In December 2009, Disney returned to traditional 2-D animated films with "The Princess and The Frog," a take on the classic tale of a prince-turned-frog who must find his princess to turn him back into a human. While the movie wasn't quite a traditional retelling of the original tale, the infusion of a New Orleans setting provided a pretty quirky adventure with tons of original music, beautiful animation and solid voice acting that brought to mind classic Disney films of yore.
Of course, along with that film's release came the video game. Disney's The Princess and The Frog on the DS attempts to recapture some of the movie's charm, focusing most of its narrative and gameplay on the middle section of the film, which finds the main character Tiana transformed into a frog because the prince thought she was the princess he had been seeking and kissed her. For the majority of the game, you'll be stuck in your frog form, with bookend sections featuring limited gameplay as Tiana in her human form.
The gameplay is slightly reminiscent of older Disney titles from the 8- and 16-bit days. As the frog version of Tiana, you'll be involved in quite a bit of platforming, with levels broken up into chapters within a book-like presentation. Gameplay is separated into three different acts, with a prologue and epilogue to finish things off. Throughout the first act, you'll seek out a recipe for a magic gumbo to turn you and the haphazard prince into your normal selves, while the second section involves you rescuing the prince from frog hunters. While the plot changes around as you advance, the level structure doesn't take on a very different feel. Generally, you'll end up doing the same tasks, fetch quests and tricks that you learned in the first section, and the game doesn't evolve once you get beyond that point.
Once you transform into Tiana's frog form, you'll be dropped into the swamps of the bayou that surround your hometown. Here, you'll meet a variety of animals, including a firefly sidekick that'll help when you're dealing with a major enemy: the shadow creatures. The other animals, with which you can interact as you find them, will typically send you on various quests within the level and then reward you with a piece of a recipe or other item that you're seeking. Sometimes, they'll just tell you the location of the prince or other creature in the swamp, and they'll act like gates to keep you from finishing the stage until you've completed their tasks. The idea of doing these mini-quests within the stages isn't particularly bad, but after 10 levels or so, they become awfully repetitive.
A good portion of the requests involves the cooking mini-game, wherein they'll choose a recipe they want cooked, and you need to locate the three ingredients for that particular recipe. These are usually scattered all over the level, so you need to search it top to bottom to find all three. Once that's done, you need to locate the boiling pot within the level, which in turn allows you to initiate the cooking mini-game. For this, the touch-screen shows a close-up view of the boiling pot, with two meters. The one on the right signifies how hot the pot is getting, and if you let it fill up, then you lose the mini-game. To keep the pot cool, you need to blow into the mic now and then to lower the meter. The left gauge shows how much progress you've made into cooking a particular dish; once it fills up, you win the mini-game, and the recipe is finished. To play, you simply make a circle within the pot, depending on the direction of the arrow prompt. Also, you'll get cups of spices to add to the pot on occasion, which is simply done by dragging the cup over to the pot with the stylus. It's pretty simple and really difficult to mess up.
That's primarily the problem with most of the mini-game types you encounter in The Princess and The Frog. I realize that the game is made for kids, but there's little to no challenge involved when it comes to the actual mini-games, and there's a pretty large parity between the difficulty of the platforming and the rest of the stuff you have to do in game. For instance, take the music mini-game, which gives you a sample keyboard at the bottom screen with notes that scroll down each key. You would think you'd need to hit these notes in some particular order, which you can do, but it's not at all necessary. The game even tells you that jazz is all about improvisation, and because of that, it encourages you to hit whatever you want while the music is playing. You can't mess it up, there's no particular goal, and you can opt to not press anything and still bypass these sections. Without the challenge, what's the point? The music isn't particularly hot coming out of the DS speakers, the animation of the characters on-screen is downright goofy, and these sections take up time that could have been spent on more of the decent platforming levels.
While I'm all for mini-games to break up the gameplay, the ones included here are pretty unimpressive and definitely repetitive. The cooking portion remains the same no matter what you're creating, from gumbo to pigs in a blanket. If I'm putting the equivalent of hot dogs into crescent rolls, why in the world am I still stirring a pot and adding spices? It just doesn't feel like a lot of thought went into making the mini-games fun for an extended amount of time, or having them make sense within the game world. They simply feel like bullet points that the developers had to address before pushing out the game to kids.
The bigger shame is that the platforming isn't that bad — as far as licensed children's games go. In your frog form, you can wall-jump, swing from fixtures with your tongue, transform shadows into various platform types and so on. The levels are designed to be big rooms, but there's enough space for you to do a little exploring and some tricky jumps; kids will have fun with it but won't feel like they're being handheld through the quest. If the title had been developed as a straight platformer minus the mini-game events, I think it would have been a better overall experience.
As it stands, Disney's The Princess and The Frog is an adventure that's better left on the big screen. The game doesn't manage to nail any one particular aspect but just feels like an awful mishmash of designs that fall apart as you progress. The game ends up being boring, and that's pretty much the opposite of what a kids' game should do. Even if you're a big Disney fan or have a kid in your household who loved the film, I'd suggest avoiding this particular title.
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