Developer: Stormfront Studios
Release Date: February 5, 2008
Though it may be a little too soon to make this kind of bold statement, we may be seeing a new era in the art of translating feature-length movies into console video games. While portable gaming systems continue to miss the mark in part due to their hardware limitations, many of the home console systems' adaptations of movies in this day and age seem to be bucking the trend of horrible transitions. It seems that translating from one format to another can be done successfully, if some effort is put into the process. The Spiderwick Chronicles is further evidence to suggest that this theory may hold water, something of a triumph in a genre populated principally by sub-par work intended to cash in on a film's success.
The Spiderwick Chronicles takes you through the story of Jared, Simon and Mallory as they move with their mother into a secluded old house, only to discover that their uncle Arthur had stumbled across an entire world of faerie folk, goblins, trolls, and other various and sundry fantastic creatures that live unseen among us. Jared discovers his uncle's workshop hidden in the attic of the house and encounters the book "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You" that meticulously details the myriad creatures that can be found if one only knows how and where to look. By doing so, he awakens the ire of the ogre Mulgarath, who wants the book to bolster his power and take over the fantastical world, as well as our own. Fans of the plot will be pleased to discover that the game's storyline follows the movie's plot with surprising accuracy, offering comparatively little variation. While particular details of the game necessitate some deviation from the plot, the main points are all still there, explored and changed into a format that allows for actual gameplay without sacrificing any of the story.
Those familiar with Sierra games of times past (King's Quest, Quest for Glory and the like) will be unsurprised to discover that you start out as Jared with absolutely nothing. You have no money, items or even a weapon with which to defend yourself. As time goes on, you are encouraged to find weapons of increasing quality, items that become relevant to the story both immediately and later, and information that will help you understand what's going on and how to deal with it. Interestingly, players are allowed to control all three children, though not at the same time; Jared is a bit of a pugilist, able to demonstrate some good athletic skills, including the repeated application of baseball bat to forehead in a series of combos that will send your foes flying. Simon is more of the intellectual type; not only will he design a short-range gun for himself (don't worry, it never runs out of ammunition), but he's also the only one capable of solving certain puzzles and otherwise proving that the kids have a brain among them. If there is a disappointment, it is Mallory, whose abilities could have been better explored; apart from the ability to disarm a foe and send him sprawling with a kick, she plays no differently than Jared, albeit without any of the charisma. Even so, her combat skills are quite appreciated, and she is the only one capable of defeating Redcap (who can only be harmed while he is not wielding a sword), although you will be doing this several times throughout the game.
Visually, The Spiderwick Chronicles has some surprising quality if you know what you're looking for. While the house seems surprisingly small for such a large estate, the yard surrounding it is expansive and worthy of exploration. The faeries glimmer perfectly, offering a tantalizing lure to capture each one. The pictures that are drawn for each are of surprising quality, and the foes and backgrounds are distinctive enough that the only time you'll wonder where you are and what you're facing is when it is the intention of the game designers that you should be a little turned around.
The sound effects are nothing to sneeze at, either; each of the children has a distinctive voice that would easily identify them even if you couldn't see the screen, and even the non-player characters have had some quality voice work done. The only flaw here is Thimbletack; after the 87th time the chatty little brownie rhymes to no one in particular, you'll find yourself perusing the guide for the "Shut Up, Thimbletack" option. (There isn't one. Trust me, I checked.) Even this is a fairly minor complaint, given the otherwise high-quality sound; monsters make a satisfying sound when you smack them down, your faerie-catching net gives an appropriate swoosh when you swing it. The different weapons even have different sounds when they impact your foes.
Gameplay is kept interesting by the fact that it is not enough for the player to be intelligent or quick; you'll need to be both, solving puzzles on the fly while being pursued by opponents and deciding when it's wise to fight and when it's better to simply take flight. If anything, that would be the big complaint about the gameplay; oftentimes, it feels like the developers ran out of interesting quandaries to throw at you and simply decided to meaninglessly spam enemies at you in lieu of actual content. Despite that complaint, even the enemy-spamming is kept interesting at times; whether it's trying to knock enemies into the grip of the lake troll so that you can safely pass or handling a goblin sniping at you from atop a rock cluster, the game likes to switch it up from time to time. Another minor complaint is the camera; it's moved by holding down the C button and tilting the Nunchuk to one side, which means that altering the camera angle and running at the same time will prove to be a difficult prospect for any gamer who hasn't grown a third hand.
The faeries that can be captured also add an interesting wrinkle to the gameplay, due to the limited number that can be retained at one time; which is more important to you, the one that restores health or the one that makes you run faster? Do you want to be invincible, or do you want to have increased weapon power? Customizing your gaming experience is almost always a good thing, and the faerie mechanic really allows for some personalization that might otherwise have been missing. The game even rewards completionists by offering boons to those who make an effort to capture every errant sprite they can, improving the effects granted based on how many of the little creature have been captured thus far. Gotta catch 'em ... um ... well, you know what I mean. It would have been nice to have greater capacity; a maximum of three captives at one time will frequently create situations where one must be released to no great benefit just to make room for another, and interesting abilities get completely overlooked in favor of faeries who will do a better job of keeping you alive.
Overall, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a fairly enjoyable experience for most anyone, whether you're a seasoned adventure gamer or someone who simply likes the movie. There is no aspect of this title that is completely perfect, but every aspect is almost completely perfect, making for a pleasant diversion whose flaws are comparatively minor and won't detract from the enjoyment of the game. Make sure that you don't miss this one!