Retelling the story of “The Golden Compass” — with all its twists, turns and dense mythology — in videogame form is a near-impossible task, which makes it mystifying why Sega tried . But while it fails as a storytelling vehicle, “The Golden Compass” stands as an example of family gameplay done right, thanks to a well balanced mix of action and exploration that’s accessible to kids without insulting older players. Despite the film’s soft opening, Sega should be able to find a decent-sized aud of loyal “Compass” fans, though the confusing storytelling will alienate those who don’t already know how to read an alethiometer.
The trend in movie-to-game adaptations these days is to come up with a new story that’s a prologue or tangent to the film. That not only gives players an original experience but lets developers craft a story that best fits the gameplay, rather than the other way around. “The Golden Compass” takes the old-school approach, however, and to very poor results. Despite some original narration, a confusing mélange of live-action cut scenes taken from the movie and new animated ones leave players mystified as to why young heroine Lyra is kidnapped from her home in London, where she travels on a mysterious blimp, and what she’s doing with a compass that can answer any question. Even worse, the game appropriates the vocabulary of Philip Pullman’s best-selling novel with no explanation, leaving the uninitiated to scratch their heads over references to Tartars, Gyptians and Gobblers.
It doesn’t help that, for no good narrative reason, the first level is an action scene with Iorek the bear that actually takes place two-thirds of the way through the story. Flash-forward helps the pacing of the gameplay, which is rather slow for the first few hours, but only adds to the story confusion.
Luckily, understanding the plot is optional for enjoying the game. A fixed camera — while occasionally frustrating — makes it easy to tell where Lyra is supposed to go at every step. And though there is a lot of hand-holding, “The Golden Compass” is still filled with a deep and varied array of challenges that work smoothly.
Early levels focus on exploration, with Lyra searching for clues, navigating through environmental challenges with a particular focus on balance, and tricking adults into giving her information she needs by winning a series of minigames. Wisely, designers didn’t attempt to make Lyra into a martial arts master. The most violent she gets is rolling out of the way of attacking adults. Action with Lyra primarily involves her daemon Pan, who can turn into any of four animals that help her fly, climb or swing. Wide variety of moves that can be done with Pan keep the Lyra levels fresh without sacrificing the believability that a young girl can pull off amazing stunts.
Lyra also has to sometimes use her compass to answer questions. Those interested in decoding the device’s 36 symbols, each with three meanings, can do so with logic and brainpower. But kids who just want to speed things along will appreciate that some decent videogame skills will also get the compass to cough up an answer.
Later in the game, Lyra begins riding on the back of her bear protector Iorek, who slashes and tosses enemies with several different grappling moves. Just when it seems like Iorek won’t do more than fend off an endless army of spear-throwing Natives and flying witches, however, developers shake things up with a combat sequence against another bear that involves new moves and timed button sequences. This intense battle in “The Golden Compass’” penultimate level is the most thrilling moment of the game and helps to make up for a disappointingly abrupt final sequence.
Visuals are particularly strong for a family game made on a deadline. Characters are impressively detailed, environments are unique, and little details like the way Pan bounces on Lyra’s back as she rides Iorek demonstrate that developer Shiny Entertainment didn’t just crank this one out.
Only problem with the audio is, ironically given how slavishly the game follows the movie, the lack of star voices. While young thesps Dakota Blue Richards and Freddie Highmore voice their own characters, all of the adults, including Nicole Kidman, Ian McKellan, Daniel Craig, and Sam Elliott, are missing. Soundalikes, especially in Kidman’s case, don’t come close to the intended target.