Review: Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock

DoctorWhoTheEternityClock

Over the years I’ve come to accept that some of the franchises that I grew up with will inevitably have a misstep and sour my overall enjoyment of that creation.  Star Wars has had a fair share of turkeys over the last ten years.  Does anyone like the third X-men movie?  Lost ended without answering some burning questions.  At times it feels like it isn’t even worth the time or investment to get involved with a new franchise.  But then in 2005 along came the BBC with a new high budget re-invigoration of Doctor Who. Now granted, I recall watching the show once or twice as a kid and not quite understanding what I was seeing, but when the Ninth Doctor began his adventures with Rose Tyler, I was hooked.

Hooked to the point of fanboyism that I haven’t felt since the X-Files first started airing some 14 years ago. Maybe it’s the music.  Maybe it’s the snappy dialogue.  Maybe it’s the crazy way in which all of the original enemies couldn’t dare be re-interpreted or there would be such a backlash that the world might need a real Doctor to stem the chaos.  There’s something kitschy about seeing Dalek’s (which are truly nothing more than giant rolling garbage cans with a plunger sticking out as a weapon) being a true menace to the entire universe, and yet all the actors perform as if their lives depended on it.  Sure, over the last six or so years some of the original enemies have been given slight upgrades with CG graphics and state of the art make-up, but the characters and the writing are what make Doctor Who so special.

When David Tennant took over as the tenth Doctor it took a few episodes for me to accept his style and performance.  The same can be said of Matt Smith taking over as the eleventh Doctor.  What I’ve really enjoyed about the TV series is the writing team’s ability to take old enemies and make them fresh, all the while creating new enemies.  The Weeping Angels are some of the scariest creatures ever created.  Don’t blink or that stone statue will sneak up on you and get you.  Some seriously head trippy stuff.  Or so I thought, until The Silence was introduced.  How do you defeat an enemy that you forget about the second you stop looking at them?  Genius!

So it goes that with most popular geek-leaning franchises, a cross branding occurs.  Books, toys, gadgets and of course games wind up getting shoved out the door to help promote a movie or TV show.  Cross promotion is a tricky proposition.  Sometimes you get a great book or video game and other times you get something completely phoned in or so poorly cobbled together that you wonder why some franchises just don’t crumble into dust from the weight of so much garbage.  The reason franchises live on, though, is because of apologist fans.  I’m one of them.  I don’t mind Jar Jar all that much (actually, yes I do think he is dreadful–but not nearly as bad as the damn battle droids) and so I will accept less than spectacular in the hopes that eventually the magic returns.

Okay, so I’m mixing franchises a bit, but it’s to prove a point.  Doctor Who currently is one of the best shows on TV.  The writing is top notch, the acting is superb and all of the wild places that each episode takes its viewers to can’t be surpassed.  So I’m willing to let slide (as I do with Star Wars) a bit of a clunker when it comes to the occasional filler episode and even when it comes to video games. But not even I can forgive the mess that is Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock.

The Eternity Clock is an adventure puzzle game (with a little bit of action shooter bits as well) featuring the eleventh Doctor and River Song.  The Tardis is drawn to various points in time because parts of the Eternity Clock (which is kind of like a hard drive recording all events in the universe) have been collected by some of the Doctor’s greatest enemies in the hopes that they can re-write time and destroy the Doctor once and for all.  Defeating the enemies requires a lot of side-scroll platforming, avoiding enemies by hiding behind pillars or inside conveniently placed sheds, and eventually getting to a puzzle trigger point which then opens a door or gate to allow the process to repeat.  Along the way, collectibles in the form of hat boxes and pages from River Song’s diary can also be picked up.  While this sounds like a perfectly sound (if bland) game design, the execution is what causes the game to falter.

On the show the Doctor will often make a comment about his surroundings, either recalling a past encounter with something, or a statement of his style or taste.  That works great on the show where each scene flows to the next.  In the game, the same repetitive comment said over and over again, either because the puzzle doesn’t make sense or the platforming doesn’t work (or worse still–the Doctor is killed off by an enemy), made me want to mute the game and hope I could figure out what to do without hearing what was being said.

