When we last saw the Wizards of Waverly Place on the Nintendo DS, Alex, Justin and Max were taking part in a point-and-click adventure rife with minigames and a somewhat throwaway story. It wasn't anything special for non-fans of the show to bother with, but it was good enough fare for fans. Conventional wisdom would dictate that you'd hire the same studio for the sequel to create the same type of game, but Disney Interactive decided to do things differently this time around. Wizards of Waverly Place: Spellbound is more adventure than minigame, and it's a decent game overall.
The plot fits well with the series. It's a week until the Wizard Fashion Show, and Alex has been working to get the right dress ready for the competition. After a class at Wizard School, however, her dress has gone missing. With the help of her brothers and some magic spells, she must find her dress, discover who nabbed it in the first place, and complete it before the big competition.
If there's one thing that fans will love about the plot, it will be its adherence to the TV show's mannerisms. The dialogue, while not written by the writers of the show, manages to retain its humor, which isn't exactly highbrow stuff but is funny enough for its fans. The character portrayals are also spot-on, so it never feels like any aren't behaving true to form. There are even the quirky transition scenes thrown in for good measure. These little touches make this title feel like a bigger, more faithful production than its predecessor.
Like before, the game's story is split into five different but cohesive episodes with an emphasis on adventure and spell-casting instead of just minigames. Playing mostly as Alex but taking control of Max and Justin in a few levels, you'll mostly traverse from area to area learning spells and using them to locate your dress and its thief. You won't exactly spend your time talking with each person you meet, but there is plenty of dialogue in the game, and you won't spend your time examining every possible nook and cranny. Instead, you'll be charged with a few tasks, such as rounding up hamsters or driving people away from a park. You'll also engage in a few puzzles, such as tailing vampires while remaining unseen and blocking off doors so you can use other magical artifacts. Along the way, you can also find spell pages, which unlock different outfits for Alex to wear as you play.
The emphasis on the adventure aspect of the story doesn't mean that Spellbound has abandoned minigames. One could even say that the minigames have gotten better this time around. The minigames — running a hamster through a maze, participating in vampire chases, playing a lite version of Diner Dash, etc. — feel more substantial than the ones in the previous game. They're also more difficult due to the presence of timers and pits to halt your progress. Of course, the standard D-Gamer rewards and spell pages are given out during these minigames, so players still have an incentive to play them. In the end, the minigames are just as enjoyable as the adventure, and they break up the pacing of the main adventure in a good way.
One aspect that's meant to challenge players ends up backfiring, though: the presence of watchers. In Spellbound, watchers are meant to stop you from using magic without proper supervision; each level becomes a challenge because you don't want to get caught and restart a sequence. The problem is that the watchers can see you from any distance, even if you're off-screen. It doesn't mean that it's impossible for players to complete tasks in their presence, but it makes it much more difficult for the target audience to progress in a few areas when they constantly get caught but can't see a watcher on-screen. This is especially bothersome in some cases where the warning indicator doesn't go off until the magic spell animation is in effect, so a penalty for using magic becomes inevitable.
Once you finish the main game, you have more content in the form of minigame challenges. The minigame challenges are only available once you finish each episode and previously opened challenge, but they are similar to the ones you played in the main adventure. However, instead of running through mazes or serving up customers, you'll often be employing your magic spells to get through each challenge. None change after you complete them, and the only replay value is in attempting to get better times. The clothing rewards are certainly worth it, though, for those who are heavily invested in Disney Interactive's D-Gamer service.
Surprisingly, the controls aren't that cumbersome. The d-pad is the only button set used on the system, and it's used to move your chosen wizard around the screen. Everything else is handled by the touch-screen in a fairly intuitive manner. To bring up a list of spells, you have to touch your selected wizard, select the spell from the radial menu and drag it to the selected object. Despite sounding a tad complicated, it's actually quite easy to manipulate and much better than the original game's magic system. There's never a time when the controls feel unresponsive, so the game is a good fit for the younger crowd.
The graphical style is much different than before, and it comes with some benefits and drawbacks. The art style still follows the bobblehead style from the previous game, but this time around, it's done in a fully polygonal world instead of a sprite-based one. The facial caricatures are the same as before, though they're still static smiling faces instead of animated ones. Environments feel more alive due to the presence of constantly moving bystanders, and the locales look decent despite the low-resolution textures. If there's anything that looks off, it would be the walking animations for every character. They're fluid but look unnatural; a few more frames of animation could have fixed this problem.
Not too many DS games from Disney feature sound as their strong point, and this game is no exception. The music isn't bad, but it doesn't exactly evoke the feeling of the TV show. It feels more at home with any other adventure game, but it isn't grating to the point that you'd rather turn down the volume. While the music doesn't stay in line with the TV show, it's the lack of voices that will cause fans to sigh when they realize that they are missing. Like the previous title, none of the cut scenes are voiced, and there isn't even a sampling of voice snippets for any parts of the game. With the system that's capable of providing voice acting, it's a shame that this title lacks it.
Wizards of Waverly Place: Spellbound is a surprisingly decent adventure game. The puzzles are clever, and though the game is meant for younger players, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's too easy for them. The minigames are quite fun, and the game captures the spirit of the show rather well. It still doesn't offer enough to rope in those who aren't fans of the show, but it provides a solid gaming experience for fans.
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