Tale of Despereaux Review
”The Tale of Despereaux” is an animated movie featuring yet another cute, furry hero; this one is a mouse with Dumbo ears who, contrary to the code of Mouse-dom, embraces danger and fear. Mice are supposed to run, not risk and confront! But this little protagonist is an obvious thrill-seeker – albeit one with a good heart – and it makes for a perfect premise…for a film. For a game, all we really get is another clichéd attempt at an action/platformer, and although Brash’s ambitions are high with this one, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Although Tale of Despereaux has plenty of charm and a decent story that will appeal to the youngsters, the lack of solid control, technical gameplay issues, and general repetitiveness mires this adventure in mediocrity. Several redeeming factors help things along, but most players – regardless of age – will only grow more and more frustrated with Despereaux’s loose movements and somewhat troublesome camera. It’s too bad, because the developer really did try to institute plenty of interesting mechanics.
The graphics are standard PS2 fare. There’s some blurriness and jagged edges, along with plenty of out-of-focus visual presentations, although the character design and cut-scene choreography is quite good. The good news concerns the target audience: fans of the movie will appreciate the authenticity of the game’s atmosphere, as there’s a great deal of charm and simple cutesy-ness that makes the experience mostly pleasant. We enjoyed the construction of the different levels, too, despite the fact that these visuals don’t have the polish or refinement of bigger-budget productions. One thing you have to remember when looking at a title like Despereaux is that it only needs to satisfy the target demographic, and in this case, there aren’t likely to be many anal graphic enthusiasts who want to play this game. Therefore, we won’t go into specific visual analysis; it’s simply unnecessary. Let’s just say the graphics aren’t impressive in the least, but there’s nothing too damning or critical, which means most players won’t be disappointed in what they see. Besides, those cut-scenes are well done and the artistry is worthy of the film.
The sound is about the same, what with merely average voice acting, a small balance issue between effects and music, and some generic gameplay sound. We have to say, though, we got slightly annoyed at Despereaux’s constant grunts of effort that, while clearly designed to be cute, got really irritating after a while. That’s more of a personal thing, but on the whole, the sound never really gets off the ground. Again, the cut-scenes represent the best of this particular category, but both the effects and soundtrack take a significant step backwards during actual gameplay. The music fits the style and atmosphere beautifully but it’s not brought out enough, and the little scampering sounds typical of a mouse running about isn’t very clear. The voice acting isn’t bad – certain characters are better than others – and in comparison to the graphics, we have to come to a very similar conclusion: there’s not anywhere near enough refinement and clarity, but it’s not likely a drawback that will directly impact the enjoyment factor of a young player. What will, however, is the gameplay. Yeah, the technicals are only additions to the core of every game, right?
Perhaps the best way to describe the gameplay in Tale of Despereaux is to say it’s similar to a poor man’s Prince of Persia. Clearly, the developers decided to take some hints directly from Ubisoft’s franchise and perhaps a few other successful action/platforming titles in the past, because you’ll recognize most all of Despereaux’s abilities. He can scramble up walls to grab a ledge, hang on to and shimmy along ledges, grab a-hold of candlesticks, wall-run, and even shimmy up narrow spaces. All of this, we’ve seen before; the only original ability is tied to the heroic mouse’s ears: they’re so huge, he can use them to actually hover for a little longer in the air after jumping. But overall, we felt as if we’ve done all this before…only in games that are far more technically accomplished; games that feature a far more stable control scheme. It doesn’t matter how old you are, because everyone will eventually become frustrated with some aspect of the gameplay, and it could be anything from the combat to the trickier platforming aspects. And unfortunately, it all stems from one glaring problem:
Despereaux is just too skittish, even for a mouse. It’s just hard to control him, as he will easily overshoot the mark you’re looking for, and given the close-knit designs of the levels, he can encounter all sorts of little glitches. He’ll get caught in between one ledge and another and the camera will shake like mad, and he’ll often fall when you simply moved too far too fast, which is insanely easy to do. Furthermore, it was never really clear just how far that mouse could fall. If he falls too far, it’s all over and you restart at a spot just before the deadly trip-and-stumble, but sometimes, you have to fall a certain distance. Other times, it was difficult to determine exactly what Despereaux could grab onto, and with the fixed camera, you only had one viewing angle at your disposal. Far too many times we fell just because our character wasn’t stable enough; the looseness of the control is just terrible, and the battle doesn’t really add much to the action. First of all, we have no idea why we could beat the tar out of a bee with a toothpick, but ladybugs are invincible…what’s that all about?
As if you couldn’t have guessed, this game tells the tale of Despereaux, the mouse who didn’t fear humans and refused to cower in a corner. Although his family desperately try to get him to act more like a mouse – i.e., be afraid of everything and run away – Despereaux pays them no mind and strikes out on a harrowing, danger-laden adventure. Well, harrowing for a creature of such small size, anyway. You will progress through Chapters in a linear format that typically has you follow the path of cheese to your goal. This idea works quite well, because you’ll never get lost and surprisingly, gathering up all those pieces of cheese doesn’t get old very fast. You will encounter some enemies along the way, and you can utilize fast attacks with the Square button and strong attacks with the Triangle button. You can string simple combos together, and as you beat more foes and collect more “shiny buttons” to give to your cocky teacher, you will acquire special moves to add to your arsenal. For example, the first special skill you receive is the Dodge Roll, which is exactly what it sounds like. However, this only emphasizes the loose control even more; rolling is erratic and can often send you flying over a ledge. It was better not to use it, which isn’t a plus.
Sure, Despereaux is out on a noble quest and the characters he encounters are usually interesting and charming in their own way, but the repetitive gameplay tends to make us lose interest. There’s only so many times you can wall-run and shimmy around candles, or push something out of the way to continue your romp. The developers did try a few things that we wouldn’t have expected to see, as mentioned before: for example, Despereaux can tip-toe if he needs to, because those eagle-eyed humans are sometimes on the lookout and you need to use a bit of stealth to stay hidden. Then there’s the way he can hitch a ride on an object that a human will move; if someone reaches for a cup and you need to snag it, it will sparkle. Just grab on and the person will move the object to your next location, and oddly enough, they will never notice that a mouse is quite obviously clinging to the side of said object. But despite the good attempt, these features turn out to be little more than forgetful additions to the gameplay. They’re never really a challenge and although the mechanics don’t fall apart, the “cool” factor dissipates the instant you try them.
Tale of Despereaux really tries. We’ll give it that. But with such loose and wonky control, a fixed camera that’s functional yet still problematic, and a repetitive adventure that grows tiresome all too soon, the game doesn’t deliver. Kids may be okay with it for a while, but there are plenty of superior PS2 titles for the younger crowd on store shelves right now. Just about all those gameplay features that could’ve separated this title from the rest of the pack fall short, and in the end, you essentially perform the same basic motions throughout. Given the glitches you can run into, and the issues we outline here, this quickly becomes kinda boring and frustrating. We do have to add that there’s nothing horribly crippling about Despereaux, but just about everything is underwhelming. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe it.
12/13/2008 Ben Dutka