Presenting the story of a young princess named Merida and her fateful quest to reverse a terrible curse she has inadvertently unleashed upon a kingdom set in Scotland, Brave is the latest animated feature film from the magical storytellers at Disney Pixar. Accompanying today’s theatrical debut, Brave: The Video Game bundles this fantasy tale into an interactive action-adventure experience for the whole family.
Brave‘s video-game storyline loosely follows that of the film, and by loosely I mean it gives you barely enough plot to set the scene without making you feel like you’ve already watched the movie before heading out to the theater. That may be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. If you haven’t seen the movie but plan to, you’ll probably appreciate that it won’t spoil the movie-going family adventure. However, if you’re playing the game after seeing the movie and already know what happens, you may be disappointed to find the game to be lacking the same level of narrative substance.
A few parchment scroll cutscenes introduce you to Merida and the conflict she faces, but the story offers very little insight into the other characters and only scratches the surface of the complete series of events. I can tell you that Merida’s mother (or mum) has been transformed into a bear and that there is another evil bear (Mor’du) spreading blight across the rugged Scottish Highlands. You chase after momma bear through various environments and eventually confront Mor’du, and then the credits roll without total resolution.
To be clear, I haven’t seen the movie (and won’t until it hits DVD/Blu-ray), but just from reading the film synopsis I learned about events, motivations and characters that either weren’t explained to me during the game or were only mentioned in passing. Merida seems to be a likeable heroine and her three brothers, now transformed into bear cub triplets, are cute as a button, but overall the writing team skimped a bit on letting her full personality blossom on the small screen and failed to really take players deeper into Pixar’s grand Gaelic universe.
Fortunately, the game itself is wholesome family fun. Platform hopping features prominently, as you might expect from a tie-in video game based on an animated movie, but by and large the game plays like a hybrid between an isometric hack-n-slash and a twin-stick shooter. Merida is a gifted archer and swordswoman, two skills she takes into battle against various elemental beasts plaguing the kingdom’s caves, forests, rivers, swamps and coastlines. Swordplay is reduced to single-button button mashing, while firing off arrows all rapid-fire like by tilting the right analog stick in the desired direction as enemies swarm in from all sides sort of makes it feel as if you’re playing a 3D Scottish-skinned version of Geometry Wars or Robotron.
Over the course of the game, Merida finds charms that imbue her arrows and sword strikes with elemental powers of wind, earth, fire, and ice. Different enemies have elemental weaknesses, so it becomes increasingly important to cycle powers to dish out maximum damage. Various environmental puzzles and hazards also require appropriate elemental combinations, such as shooting ice arrows to create floating block platforms so you can cross a frigid river or using fire magic to burn bramble barriers blocking the path ahead. All elemental requirements are clearly labeled with hovering symbols to help guide younger and/or less-skilled players who may not have the gaming intuition to look at an icy golem and immediately know that fire magic will do the most damage.
Moments spent stomping through hordes of baddies in Queen Elinor’s bear form and solving clever team-based contraption puzzles as Merida’s three brothers further expand the gameplay variety. While not dispatching foes and bringing flowery life back to the kingdom a la Amaterasu in Okami, Merida also does plenty of wall scaling, zip-lining, bow and arrow switch puzzle solving, and leaping over spikes and bottomless pits. The fixed camera often provides an inadequate view for judging distance and angle while jumping between platforms, but Merida’s shadow functions as a built-in guide to counteract the poor visibility.
My main concern with Brave is its weak staying power. For the average player, the game’s eight levels should last anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, which amounts to a reasonably sized once-off campaign for this style of game. However, there isn’t much to do once the game’s over. Enemies and breakable objects bust open to showers of gold coins to harvest and use to purchase ability upgrades and each stage has hidden collectibles like new swords, bows, tapestries and costumes to search for, but these items are always hidden within plain sight so it’s likely you’ll catch ‘em all on the first try without needing to replay levels again (which you can do at will—there is no New Game+ or anything, but the main hub area saves your progress even after the credits have rolled). The only unlockables are eight measly pieces of concept art (one for completing each level), which aren’t even displayed at full-screen HD resolution. The lone form of replay value comes from achievement/trophy hunting, and even then it only took me an extra couple hours to squeeze out an easy Platinum.
With the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, the developers tacked on an archery mini-game to support the PlayStation Move and Kinect motion control devices. Tacked on is the operative term, because completing the slim selection of available target practice challenges takes no more than 10 minutes or so. Playing the PS3 version, I will say that the PlayStation Move controls work well – much like other archery control schemes from Sports Champion and Medieval Moves, you put the Move over your shoulder and pull the trigger, as if grabbing an arrow from a quiver on your back, and then point, aim, and release the trigger to fire at the intended target. Again, the controls are accurate, but the mode itself is so easy and stripped down that there is no reason to ever want to play it again.
Brave: The Video Game is a delightful movie game romp with some fun sword and bow-and-arrow combat, drop-in/drop-out local co-op for family play time, and an authentic Gaelic vibe, down to the bagpipe-heavy score and thick Scottish accents (Merida’s theatrical actress Kelly Macdonald does reprise her voice role for the game). Unfortunately, the story seems so afraid of spoiling the film that it leaves out a lot of important expository background material which ultimately causes the narrative and character cast to feel somewhat hollow and uninteresting. Couple that with virtually nonexistent bonus materials and limited replay incentive, and you’re left with yet another competent movie game that skates by doing the absolute bare minimum. It’s a solid title worth playing–for both fans of the film and even adult gamers who know nothing about the movie license but simply enjoy a good platform action game–but it leaves you wanting a whole lot more once it’s over.
+ Twin-stick shooter-style archery combat is a lot of fun
+ Seamless drop-in/drop-out co-op perfect for sibling/parent-child family time
+ Easy Platinum for trophy hunters
– Story feels chopped-down and incomplete
– Unpolished camera and framerate performance
– Lacks meaningful bonus materials and replay incentive
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for PC/Mac, Xbox 360, Wii and Nintendo DS
Publisher: Disney Interactive
Developer: Behaviour Interactive
Release Date: 6/19/2012
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2 (offline drop-in/drop-out co-op)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher