Players help three resourceful orphans work together to protect themselves and their family fortune from their greedy uncle, in this action-adventure game based on the 2004 film starring Jim Carrey. As in the movie, as well as the amusingly gloomy children's novels that inspired it, this Lemony Snicket game follows the notably unfortunate exploits of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. Players will need to make use of each character's particular skills as they make their way through the game's 20-plus missions. In addition, they'll need to invent new tools to help them through certain situations, such as the bad-guy clearing Bopper, the sludge-traversing Stilts, and the rocket-pack Booster. Mission locations include, Count Olaf's Mansion, Uncle Monty's hedge maze, and Aunt Josephine's lakeside shack.
If, like myself, you haven't read any of the books or seen the rather popular movie, A Series of Unfortunate Events is the continuing tale of Klaus, Violet, and Sunny Baudelaire. After fate takes their parents and their home out of the picture one afternoon, they wind up in the greasy hands of one Uncle-Slash-Count Olaf, whose intentions are far from good. The kids are rich beyond belief, and Olaf would like that cash - his own acting career has been a disaster from the get-go, and he's quite despondent. The children, being far from stupid, are more than keen to his intent and do their best to avoid disaster at every turn. Even when they're not in his dilapidated home, Olaf manages to find them and constantly put himself back into their lives. It's a recipe for mayhem, and quite a popular series of short novels.
The game is based much more on the recent movie, using a medley of the books to create an episodic adventure for the three orphans. Klaus is a bookworm with a photographic memory, while his younger sister Violet is the best of the world's fourteen year-old inventors. Little Sunny simply chews on things. Beginning at a beach picnic (a fine tutorial, I might add), the children introduce the player to their world of sadness through platform-based levels, hopping and climbing about to find the requisite item for the current segment. This leaves me with one minor complaint: about half of the segments are simply "find the item," while the rest are "find the item for Violet's invention." In the long run, Klaus and Violet are really no different, and the game switches between them more for scripting purposes than any sort of real characterization. As one would expect from an infant, Sunny crawls about and bites ropes or the occasional wooden bit. The gameplay will be instantly grasped by all but the most inexperienced gamers, using Quake-style keyboard/mouse controls to navigate.
The items Violet builds are at least moderately creative, ranging from a simple item-heaver and a chemical sprayer to a flying boot and a rotating lockpick. In what's likely a nod to the game's young target audience, there is no inventory system; instead, equipment is handled via context. This is highly problematic - if you can't get the mouse right on that rat or lizard, the game won't think to get out the right weapon, and you'll wind up taking damage (or in game terms, "misery"). It's so easy to play, though, that you'll probably never die, even in the rather simple "boss" fights scattered throughout each segment. Yes, I said bosses; Olaf has sent out his henchmen to get you, setting up shooting matches with The White-Faced Women, Snatchley Snatcherson, and The Hooked Man. These are lightweight affairs, though, where you simply batter them with the selected ammunition for a bit and then smack them in the face with your handy boot.
Things look perfectly all right, with smoothly detailed environments and good character models. The animations are a bit weird in places, and there is a stark contrast between the relatively normal looking Baudelaire orphans and everyone else's rather cartoonish models. Voice acting is above average as well, with Jim Carrey reprising his movie role as Olaf and Tim Curry filling in as Lemony Snicket himself (instead of the movie's Jude Law). Really, there's nothing much to be said for the audio-visual presentation - it's nothing spectacular, but works perfectly fine for what isn't intended to be the next Half-Life 2 or Far Cry. I did stumble on a few AI bugs and some odd scripting issues, but nothing showstopping.
Level design is the exact same way, with good areas but nothing that will make anyone gasp in awe. Things are fairly linear, with items placed in fixed segments for each character to explore before the scripting takes over again. The high point I found was Aunt Josephine's house late in the game, after Olaf's laid his hands on her - you'll have to see it to understand. Other levels suffer from repetition, particularly The Horseradish Factory and Judge Justice's Library, though each segment ends before sheer boredom kicks in. (Notice the small nod to Prince of Persia in the Library's final areas, while you're at it.) No level is very long or very hard, with small enemy counts - the focus is on the item finding, not the enemy smiting. There's only a modicum of puzzle solving to boot, something I've found is far more prevalent in the console versions. Don't come here expecting minigames and puzzles galore, since the items are generally in plain sight.
That brings us to the great undoing of the game: it's short. At that, it's quite possibly the shortest game I've ever played. From beginning to end, it's only 12 levels, including the opening tutorial and some very short segments in between. Armed with infinite lives and far more ammo than you'll ever need, any experienced gamer will be able to knock the entirety of the game out in three hours or less. It's a shame, since it's quite entertaining while it lasts. I have to assume that, again, this was a concession made for the intended child audience, who probably will play particular segments over and over again.
And that, in a nutshell, is the experience: good controls, good graphics and audio, good presentation overall, but a severe lack of actual content. You could call that the Children's Game Curse without being facetious; in this case, it's restricted not only by the audience but also by the media it's based on (the movie instead of the books). I can't see young children handling the context-sensitive mouse controls and "WASD" keyboard interface very well, but no one else will have any sort of lasting experience. A pair of "grabbits" (130 Olaf's All-Seeing Eyes and 26 Letters) try to extend the time some, but the inability to play any level over again without entirely restarting your game ruins any inclination to go back and find more Eyes or Letters. I can't even say what - if any - the bonuses are, since the game doesn't indicate what exactly they'll get you.
A Series of Unfortunate Events is, at the end of the game, forced into the pile with other child fodder, particularly things from Nickelodeon themselves (the movie is a Nick Movies production). It has everything that should make it a quality game and a good seller, then drops all the marbles by failing to put in enough game to hold up the bargain.
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