Review: ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’

Games based on family movies often look and play like cheaply made quickies, but that's not the case with Sierra's pleasantly bright "The Spiderwick Chronicles," which turns in a surprisingly enjoyable if brief performance.

Games based on family movies often look and play like cheaply made quickies, but that’s not the case with Sierra’s pleasantly bright “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” which turns in a surprisingly enjoyable if brief performance. It’s mostly a grand Easter egg hunt punctuated by average mini-games and shallow combat, but what the game lacks in boldness it makes up for in wholesome design and rapid-fire pacing. Except for a frustrating patch during the denouement, “Spiderwick” is a well-made tie-in to the Par/Nick fantasy film opening next week and should sell well with fans of the books and pic.

Since it’s based on such a distinctly drawn fantasy mythology, “Spiderwick” belongs to that peculiar species of movie game in which inhabiting the world is a big part of the pleasure. While that world looks very much like the new film by director Mark Waters, it’s also based on Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s series of children’s books in which three New England children discover a field guide to Faeries. Visuals in the game are all decently drawn, though far from spectacular.

As with most supernatural plots, “Spiderwick” quickly ushers in a cast of strutting bad guys whose machinations — one in particular wants the field guide for reasons never made entirely clear — culminate in an epic confrontation. The movie condenses all five books into one story, with the game’s narrative following the film’s lead.

Playing intermittently as Jared, Simon and Mallory Grace, players spend most of the game poking around the Spiderwick Estate and its adjacent areas, which include a quarry, a couple of detached buildings, a multisegmented forest, a swamp and several underground caverns. Actors including Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker and David Strathairn all turn in solid work voicing the same characters they play in the film.

Predictably, much of the adventure requires fending off goblins and other surreptitious nasties. Next to Simon’s gun, Jared gets a bat and a slingshot, while Mallory wields a fencing sword, and all three children are capable of executing a handful of special evasive maneuvers. In theory these offer different tactical approaches per child, but the game’s one-dimensional bad guys relegate combat to aiming and button mashing. It’s even possible to win on the default difficulty setting while ignoring the special moves entirely.

Faerie sprites flit about the estate and can be captured to imbue the children with special powers like “heal” and “speed boost.” The capture mechanic includes a mildly diverting mini-game in which players use the controls to fill in one of artist Diterlizzi’s sprite images before a timer runs out. Its only sin is feeling a trifle simplistic. Offline multiplayer extends the sprite collection angle slightly by offering a few speed-gathering mini-games.

Other quests require the use of a diminutive brownie named Thimbletack, who inhabits the walls of the house and can leap and swing between wood slats with aplomb. These acrobatic stages in which Thimbletack has to navigate a dusty playground of oversized objects while avoiding electric zaps and firing needles at clabbering cockroaches are some of “Spiderwick’s” finest.

The only trouble comes during a specific endgame sequence in which the designers violate player autonomy by yoking one of the Grace children to a series of slavishly time-sensitive actions. Fail at any point during this process and the sequence resets to the beginning, reducing success to clumsy tactical guesswork. Fortunately, the game doesn’t end on this anticlimactic note but in fact allows players to go for “perfect” by leisurely tying off any remaining activities.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Rated E 10+. $20-$50.


A Sierra presentation of a game developed by Stormfront Studios and licensed by Paramount for the PC, PlayStation 2, Wii and Xbox 360. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
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