is pretty great in The Spiderwick Chronicles, it's still not perfect, and could leave a few players frustrated. Most missions aren't explained very well, and as you progress into the later stages, it's hard to know where you should be heading next. For example, near the end of the game, I was told I had to find a certain tree in order to sneak behind a goblin attack. However, no one bothered to tell me that the route to the tree was blocked off, and I had to find one particular sprite that could open the way. There was no mission prompting, cut scene or helpful NPC to fill me in on this critical piece of mission data, leading to a bit of frustration and a trip over to GameFAQs to figure out why I couldn't get to the stupid tree I could see just on the other side of some grass.
The sprites themselves are a good idea featuring bad execution. The Spiderwick Chronicles handles power-ups by giving you a net and allowing you to catch sprites in the forest. Some restore health, while others temporarily boost your attack or speed. Unfortunately, every time you catch a sprite, you have to go through a minigame where you paint it using watercolors. Furthermore, battle is not paused while you're painting, so if you desperately need that health sprite to heal your wounds as the enemies surround you, you're likely out of luck. I would have been fine with the painting mechanic if it had been restricted to the first time you catch a sprite of any particular species, but it just keeps happening, which adds a layer of unnecessary frustration.
Also, I hope you're good with directions, as the game doesn't feature any sort of map. You'd think that any Field Guide worth its salt would contain some sort of map, but that's just not the case here. At any rate, be prepared to run around in circles wondering if you've been down that path before, as it's pretty easy to lose your bearings in the forest.
The one other issue that should be noted is that The Spiderwick Chronicles is short. You can complete the whole quest in about five hours, with another five or so tacked on to get all of the achievements. However, I can't really hold the game's brevity against it, as it's made for a younger audience, and the gameplay would likely get stale if it kept on for 40 hours. As is, it's probably the perfect length, but just know how short it is before you buy. I'd strongly recommend renting this one, unless someone in your house is a really big fan of the book series or the film.
The title is visually solid, with nice character models and smooth animation carrying the day. There are a few weird graphical glitches here and there, but nothing so severe as to really bug you. Also, including scenes from the movie along with narration is a very nice touch, as most people would rather watch the actual scene from the film than sit through the digitally animated version. This one isn't going to really show off your HD set, but it still looks good enough to remain aesthetically pleasing.
The music and sound are also fairly good, with a few shortcomings that sometimes annoy. The basic music is fine, and the sound effects of squishing a goblin are great, but the voice acting could use some work. Jared, in particular, delivers most lines with a flat, wooden, uninterested tone — one that makes you believe they woke up the kid who's voicing the part at 4 a.m. on a summer Saturday and forced him to sit and run lines all day. Come on, man, this isn't Shakespeare; it's not that hard to eke out just a little emotion.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by The Spiderwick Chronicles, and I'd easily recommend it to anyone who has kids who are fans of the book series or the movie, or anyone who just wants to sit down and play a quick, simple adventure title. While this isn't likely to be the most intense or challenging game you've ever played, it still manages to be quite a lot of fun. Besides, you owe it to yourself to play at least one movie licensed game that doesn't suck, and if history is any guide, this may be the only title that fits the bill this year.