There are basically three or four mini-game puzzles repeated throughout the whole game.  Most puzzles are variations of water flowing through pipes in which you have to turn gates on or off to allow the water or electricity to flow to the correct end point.  Other puzzles are like a sideways Tetris-like block matching game.  Three symbols in a row can be rotated to be best placed on a grid, avoiding obstacles all the while being put into a chain of symbols to reach a random symbol at the end.  Another puzzle type has four wavy lines dropping down to an energy source.  Each wavy line has a gate on it which must be opened or closed to allow good or bad energy to flow down to the source at the end of the line.  A final puzzle required moving a dot down from an outer ring across smaller and smaller rings to the center where a circle is comprised of empty pie-shaped pieces.  Each ring has either a block or a rotating killer dot. Touching the killer dot resets the entire puzzle.

These puzzles are fun, but not so fun that I want to attempt them every two minutes or so.  One particular issue I had with each puzzle is how overly sensitive the controls were.  I would move my cursor on screen one space but the game would interpret that I had moved two spaces.  The same with button presses.  I would press once but the game would act as if I had pressed it twice.  Often times this over sensitivity would cause me to fail and restart a puzzle.

While puzzles comprise a large portion of the game, platforming is the method for getting the Doctor and River to each puzzle.  Some of the platform jumping feels okay, but for the life of me I don’t recall a single episode of the show where the Doctor leaps from ledge to ledge, climbs up or down ladders, or uses the Sonic Screwdriver to manipulate so many doors and elevators.  I take that back.  Using the Sonic Screwdriver is about the only part of the game that truly makes sense.  Moving the right analog stick around activates the Sonic Screwdriver.  When an object can be interacted with a big R2 button prompt appears on screen.  Pressing R2 triggers another mini-puzzle that requires matching up a sine wave pattern by alternately moving the right analog stick left or right and up or down.  This is the one puzzle mini-game that fits within the confines of the Doctor Who universe.

Unfortunately, while that (and several other puzzles are displaying on screen) the action outside of the puzzle continues.  Which means that if the Doctor is racing to open a door to escape Cybermen, Silence, or Daleks who are shooting at him, the enemies continue to shoot and the Doctor continues to take damage even while the puzzle is filling the screen and no other actions can be done to avoid the enemy fire.  If the door doesn’t unlock, the Doctor dies and then respawns back to a point where platforming needs to be navigated, and the puzzle needs to be restarted once again (hopefully without being killed off for the second, third or eighth time).

The game has three levels of puzzle challenge:  Easy, medium and hard.  I figured I would be safe starting on medium, but I was wrong. How does one go about making a water pipe puzzle harder? By requiring that a puzzle challenge be completed three or four times in succession before it can be considered solved.  That’s fine as long as there aren’t enemies who can shoot you dead while you are solving the puzzle, but it makes for an absolutely broken experience when the game thinks you pressed a button more than once (when a button was in fact only pressed once) and the puzzle resets, all the while you can’t see who is shooting you and you end up dead.  So I switched the game to easy and still ended up with some of the most frustrating and repetitive puzzles imaginable. Too often I had to replay sections over and over again until I could move on to the next story beat.

So to get back to my earlier point.  As a fan of the show, I kept plodding through the horrible gameplay because the story was fairly interesting.  Like a season finale, the game pulls no punches by adding multiple enemies and seeing how the Doctor manages to outwit each one to restore the Eternity Clock, and that is the only reason why I kept playing.  Repetitive quips and lousy puzzles were still outweighed by the story and the fanboy inside who insisted on seeing how it all played out.  If you are a forgiving gamer who also happens to enjoy Doctor Who, there is a slight chance that you too will be able to overlook the dreadful gameplay mechanics. However, if you are simply a fan of the TV series, I would strongly urge you to avoid souring your enjoyment of the show by playing The Eternity Clock. Now I only wish this game were like the Silence so I could forget that I played it, but sadly the trophy list is like a black notch permanently marked on my arm.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Great voice work by the original actors
+ Interesting story
+ Fun use of the Sonic Screwdriver

Cons:
– Dreadful control
– Repetitive puzzles
– Glitchy respawn mechanic
– Pointless collectables

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 via PSN (also coming to Vita)
Publisher: BBC Worldwide
Developer: Super Massive
Release Date: 5/22/2012
Genre: Action/Puzzle/Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-2 (offline co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.