Shrek: Forever After Review
These days, you never know what you’re going to get with a video game based on a film. Publishers and developers seem to have realized that crap simply doesn’t sell, and regardless of how small the investment, you just can’t make money on a poor product. Therefore, we’ve certainly seen better movie-to-game adaptations this generation and if they’re not amazing, they’re at least solid and entertaining. Thankfully, Shrek: Forever After falls into this category, and is actually one of the better kids games available. It reminds us a lot of both the LEGO adventure titles and Kung Fu Panda in terms of structure and overall quality. In all honesty, my expectations were very low, as Activision is well known for putting out worthless shovelware every now and then, and I knew little about developer XPEC. But I sat and played for two and a half hours straight, coming across very little in the way of glaring flaws, and enjoying the majority of the experience. That, I always appreciate.
You can always tell when a game suffered from either a very low budget or an incompetent design team (or both), and from the minute one starts the new Shrek, you’ll know this one had the benefit of some extra funds and effort. There’s a surprising attention to detail, some great animations and special effects, and even glimpses of ingenious level design. The coloring will appeal to the intended age group, the characters are nicely presented, and although some of the visuals lose their luster when up close and personal, this is an effective and even rewarding palette. Perhaps best of all, it’ll remind fans of the movies, as the gameplay areas are familiar (the swamp, dragon castle, etc.) and the cut-scene creation and animation is very Pixar-like. They even avoid a few of the smaller technical pitfalls, like clipping and collision detection issues, and everything appears quite slick and refined. It’s not the best-looking title you’ll ever see, but it’s in the running for the prettiest kids game out there.
The sound is almost equal in terms of polish and implementation; although we don’t get all the professional voice actors from the films, the voices are typically a big highlight and the soundtrack features everything from original compositions to licensed music: Smashmouth’s recognizable song from the first movie, and the appropriately light-hearted “Walking on Sunshine,” for instance. I found myself hoping for a little more clout from the explosive effects, and the enemies seemed to lack a bit of sound-related vivacity but besides that, the diverse and professional performances allow this one to shine. When it comes to such productions, you need a lively, pleasant atmosphere that must be delivered – in part – by the technical aspects; i.e., the graphics and sound. Forever After pulls it off nicely. I suppose my last complaint is that it got a little annoying to hear a character repeat the same comment or catch-phrase, especially when you’re in one place working on a particular puzzle. Even so, pretty darn good.
Gameplay consists of simple button presses and a few relatively challenging puzzles, along with the added enticement of hidden goodies and enhanced exploration. The latter comes thanks to a central hub, where you can shop for upgrades and where you will receive new skills and pieces of equipment after completing certain sections. For this reason, you’ll want to revisit finished locales because you won’t be able to grab everything in one trip; for example, you’ll need Shrek’s strength-enhancing accessory to open big treasure chests. You don’t get this until after completing the first swamp area so you’ll want to return with that new ability. All four characters get a similar boost that will unlock various parts of levels, so collecting all the hidden items and cashing in on all the treasure chests will take some time. But it’s usually fun to do and it never feels as if you’re wandering around with the sole purpose of finding secrets. The main adventure and plot always takes center-stage.
The entire story doesn’t reveal itself in the first hour or so and we don’t wish to spoil anything, but let’s just say that Shrek must find a way to satisfy the “exit clause” in the contract he signed with the manically hilarious Rumpelstiltskin. This sort of involves a second honeymoon with Fiona – in a manner of speaking – and your quest will include a bunch of different locations, a variety of enemies, skillfully crafted puzzles, and of course, a few battle royales. During this time, you will always be able to switch between all four available characters (Shrek, Donkey, Fiona, and Puss in Boots) with the simple press of a button. R1 and Triangle cycles through them, but you can select the character you want by pressing the correct directional button. And not only does each party member boast different styles of fighting, but as mentioned before, they each have a special ability that will be required to move through each level. Shrek can move heavy things, Fiona can light stuff on fire, Donkey kicks (helpful, I swear), and Puss in Boots clambers up wooden surfaces with his claws.
The only downside to this is that you can’t really switch quickly between the characters during battle. It may be due to the fact that you can’t really interrupt the attack animations for a certain party member, but you have to remember you can’t be engaged if you wish to switch. Each character has his or her own life gauge so if they’re hurt, you’ll want to pass off to someone healthy. This allows for a bit of strategy but unfortunately, the unique battle-oriented skill for each character doesn’t change much of anything. Shrek roars, Donkey sings, Fiona blows a hunter’s horn, Puss in Boots apparently charms the enemy, and all four basically just stun enemies for a short time. Furthermore, unless you focus on upgrading one particular character more than others, they all do the same amount of damage, and they each have a similar finishing move of some kind. It takes away from the diversity potential and the combat suffers because of it, but it’s hardly a major drawback.
Besides, we’re not talking about Bayonetta, here. This combines action elements with adventure and puzzle mechanics, and on top of which, Shrek is specifically designed for a certain audience…and we’re positive that audience might just care more about the characters than their battle abilities. Like, “I think I’ll switch to Donkey now ‘cuz he’s my favorite.” But it also sort of hurts not to have a jump button of any kind (which would kill a lot of the puzzle elements, but even so), and there’s no block or dodge/evade command. This over-simplifies the fighting to the point of banality in my opinion, and it makes the combat the least enjoyable aspect of the game. This being said, all the other elements typically come together very well; the developers never have you doing the same thing over and over for extended periods of time, the varying locations keep the player interested, the puzzles are quite impressive, and the overall control is solid. The fixed camera also poses little to no problems.
Then you’ve got the combination of individual and group upgrades that can be purchased, and an incentive to play with up to three other players. There are some puzzles that need at least two people in order to be solved, so if you want the best this adventure has to offer, you need to recruit a few friends. It’ll certainly help if you’re all fans of the movies, because this game features the same type of humor, presentation, and general style. I think some of the puzzles towards the end might be a bit tough for the intended audience, the fighting really does take a backseat to the other aspects, and I’m willing to bet they could’ve done a lot more had they built on the gameplay with simple expansions (i.e., a jumping mechanic). But you encounter many of your favorite characters throughout your travels, the entire package is tied up with a very attractive bow, and the present inside will really be a fulfilling interactive experience for fans. In short, Shrek: Forever After is one heck of a big accomplishment in the world of games based on movies.
So if you’ve got kids who have all the movies in their collections, there’s no reason they shouldn’t play this game. I’m almost sure they’ll really have a blast.
6/10/2010 Ben Dutka