Pixar's latest story is hitting multiple media formats this week, with the film debuting in theaters on Friday and the video game already available for purchase on your console of choice. While Brave (the video game) may not be the most innovative title in terms of gameplay, it is perfectly suited to both casual players and families with kids.
Brave follows the adventures of princess Merida, an impetuous teenager who is desperate to avoid getting married. Clashing with her mother, Queen Elinor, Merida has a local witch cast a spell in order to "change her fate." Alas, the spell ends up turning Merida's mother and brothers into bears and the only way to reverse the damage is for the young princess to defeat the cursed bear Mor'du and restore peace to the land.
What's interesting about the plot that drives the game is that while it is inspired by the film, it does not mirror what you'll see on the big screen. Instead, the game reinterprets the story for the better. In many ways, the characters and plot that unfold on the small screen have more depth (and development) than those on the big screen.
The game starts shortly after Elinor has been turned into a bear. She runs from the castle, with Merida in pursuit. For the majority of the game, you'll be playing as Merida, though there are short interludes within each level where you take control of Elinor and wreak havoc in bear form. Elinor is much less mobile than Merida, but she makes up for her lack of mobility in sheer power. Elinor can dish out damage just as well as she can take it. It's sort of like playing as a living wrecking ball.
Merida isn't as strong as her mother, though she does have the advantage of using weapons. As in the film, Merida's primary weapons are a sword and a bow. The sword serves as the melee weapon, while the bow is your ranged attack.
Fans of twin-stick shooters will appreciate how the bow is implemented here, as it is more or less done Smash TV style. The left analog stick moves Merida, while the right stick fires her bow. This allows you to fire in any direction at any time, which is a necessity on the harder difficulty levels.
Adding to Merida's arsenal are the magic attacks (and skill upgrades) that can be purchased from the witch. The ground stomp sends out a shockwave; the power shot massively increases the damage done by your arrows for a short period of time; and the charge shot allows you to fire a single, magic-imbued arrow. The properties of the charge shot depend on which of the four magic charms you have selected at the time.
Earth, Fire, Ice and Wind are the four charms in the game. An earth-based charge shot sends out little minions to fight for you, while the fire charge shot sets off an area-of-effect blast. The wind charge shot pushes back your enemies and the ice charge shot freezes a single enemy in place. Using the power shot and charge shot is optional on the default difficulty level; however, they are necessities on the hardest difficulty. Unfortunately, this highlights one of the more annoying flaws in the game.
Casual players and kids are likely to play Brave at the default difficulty. Here, you don't need to use the upgrades to survive. Yes, players will likely purchase some and make good use of them, but they are purely optional. As a result, the in-game economy is balanced with that in mind. To completely unlock all of the upgrades will require playing through the game around two to three times. It's basically a forced grind fest at that point.
Also annoying from a hardcore standpoint is the lack of a New Game Plus mode. Going through the game more than once on the quest to unlock everything wouldn't be that bad if you could play through it on normal with your kids and then start over again on the hardest difficulty with your existing unlocks intact. Nope, if you start a new game, ALL past progress is lost. Even the concept art unlocks on the main menu are locked up again when you start a new game.
From the perspective of a casual gamer, Brave is perfectly balanced in terms of difficulty. Coming at it on the default difficulty, the challenge is focused on solving the puzzles and exploring the environment. Enemies are still an obstacle, but they are easily dispatched and don't cause too much hassle.
Brave also excels as a family-friendly game due to its co-op mode. In co-op, player one takes control of Merida, while player two games as a Wisp. The Wisp has the advantage of unlimited lives and the ability to instantly warp to Merida's location at any time. In short, whoever is playing as the Wisp is a support character who never has to worry about seeing a "game over" screen. Can't make a jump? Just tap a button to reappear at Merida's side. Get knocked out? Wait a few seconds, and you're back in the action. It's a perfect setup for situations where one player is really good, but the second player can't quite hold his or her own.
Lengthwise, Brave provides somewhere around four to five hours of gameplay on your first run-through. Because the eight levels are linear, there isn't a whole lot of replay value outside of achievements. Brave doesn't even support leaderboards, which is an unfortunate oversight. Simply having a score or time to beat for each level would have provided an easy replay incentive.
The console versions of Brave feature a bonus archery minigame, which appears on the main menu if you have the appropriate hardware (PS Move on PlayStation 3 or Kinect on Xbox 360). The three minigames are Quick Draw, Quiver Limit and Survival. Quick Draw has you firing as fast as possible. Quiver Limit has you shooting targets with a limited number of arrows. Survival has you shooting an unlimited number of targets. Doing well at the minigames nets you gold, which can be used for purchasing upgrades. They're neat to play through once or twice, but if you never see them, it's not a big loss.
Ultimately, Brave's biggest sticking point is the lack of replay value. Unlike last year's Cars 2, which had plenty to keep young players busy, once you've beaten Brave, the only reason to go back is to unlock the remaining achievements. As a result, if you're buying it on consoles (with a $50 MSRP), your best option is to rent or wait for a sale. It's a fun experience, but unless you have kids who "need it now," it's difficult to justify full price for what is on offer.
Editor's Note: Be sure to check out our movie review of Brave.
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