When a preview build for a game based on a classic children's series like The Chronicles of Narnia crosses your desk, it's difficult to know what to expect. With the book's transition to film, other adaptations of the intellectual property are bound to appear. Posters, toys, and... well... video games... will soon blanket the world of retail in what we can only hope is a magical telling of one of the most beloved books of all time. Previews of the movie are looking extremely promising, and now, after some hands-on time with the title, it turns out that previews of the video game are looking extremely promising, too. The basic premise behind the gameplay pulls from well-established genres, and lets you travel across the land of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in a fashion that's sure to please.
The levels in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are broken into two styles; the ones inside the land of Narnia, which tend to be action oriented and operate on top-down RPG elements, and those sequences not in Narnia, which have more adventure elements. You follow the four children found at the begining of the books as they transition back and forth from the real world to the magical world of Narnia, and in the process work your way through the story. The adventure areas take place in a mansion in the mid-1940s, where the children live after an air raid destroys their home in London. In fact, the destruction of - and subsequent escape from - the home in London is where this tale begins, walking your characters through a fairly straightforward tutorial before you ever come close to seeing Narnia. These sequences involve things like collecting coins, pushing objects over fires to clear paths, and breaking through doors to reach new areas.
It's during these sequences that the individual abilities of the children become apparent. The younger children are capable of doing things like climbing objects and navigating tight spaces, and the older children are strong, able to move objects and break through doors. Non-skill based abilities play role as well; Lucy carries a flashlight at times, and Edmund is capable of wielding sticks as weapons. The sequences in the mansion are punctuated by the occasional scramble to hide when the Professor's housekeeper wanders the home to make sure you're staying out of trouble. These moments are not without action, of course, as you'll have to battle bats that fly in through grates on the ceiling, and climb drain pipes to reach new locations. Still, the action in these environments is substantially less dangerous than when you're actually in the land of Narnia, filled with animals and beasts intent on your demise.
The transitions between the two environments and styles of play help keep the game fresh, and the overall assembly of elements works rather well.
The gameplay in Narnia reminds me of games like X-Men: Legends, certainly a game worth being compared too. All four children appear on the screen at one time, and you can cycle control between them with the push of a button. Just as in "real" life, the children each have their special skills and abilities, forcing you to switch between characters if you want to progress in the game. Some of these skills are combat related; Peter is certainly a more capable fighter when battling swarms of wolves than any of the other children. Other skills allow you to solve puzzles; one sequence has you crossing the frozen surface of a lake as one of the younger, lighter characters in search of a safe path for your older siblings to follow. The children can also team with one another to provide special skills, like being able to break through barriers or do more damage during a brawl.
In a surprising move for a game based on the movie based on a children's book, The Chronicles of Narnia has a character development structure that again reminds me of games like X-Men: Legends and Baulder's Gate: Dark Alliance. Your characters level up and become stronger over time. As you collect coins in the levels, extra skills open up, such as the ability to heal characters with spell-like skills, or purchase upgrades, like extra defensive ability for everyone on the team. There are special attacks that you can purchase to battle specific types of enemies, including button combinations required to activate them. While you don't have detailed control of your weapons (beyond walking over a stick to pick it up, that is), the complexity of the RPG elements in a game targeting a younger audience is both surprising and pleasant. The tale presented behind Chronicles of Narnia was always deeper than it appeared at first glance, and I'm glad to see that the game itself carries the same inner depth.
What remains to be seen is how concretely the game follows the events from the book. In truth, the books themselves are not very long, and are more valuable as background for the story than direct conversion material. At least, that's what some might say. On the other hand, the religious basis for the Chronicles of Narnia, including the symbolic character creations, are key elements to the popularity of the series. The preview build didn't include cut scenes that tied the various levels together, and it'll be interesting to see whether the game emphasizes the world behind the books, or the meaning behind the books. This design decision will heavily influence the target audience.
Regardless, the play dynamics seem to be developing nicely, above par for video games based on movies. Whoever the game targets when it's launched, it looks like they can be happy with how the game plays, as well as the story it tells.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is expected to release in November, 2005.