Based on the 2005 cinematic adaptation of C.S. Lewis' classic fantasy novel, this video game version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe features the four Pevensie children as playable characters, each with a different specialty. Many of the game's challenges require two or more of the children to combine their strengths and work together. Only by using their talents in harmony will they be able to solve the game's action-oriented puzzles, and defeat the minotaur, cyclopes, werewolves, and other mythical monsters that stand in their way.
Peter, the oldest Pevensie child, wields a sword in the land of Narnia, and is the strongest melee fighter. The elder of his sisters, Susan, specializes in ranged attacks with her bow and arrows. The headstrong Edmund is best at making use of the environment, as he is a good climber and can use found objects as tools or weapons. The youngest sibling, Lucy Pevensie, can act as a healer when her brothers and sister are wounded. In certain situations, two of the children can team up to perform special attack moves.
During the war, while living in the safety of a large old country house, the four Londoner Pevensie children discover a magical wardrobe that serves as a portal to another world. This world of Narnia is caught in a monumental struggle, between the cruel White Witch who wishes to keep the lands frozen in a never-ending winter, and the noble lion king Aslan, who wishes to free his people from the witch's evil domination. The game's environments are based on scenes from the movie, and characters are voiced by the actors who portray them in the film.
The Chronicles of Narnia -- the books that is, not this game -- are globally famous as C.S. (Jack) Lewis's allegorical adventures of a number of children in the magical lands of Narnia. C.S. Lewis was a member of the Inklings, an Oxford literary group focused on legend, poetry and language; the other particularly famous member, and longtime friend of Lewis's, being one J.R.R. Tolkien - a figure of reasonable note in terms of his influence over the computer games industry. It was during meetings of the Inklings, often in the Eagle & Child pub (a.k.a. the Bird & the Baby) in Oxford, that both men first brought their fantastical creations to the attention of other people.
It was Lewis's books that had the more immediate success, of course, what with them being much shorter and aimed much more directly at children. In fact, it was Lewis's commercial success, amongst several other issues, that is thought to have begun the gradual falling out of Lewis and Tolkien.
Regardless of the surroundings, though, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first published of the eventual seven novels that form the Chronicles, although in terms of narrative chronology it is the Magician's Nephew that comes first. Echoes of future blockbuster movie chronology perhaps?
Next we jump from the mid 1950s to 2005 when Disney released a mainstream movie of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Now, I must admit that I've not been able to go see the movie yet - so any comments I make here in no way reflect upon the movie.
To answer the original question in this section, 'what is it'? The Narnia game is an RPG-like fighting game set in the world of Lewis's stories.
Is there a plot?
The game of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is pitched as an epic recreation of the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie. This is a reasonable description, if you think that the story of the Pevensies is one of fighting their way almost every step across Narnia to the Ice Queen's palace, then a massive battle, and the coronation of four shiny-faced Disney children by a tame lion.
The game starts abruptly, with no introductory cut-scene or helpful tutorial, straight in at the deep end trying to get the children out of their burning home in London. So, battling unfamiliar controls and a novel user interface in a dark and smoky environment, you are immediately under time pressure and playing for your characters' lives. What's more, there was no paper manual to read beforehand to get any idea what's coming - there's just a help file (a .chm, a Windows compiled help file) hiding away on CD 1.
What follows is a cut-scene direct from the movie, evacuating the children from London to the Professor's house in the country. The children then begin an exploration of the house, whilst playing hide-and-seek, and hiding from the house keeper, all of which results in Lucy, the youngest Pevensie, and Edmund, the third youngest, discovering the eponymous Wardrobe and the lands of Narnia beyond.
From this point on, the deviations from the 'proper' story really start to kick in. I completely lost Edmund's adventures with the Queen - a bug caused the relevant cut-scene to crash the game every time. Instead I had to skip the movies that give Edmund and Lucy their motivation for the rest of the story (their separate encounters with the Queen and Mr. Tumnus) and was dropped into a cooperative sequence with Lucy and Edmund escaping from Narnia through a fight with a horde of wolves. I don't remember that from the book, and there was no mention of Turkish Delight! What gives?
Upon returning to the 'real' world, there are arguments between the various children about Narnia and the Wardrobe, but eventually all four children, whilst trying to hide from the housekeeper, Mrs. MacReady, end up going to Narnia together.
The second trip to Narnia leads to the discovery of the arrest of Mr. Tumnus, and the adventures of the children with the beavers, Father Christmas and Aslan. I'm not going to tell the rest of the story here, as C.S. Lewis did a much better job than I could ever hope to manage. It's a story of difficult journeys, betrayal, conflict, heroism, sacrifice, deep magic, resurrection, redemption and restoration. The game manages to include some of those, references others, and then completely manages to miss the most important ones in any meaningful manner.
How do you play?
Okay, this is a game, so there's game play, right? Well, strictly speaking I suppose there is, but it is almost completely summed up by three words; manic keyboard mashing. This is not a game for anyone who likes to spend time pondering options - you're straight into combat at the earliest opportunity, and killing things is the answer to almost every problem. I must admit to having great difficulty reconciling this style of game play with the Narnia stories.
