Review: The Spiderwick Chronicles

Spiderwick Chronicles WiiFor all the complaining I do about other people’s Wii reviews these days, I decided to approach my latest with as open a mind as possible. Hardcore fanman thoughts? Subdued. Pre-existing movie license game criticisms? Shelved. My anathema to PS2 port graphics? NyQuil’d into submission for the time being.

That said, with The Spiderwick Chronicles, which is loosely based upon the fantastical events from the movie and book series of the same name, all that preparation still didn’t help. This was a shame, really, because in my opinion the framework was in place to show other developers how to properly make a movie license game on the Wii. As far as I could tell, that framework was wasted. Again.

First, some background.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a game based on a 2008 film based on Holly Black and Tony Diterlizzi’s bestselling children’s book series. The story is about three children (Simon, Mallory and Jared) who battle goblins and other magical creatures who are after Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide. Simon and Jared Grace are both be played by Freddie Highmore, and Mallory Grace is played by Sarah Bolger. David Strathairn plays Arthur Spiderwick. In FMV segments within the game, clips of these actors from various scenes in the actual movie are played out, but without dialogue. For the most part, the spoken word during the initial scenes is handled by voice overs from actor David Strathairn, of Sneakers and the Bourne Ultimatum fame. Like many of the Sega CD games from the last decade, these FMV sequences are often the high points of the game. That gets brownie points with the youngins who just came back from the theater, but for the rest of us they’re just jarring reminders that nothing else presented to us in the game will look quite as good.

From a game play perspective, Spiderwick is a run-of-the-mill 3rd person affair with sprites and fairies and children. If Grand Theft Auto were a fantasy tale set in the imaginary world of a children’s book, it’d probably look a lot like Spiderwick. You even get to beat things with a bat (or broomstick).

You begin the game controlling young Jared, a twin, who must embark on a set of small quests and tasks laid out verbatim in a journal. Like locating a key. Or a broom stick. Tiny glowing icons direct you where to look for these “magical” items, and more often than not when you look at something you don’t need (which will happen a lot), a canned phrase recorded by actor Freddy Highmore pipes in with about as much emotion as a cell phone voicemail from your CPA. “I’m not hungry” is just a dab of a smidgen of a taste of what will reward your curiosity during the initial search of the house where the tale begins.

And that’s really the sticking point for me with this title. Yes, it brings very little innovation to the table, and yes it’s your standard sub-par movie license port, but I would have thought the developers would have wanted to somehow leverage the fantastic art style from the movie in some way, shape or form. Instead, the FMV sequences are really all we get as a means to “feel” what it’s like to be in the world created by Black and Diterlizzi. The starting house is pretty monotonous (no wonder Mom was sleeping so soundly), and there isn’t much in the way of interactivity with your surroundings unless you count the footsteps-on-a-hardwood-floor sound effects. Again, interactivity and innovation could have given this game a boost — I would have liked to look into the telescope to see what my twin brother was looking at, for example, or rifle though all those insect samples. Alas, I was barred from doing so.

Instead, I was asked to do a series of repetitive tasks which, thankfully, were laid out almost verbatim in my journal. Seriously, if you ever get stuck in this game just open up the ol’ log and it will tell you exactly what you need to do next. At one point in the action, I half expected a Boggart to erupt from the television set, grab my Wiimote, and guide me through the forest to the next task. Like with all fantasy games and movies today, my personal Boggart guide would have had an English accent. It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that had multiple choice questions and only one answer choice. “Would you like to open the door and go outside? A) Open door and go outside.” This approach is good for the kids but bad for veterans, although in hindsight there’s nothing stopping you from not opening that in-game log, I suppose. I guess you could consider playing that way the “expert mode.”

I also didn’t feel attached to the characters, which is another shame considering movie license games are at the very least meant to give players — usually the younger ones — a chance to interact with the movie their parents just spent $40 to let them see. In this game, however, you’re given a series of static, unchanging actions or attacks with which to fight enemies or explore. The occasional motion sensing waggle is thrown in to differentiate this title from its twin brother on the PS2, but not from the year 2007, where such a practice was expected of many Wii games.

So there’s that so far. Turn brain off; button mash; listen to half-assed voice work. To paraphrase ExtraLife’s Scott Johnson, How about ‘dem graphics?

Surprisingly, they get the job done. You’re not going to surprised by the graphics if you pick this one up and play at your little cousins house, but Jared hops about the world in a convincing manner so long as he isn’t doing his herky jerky slide attack. The textures of all the things he comes in contact with are smooth, not jarring. The setting is spooky; the creatures you encounter strange. There’s no photorealism outside of the stock cutscenes, but I wasn’t expecting that. At no time was I unable to identify an object because of jaggies or poor textures or anything like that. I just wish there was some more meat on this pretty plate.

In the end, this is a kid’s game with too much hand holding to be considered a true adventure game. It feels more like an accessory to the movie rather than a legitimate complementary game, which is a disappointment. Throw in some learned moves as the game progresses or a little more interaction with the fantastic world the authors created when they wrote this series and this game could have been a solid addition to what’s always been — and probably always will be — a perpetually weak category. As it stands though, Spiderwick Chronicles, judged as a movie license game, is one and a half stars out of four.

As a Wii game, it’s slightly less. Rent at you own risk.