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The Golden Compass

Platform(s): Nintendo DS, PC, PSP, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: SEGA

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NDS Review - 'The Golden Compass'

by Aaron "Istanbul" Swersky on Feb. 1, 2008 @ 4:05 a.m. PST

The Golden Compass follows the screenplay adaptation of the first book in the acclaimed trilogy, capturing the exciting fantasy adventure set in a parallel world where giant armoured bears rule a kingdom, beautiful witches fly through the frozen skies, and human beings’ deepest essence is manifest as talking animals that remain their faithful companion for life – their daemon.

Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Shiny Entertainment
Release Date: December 4, 2007

At the risk of making too general of a statement, it is commonly accepted wisdom that conversions from format to format don't tend to work out very well. Books make bad movies, comic books make bad movies, and — here's the crucial part — movies almost universally wind up being bad video games. There are exceptions, of course; Chronicles of Riddick and Ratatouille are fine examples of what movie-based video games could be, but more often than not, developers will drop the ball and churn out a substandard product in hopes of capitalizing on the success of a recent movie. Movies that are intended to be the first part of a trilogy should, by that rationale, be exempt from that particular albatross weight; after all, if you know you're going to make sequels, what's the harm in doing a good job with the video game? Shiny Entertainment and Sega drop the ball on this count, producing a sub-par version of The Golden Compass for the NDS that looks like it was churned out at the last minute.

The title starts out with a rudimentary tutorial, explaining the various functions of the game: how to get our heroine to leap, throw stones, balance on beams and utilize her daemon Pantalaimon (Pan, in the interest of brevity) to solve various puzzles and fight opponents. In this way, the title immediately shoots itself in the foot because mechanics like these really ought to be hidden. Let's cover these subjects sequentially, to explain.

In leaping and running, Lyra proves herself to be a direct descendant of the Prince of Persia, and I'm not talking about the rather splendidly done sequels that popped up on last-generation consoles not so very long ago. No, I'm referring to the clunky, unresponsive originals that were done on the PC back before things like responsive controls and cohesive timing were standard fare.

While it is understood that Lyra is just a regular girl, the brutally honest truth is that average people make for fairly boring and unskilled heroines, and this one is no exception. Controlling Lyra is painful, her leaps unresponsive and her reactions poorly timed. This painful design flaw carries over into her attempt to throw stones; the enemies are fast enough, and Lyra's wind-up and pitch slow enough, that the unfortunate player will almost certainly find himself struck down before landing a hit.

The balance beams are, by contrast, too simple. A good running leap can clear almost an entire beam in one go, and while actually walking across one apparently brings out the young girl's geriatric side, she evidently has no problem landing on a beam from a running leap without being bisected. Finally, poor Pan carries most of the weight in this particular adventure. Whether scouting ahead in insect form, doing battle in feline form or flying to pick items up in bird form, the little daemon apparently has more in common with a workhorse than any other kind of animal.

The Golden Compass doesn't fare any better in the audio/visual category. The still shots of the characters are pixelated, if recognizable, which would be tolerable if it were 1992. The real eyesores are the actual play graphics. These polygonal nightmares are reminiscent of first-run PlayStation 1 titles, with faces and animations missing and very little detail placed in the background apart from the most rudimentary of indicators — and those are the larger sprites. Once you start shape-changing your daemon, you realize why a picture of his current form has been pasted on the upper-right portion of the screen: He is often so small and nondescript that you wouldn't be able to tell his current form at a glance without glimpsing at the corner of the screen. Audio is tolerable, with mildly convincing music reminiscent of a high-quality Game Boy Advance title offering checkpoint sounds, death music (you will be hearing this a lot), and otherwise trying desperately to drag this title (kicking and screaming) from utter and total failure.

The little extras thrown into this title do very little to improve its value to any gamer worth his salt. The alethiometer is little more than a fancy Ouija board, except that the user does nothing more than drag the compass's various hands to different pictures, then tap the question mark sign to find out what they mean. This is yet another affront to the movie and book; the alethiometer is intended to be difficult to read and impossible to influence, a sort of a mystical device that cannot be deliberately manipulated in order to achieve desired results. After all, it wouldn't be a very good truth-teller if you could just make it say whatever you wanted it to say, would it? Collectibles are strewn throughout the game in the form of sky iron, photograms and additional forms for Pan, but most of them are sufficiently easy to discover that they add little to the title's quality, instead pointing even more blatantly to the notion that this game was conceived over the course of a weekend, with little thought used to account for accuracy or creativity.

It is a great disappointment that The Golden Compass for the NDS should be so sub-par. There was a great deal of design space to be explored here, an engaging story to explore and a level of intrigue that could have made for an exemplary title, but it was cast aside in favor of a quick buck, a game that fails on all fronts except as a lure for the unsuspecting fan to shell out a few precious dollars in hopes that The Golden Compass will even passingly resemble either the book or the movie (which I liked, thank you) in terms of quality. The misuse of such potential is a great failing, and while I am generally unfamiliar with the works of Shiny Entertainment, I expect more from Sega. The plot is centered around Dust ... and that's just what this title should collect.

Score: 5.0/10


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