Sometimes the key to creating a successful licensed game is to not step too far outside of the boundaries of what makes gaming fun. Most companies attempt to create a genre-bending experience that follows the franchise so closely it becomes impossible to discern the two apart and sometimes a developer just decides to make a really fun game with a recognizable protagonist. Such is the case with Atari’s latest licensed game Tales of Despereaux. Instead of trying to construct a game that fits well with the movie the team opted to create a solid little platformer with the visual style of the movie complete with responsive controls and engaging gameplay. The end result is a fun handheld romp that is a must play for those interested in a good old-fashioned platformer or the novel and film the game is based on.
The story behind Despereaux is closely based on the recent film adaptation and follows the antics of a tiny mouse named Despereaux Tilling. The concept and appeal is that instead of being like all the other mice Despereaux tends to think outside the box. Instead of eating books he reads them, and an interest in music eventually leads him to fall in love with Princess Pea. The story of the game follows that of the movie very closely and is told through text on the bottom screen of the DS while pictures traverse across the top. There is a separation though as the story being told rarely has any relevance to the levels you are playing. They serve more as a reward for completing tasks, which should be fine for the audience the game is aimed at.
What makes Despereaux stand out though is the gameplay, and funny enough it simply does what you would expect a good paltformer to do. Despereaux can of course jump, climb, wall-jump, sprint and a host of other conventional platforming elements. With such a diverse entourage of movement the game does a fantastic job of keeping things fresh and interesting by forcing you to use your entire arsenal in each level. You may also be wondering how so many actions could be performed with such a limited button combination. Well the team has created a contextual design that always delivers exactly the right move at exactly the right time allowing you to focus more on having fun than wrestling with button combinations. This also makes the game friendlier for its target audience thus creating a simple and enjoyable experience for gamers of all ages.
I have always been a sucker for games that place you in normal environments with a sense of scale, such as racing RC cars around a bedroom and the like. Despereaux takes this to the next level with its intricate design and unique perspective. The game uses a two-and-a-half dimensional angle that permeates such a sense of scale that traversing each level is more like a vacation than a romp in the kitchen. Platforms are cleverly fashioned using real-world objects and obstacles are created using some unexpected items, but in the end it all boils down to some truly inspiring creativity. The only downside to the levels is their linearity. While they are near flawless in design being able to explore a bit more of any given room would have nearly doubled the enjoyment of the game.
Very early in the game you will also be introduced to the combat portion of the title. You will obtain a needle that doubles as your sword and it can be used to dispose of enemies that dare to stand in your way. You will also quickly come to realize that combat is more of an irritation than a feature simply because enemies can be dispatched in one hit and it feels more and more like a hurdle to extend gameplay. It is also worth noting that you cannot attack whilst moving, so it also bogs down your platforming quite a bit. Overall combat feels tacked on and not in unison with the flow of the game as a whole.
On top of playing great there is simply a ton to see and do within the game. There are thirty six core stages with a helping of bonus stages that can be unlocked by collecting musical notes in each level. Each level is short and sweet, perfect for handheld gaming, and you will find yourself returning to your favorites over and over trying to collect all the hard-to-reach notes to unlock the bonus stages. Total game time for your first run through will last roughly 4-5 hours depending on your skill, but there is more than enough here to keep you coming back including earning a higher medal on each stage and of course to collect all the notes and unlock the bonus stages.
Visually the game takes on a life of its own thanks to the perspective and the amount of detail portrayed in each background. While you are on a set path the interaction with each level is brilliantly displayed with objects presented in both the foreground and background giving a nice multi-tiered look and feel. Characters are also nicely animated for a portable title and feel representative of their movie counterparts. Sounds are limited with the soundtrack being the focal point. Music suits the levels very well, but a lack of voice work really detracts from some of the characters and cut scenes. Thankfully what is here is delightful and works well enough that you can overlook its shortcomings.
Tales of Despereaux is a surprisingly fun title that takes the basis of what makes these types of game fun and runs with it. The controls are spot-on and the level design is immaculate making this a solid experience for anyone who enjoys the characters it is based on. If you are looking for a good platform experience for your Nintendo DS you may want to give this title a look as it will end up surprising you. With a history of poorly rushed licensed games for Nintendo’s portable juggernaut it is nice to finally see a game that takes the simplest design and builds a fun game around it as opposed to building the game around the license.