Game play is controlled from the Wardrobe Room, where you select the section of the story you wish to play next. As you'd expect, there's access to the save and load menus and options screens, though the latter are restricted to little more than the configuration of the controls and a few sound and graphics settings. Nothing novel there.
Having chosen your section to play, you enter the game proper. In many cases the section is introduced with a cut-scene. Most of these are taken direct from the movie, transforming the actors into their electronic counterparts at the end of the scene and introducing the next combat sequence to the player. Each of the children has different skills, and these are developed through the game, with upgrades and bonus abilities available through the in-game pause screen. The only notion of inventory in Narnia is the skills selection screen, where you buy new abilities with coins that are scattered liberally around the environment. Some skills apply to all the children, such as health upgrades, some to specific children, such as Lucy's taming skills, and some to specific combinations of children, such as Lucy and Susan's Rain of Fire skill.
Back in the game itself, the active child is controlled with the W, A, S and D keys (player 1), and you switch between children (from those available in a given section) using the left Ctrl key. The current child is displayed in the top left-hand corner of the screen, or top-right for player 2 when you're playing in cooperative multiplayer mode. The other children in a given section (there can be anything from two to four children in a given section) will follow around generally trying to block the enemy characters, but not really doing a great deal. In addition, there are the H (attack), U and J (special move) and K (combine) keys for player 1. Combat basically boils down to frantic hitting of H, U, and J until all the wolves, boggles, ankle-biters, ghouls, dwarves, minoboars, minotaurs, cyclopses and ogres are dead. Combinations of H, U, and J will make the child perform special moves - more damaging special attacks for Peter (the eldest, sword-wielding, Pevensie) for example.
Several combat sequences are timed, some very frustratingly so -- particularly the Battle of Beruna, though not (perhaps surprisingly), the Great Battle. Beruna actually took me three long evenings to get right, whereas the Great Battle was done in relatively short order with no need for calling upon the serried ranks of available reinforcements.
The one interesting control I've not discussed so far is the K, or combine, control. This allows any given pair of children to combine to achieve either a greater smashing power (Lucy with any one of her siblings), or greater combat damage - various combinations of Susan, Edmund and Peter. Other special powers are available for specific sequences. Susan can also use her bow and arrows, via the space bar and H keys, to pick off targets out of range to the other children, and Lucy has very important First Aid and Heal skills as well as the ability to fit through small openings that make her more than an annoying appendage.
Where there are 'puzzle' elements in a location, you'll find round tokens over the targets first with a specific child's portrait. This indicates which child can perform the relevant action, and once the child is selected, the appropriate action key to be used (attack key, special key 1, or special key 2). These are things like having Susan shoot targets to cause boulders to fall on a group of ogres, or Edmund climbing a tree to retrieve an item, or Lucy and Peter combining to smash a blocking lump of ice. These puzzles are always simple, in essence, though getting the timing right can sometimes be a little frustrating - especially when they involve Susan playing a tune on her pan-pipes.
This game contains so few truly notable features that I'm reduced to commenting on the quality of the graphics and environments. These were nice, reflecting well the winter-cum-spring aspects of the original story, but beyond that? Well, there's not much more to say, except to mention that collecting shield tokens and frozen statues does more than just add to your score for a particular level. They also earn you access to bonus content, which consists of self-congratulatory videos by the production team about the making of the game, and a number of bonus levels. Gee, that was worth waiting for!
Any other novelties?
It is remarkable that the only novelty I can find in this game is the control system. What's worse is that it's not a positive novelty, but something I'd look to avoid in future games! Player 1 uses the keys W, A, S, and D for movement and H, U, J, and K for actions, plus Left Ctrl to switch between available children. For cooperative two player play, just imagine how cramped you'd both be trying to use one keyboard together!
I found it most odd to have save games marked with a percentage score that doesn't reflect progress through the story, but instead the percentage of shield tokens found. This was particularly confusing, as I thought that I was only halfway through the game, based upon the percentage score and my memories of the original story, when all of a sudden the game ended with a short cut-scene. Bang! Game over. Huh?
Once more we find that a console game has been crippled by a simple porting exercise, rather than a more complete re-think of the user interface. In the case of Narnia, this results in there being only three save game slots. Why three, I do not know, nor do I really care; what I do know is that it is ridiculous to carry over a feature like this from a system that might actually have this kind of thing for hardware reasons, to a general purpose PC that certainly does not! What's more, I will continue to highlight and complain about this kind of developer blindness until it stops happening.
The game is a typical console adaptation of an excellent children's story. It's a combat-driven, token collecting, RPG-lite imitation of a wonderful story reflected through a glass darkly. The movie might be suitable for most children above preschool (it being rated PG in the UK and US), but this game isn't - this is one game where I think the 12+ rating is right. It may be glossy and technically competent (apart from two cut-scene crashes, the first trip to Narnia and the meeting with Father Christmas), and the animation of the characters and beasts might be good, set in decent environments, but so many other aspects of the story are missing. Important things like character motivation and development, and an honest reproduction of the story.
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