The demise of troubled publisher Brash Entertainment almost kept “The Tale of Despereaux” videogame off shelves, a fate averted through a last-minute deal with Atari. For players, this is a mixed bag. Separate versions for the DS and the Wii share simple, unambitious gameplay, as well as cursory references to the film’s convoluted story. But the handheld’s two-dimensional action is charming and well designed, while the Wii’s 3-D gameplay is frustrating and occasionally broken. Sales will likely be soft following the pic’s weak opening, though the DS game will keep tykes much more satisfied.
At heart, “The Tale of Despereaux” is the story of a rat that nearly ruins a kingdom and of a mouse that valiantly saves it. Like a classic fairy tale, Despereaux’s story changes a little with each retelling: Between the book, the film, the DS game and the Wii game, key plot points change, and even major scenes — like the first encounter between the titular mouse and the beautiful princess — play out differently.
But from the game’s standpoint, the story hardly matters: While both the handheld and the console versions give perfunctory nods to the film, they pare the story down to help Despereaux speed through a castle in which everyday objects become an oversized obstacle course and dodging a ladybug can mean life or death.
The DS version, which was funded by Universal and reps the studio’s first venture into videogames in nearly a decade, is a straightforward platformer with elements as old as the first “Super Mario.” Players jump, scurry up walls, swing on nails and solve simple puzzles. The graphics are surprisingly good for Nintendo’s handheld system, with lovingly illustrated levels including the mazelike chutes from the kitchen to the coalmine-like castle dungeon. The rat’s coliseum, where two rather clever boss battles take place, rewards combatants with a colorful three-dimensional backdrop and silhouetted rodents who jeer from the stands.
The gameplay is well executed, with a gentle learning curve and a number of new challenges interspersed throughout the 30 levels. Each is meant to take five minutes or less, and while lives are unlimited, leaderboards encourage siblings to play and play again until they beat each other’s scores.
By contrast, the Wii version proves that there’s nothing as irritating as a platformer that doesn’t quite work. The look and idea are very similar: Despereaux has to navigate one level after another by scaling giant books, jumping from candle to candle or hitching a ride on a moving cup. While the mouse-eye perspective should make the world engaging, the environments lack atmosphere, even in the dankest, most sewage-swamped depths of a dungeon. Poor visibility and dark colors occasionally obscure the path even in well-lit areas, and the camera frequently looks the wrong way or loses track of Despereaux altogether.
While the combat employs the Wii’s motion-sensing abilities, fights are generally just quick scrums that encourage blind controller shaking. And the occasional diversions — such as a plodding and contrived boss fight against the rats’ killer cat and a minigame about shooting down a sewer pipe — seem even cheaper than the main game. Tack on maddeningly repetitive music, irritating voicework, simplistic or dysfunctional enemy artificial intelligence and lethal setbacks that spring out of nowhere, and this one would be better off left in the mousetrap.