Genre: 3D Platformer
Developer: Etranges Libellules
Release Date: January 2007
There is something faintly surreal about sitting down to a demonstration of a license game based on a very prestigious license that you've never heard of. The developers seemed to have been getting that reaction out of journalists all day, and helpfully explained exactly why I should care about Arthur and the Minimoys before they got down to the nitty-gritty of showing me the game. Since I imagine I'm not the only American who felt that way, I'll pass along this information before I get down to the nitty-gritty of talking about the game itself.
Arthur and the Minimoys is a series of four novels written by controversial French filmmaker Luc Besson. In France they're wildly popular, acting as a sort of environmentally-friendly Harry Potter for little French children. Besson has been directing and producing the animated film adaptation himself through his EuropaCorp production company. With an $85 million budget and a release planned for 40 countries, including the United States, it's by far the most ambitious European animated feature ever produced. The North American release is being handled by the Weinstein Company, and the voice acting cast stuffed full of top-name talent like David Bowie, Madonna, and Mia Farrow. Right now the film is on track for a release in January 2007, complete with an Arthur and the Minimoys marketing blitz that would include both the release of the original novels and this video game.
The film itself is touted as containing a never-before-seen blend of 2D, 3D, and rotoscoped animation, along with use of live-action footage as well. The game, however, is a pretty straight-up 3D platformer with rendered graphics. It's based primarily on the film, but draws somewhat from the novels to help flesh itself out. The built shown for this preview was the PS2, and like so many of the last-gen PS2 games, demonstrates some absolutely stunning visuals that promise good things for the accompanying PC version. In the game you control three of the movie's main characters: Arthur, a human boy who's been transformed into one of the millimeters-tall Minimoys; Princess Selenia, the sword-wielding Minimoy princess; and Max, a chubby little Minimoy who shoots enemies by blowing stuff out of a snail shell. All of the talent that's lending their voices to the film reprise their roles for the video game.
In the film, Arthur stumbles into the world of the Minimoys in his grandmother's backyard by following a magical treasure map. He wants the treasure so she'll have enough money that she won't have to sell her home. Of course, it turns out the treasure is a legend among the magical, fairy-like Minimoy people, and can only be obtained after going on a long and dangerous quest through a world full of giant killer beetles and other backward hostiles. In the game, this means teaming up with your two Minimoy friends to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. Each of the Minimoys has a particular ability you need to use to advance in the game; for instance, the world is full of thornbushes that can only be cut down by Princess Selenia's sharp blade, which opens up news paths and sometimes whole new areas. You can directly control one character at any time as the party leader, while the other two follow. It's a bit like Sora leading Goofy and Donald around in Kingdom Hearts, although your follows in Arthur and the Minimoys don't appear to be able to join in combats independently. This makes picking your lead character in various situations critical, as each of the characters has different strengths and weaknesses in combat.
While the target audience for the game is meant to be 8-12 year olds, the demo showed off some surprisingly fiendish puzzles. For many, solving them involved getting all of the Minimoys together to perform some action, like pushing a switch or jumping on a platform. Sometimes what was required involved spending some time carefully examining a particular area before trying out a certain action. The game itself gave very few clues about what should be done next, though did offer prompts for when a particular activity would require more than one character taking an action at once. The game was structured into a variety of different levels, which players have to progress through in a basically linear fashion. This usually involves having to solve puzzles or search around to find some sort of key that lets the group pass a certain door.
There's already been a comment about graphics, but it really bears repeating: this is a beautiful game, full of awesome depictions of giant insects. Just in the demo we saw a ladybug the size of a house that would carry you around a town-like level, a dragon-like earthworm that made the ground rumble as it passed, and a boss fight against some sort of vicious beetle. Environments varied wildly, from Minimoy villages to underground tunnels in topsoil, to open areas that took place in enormous forests of grass blades.
The Minimoys themselves have an unusual, almost muppet-like appearance that sometimes seem alarmingly alive in the CG, with their bodies seeming to stretch and elongate a little when Arthur does a punch combo or Selenia swings her blade. It's all very eye-catching, and reflects the movie CGI versions of the characters rather faithfully. It's hard to imagine what the PC version is going to look like when the PS2 version already has so much detail in the character models and textures.
It's hard to say whether or not America is ready to be invaded by a Minimoy merchandise blitz. Sure, as a nation we're all high on Harry Potter right now, but there's something distinctively exotic and European about the Minimoys material that's been shown off thus far. It could very well follow in the footsteps of other failed animated features like Ferngully, too wholesome and environmentally-conscious to succeed even with a star-studded celebrity voice cast. Still, at the very least, Arthur and the Minimoys is going to bring a promising little platformer into North America with it. Whether it'll be more than just a decent license platformer remains to be seen when the game hits in the New Year.