Animated movies like “Bolt” are typically smash successes in the box office, primarily because the concepts in question can appeal to all ages. However, as we all know, movies and video games are often like oil and water; popular video games flop terribly when they become films, and the latter doesn’t do much better when they become games. There have been signs of a recovery, though, as 2008 saw the emergence of solid, entertaining titles like Kung Fu Panda and The Bourne Conspiracy. Therefore, we have fresh hope every time we tackle something like Bolt, and thankfully, we came away from this one somewhat satisfied. There are several technical issues and despite the gameplay diversity between Penny and Bolt, the game also starts to feel quite repetitive very quickly, but it’s still entertaining. For fans of the movie, Bolt could be worth a look, especially if you like fast-paced action platformers that aren’t particularly strong on story.
The graphics are mostly solid. There’s plenty of detail and color, and in all actuality, the gameplay visuals are more pleasing and in some ways, more accomplished, than the CGI cut-scenes. Unfortunately, a decided frame rate issue mars the overall presentation and much like the gameplay, you’ll see many of the same things throughout your adventure. There are plenty of different locales, of course, but the enemy design is generic and grows tiresome, and when one gets up close and personal, we see the textures falling short of the desired level. The good news is that none of these relatively minor drawbacks are likely to annoy the target audience, which we imagine are children and teenagers between the ages of 5 and 15. It’s only when the frame rate starts to chug that things get annoying – it’s easy to spot, regardless of age – and there just isn’t a large amount of polish and refinement. It’s the kind of technical advancement that we usually only find in big-budget productions, though, so we probably shouldn’t complain. Bolt really does look pretty good, and we’ll leave it at that.
The sound is similar in terms of quality, what with the good voice acting and sound effects. The soundtrack certainly fit the atmosphere throughout even if there isn’t quite enough variety, and the only real issue with the sound is a marked lack of balance. Occasionally, the voices would rise and fall sporadically during the cut scenes, and for whatever reason, the great effects that accompany explosions and special moves/skills vastly outstrip that of the regular, common effects. In other words, while the missiles smashing the ground all around Bolt sound fantastic, there isn’t so much clarity and volume when it comes to the little stuff, like Bolt’s simple attack and Penny’s stealthy maneuverings. The surface balance is mostly fine, though, as the music and effects combine nicely when you’re playing, and there are no major flaws. This is one of the major differences between games-turned-movies nowadays: in the past, they suffered from truly crippling technical issues due to an almost total lack of talent and/or effort. But now, the technicals are fairly stable and well-done.
Usually, it only takes a few minutes to get an idea of the gameplay, and we were happy to see that Bolt doesn’t waste any time in getting the player associated with the controls. Instead of a separate tutorial, you simply learn as you go with helpful hints and command prompts, which allows you to dive right in almost immediately. Believe it or not, you don’t begin by controlling the feisty canine; you actually start with Penny, who looks like a slightly cartoon-y female version of Sam Fisher. She’s clothed all in black and even has a specific form of pinpoint vision (not night vision) that shows you where you can attach your special electric grabber. It’s a rod with two metal wheels at the end, and you can secure it to ledges to ride across, attach one end of it to a cable, or fasten it between two straight walls to glide straight upwards. It’s also used as a weapon, which is automatic if you can pull off the stealth knock-downs. All you have to do is sneak up behind a foe by holding R1, then when the Square button pops up over his head, he’s yours.
Penny can also engage Stealth Camouflage that allows her to go completely invisible for a little while, and she even has smoke bombs that she can slide towards unsuspecting guards. All of this works quite well with the exception of the latter; it’s just not a great mechanic for aiming your effective bombs. She won’t always have her stealth outfit but she’ll still have that nifty tool, which comes in quite handy throughout the quest. The only real issue we had centered on the actual grab mechanic: you press Circle to attach the tool, but sometimes, it just didn’t seem to work. We had to press it a few times to get the thing to engage at certain points in the game, but it’s not exactly a huge complaint. Penny acts as an appreciated change of pace, too. She moves fine, but it slows you down after going nutty with Bolt, who is usually engaged in very fast-paced combat. This is where the game both shines and suffers, but we’ll deal with the good news first, just because the battle is fun and well implemented…until you start to notice the shortcomings. Again, though, the target audience might just have plain ol’ fun.
Bolt, although small, can really pack a wallop. To attack he leaps forward and smacks the enemy, and you can string the light and strong attacks into successful combos. For instance, Square, Square, Triangle is something you’ll use quite often, and after weakening the foe enough, a Circle button will appear over his head. At this time, Bolt can grab him and then choose any one of four satisfying finishing moves, ranging from a slow-mo piledriver to a downright hysterical move where Bolt grabs hold and slams the unfortunate soul back and forth on the ground. You just have to choose your final attack quickly because Bolt will get tossed free if you don’t. The dog also earns new abilities as time goes on, including the Superbark and a power charge that greatly enhances the effectiveness of all Bolt’s attacks. When you earn this ability – in the second level – you will build up a meter using combo attacks, then unleash the charged up power when facing a particularly tricky battle. Bolt moves quickly (especially when you engage Super Speed with R1) and the control is a little loose, but still reliable. We just hope you have some good video game reactions; the combat can get awfully fast for a kid’s game.
There are a few issues, though, and they really can’t be ignored. The aforementioned frame rate is one such issue, and the combat could’ve used some extra work. We really just do the same thing over and over, and even though we face different enemies that present us with different challenges, most combat is resolved in similar fashion. Also, the camera – which the player has no control over – works quite well, but sometimes leaves you a little out of the loop. We like the idea of not having to battle a horrendous camera view and the camera usually does keep up with the action, but it will sometimes zoom in too close, which is when we lose track of enemies. We also could’ve used a lock-on feature of some kind as Bolt almost seems to attack randomly. Then there’s the issue of the super moves, which are very cool, but we experienced a bit of a delay; the Superbark doesn’t go off instantly, for example, and this posed multiple problems when we needed it. Lastly, the platforming with Bolt is fine, but because he’s so small, we often had a little difficulty gauging jumps and distance.
Penny has her stumbles, too, but they’re all very minor in comparison. You will find power and health upgrades if you break enough stuff in the environment and explore about. There are a few Extras you can unlock as well, but for the most part, the game’s entire focus sits squarely on the main single-player campaign, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most young players will enjoy the Bolt/Penny tandem; not only for the previously talked about difference of style and pace, but also for the cooperative aspect. You will spend some time with each character in each level, and you will get a sense of what the other is doing as you progress. For example, as you’re working to raise the temple with Penny, you’ll hear Bolt’s Superbark and the ensuing helicopter crash (you just finished “barking” the missiles back towards the attacking chopper with Bolt). And when using Bolt, you’ll see a pause in the gameplay and it says, “Meanwhile…” so you can stay up-to-date concerning your partner’s actions. This gives the game a nice flavor, but can’t quite halt the repetitive feel after a few hours.
Bolt is a good action/platformer that should be a solid choice for fans of the film. The voice acting, fast-paced gameplay, and atmosphere are most reminiscent of Bolt’s big-screen adventure, and you’re not likely to get bored. There’s a little too much emphasis on battle, there’s a lack of balance in the sound effects, the control isn’t quite as stable as we would’ve liked, and by the third level, you’ll recognize the inherent repetitive nature and some of the game’s more obvious drawbacks. But none of them are crippling and in the end, it really is fairly entertaining. Is it worth $60? Well…probably not. But when the price falls and you can pick it up for $30 or $40 and you have a kid at home who loved the movie, Bolt will make for a nice gift, and that’s a decent accomplishment.
3/2/2009 Ben Dutka