Pixar’s had some great games-based-on-movies over the last few years, such as the stellar Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 games. Can the Brave video game continue the streak?
Pixar has gone to great lengths to keep secret their movie’s big twist, but the game plunks players down right in the middle of that twist, slowly filling in the backstory of how things got to that point via a series of storybook pages that sporadically appear. It then diverges from the film, expanding the linear storyline of the film. That had to have been a challenging prospect, since the movie only ever features one enemy. Brave: The Video Game remedies this by extending the “curse” that drives the movie’s forward to cover the entire kingdom, unleashing all manner of fantastical beasties and baddies. As a game based on an animated film, it’s expected to be a family-friendly game, and for the most part, it is. But I think some of the mystical foes that Merida faces down could be a bit too scary for some young players.
In the game, you’re set on a mission to rid the Scottish kingdom, ruled by Merida’s father, Lord Fergus, of an evil “Blight” that’s been released upon it and is propagated by a wicked, supernaturally-powered black bear named Mor’du. To accomplish this, you must venture to various wilderness areas throughout the kingdom, and systematically defeat Mor’du’s minions.
Merida is a gifted archer, and her bow-and-arrow shooting is easy to control and loads of fun. To shoot, you just point the right stick in the direction you want to fire, and off an arrow goes. Less skilled gamers are helped by the game’s auto-targeting system, which makes it hard to miss. You’re also given unlimited arrows, which hardcore gamers may grimace at, but it certainly makes the game a lot more enjoyable. You can power-up your bows by holding down the right trigger, which lets you unleash a far more destructive arrow, or a spray of multiple arrows. Merida’s only other weapon is her sword, and you’ll find that the destruction she deals with her sword is much greater than anything her arrows can do. The trade-off is that you have to get in closer to the enemies to strike them, which makes you a much easier target for them to hit.
Fans of LEGO games will feel right at home, as most of your time is filled with smashing various objects to collect gold coins. Destroyed enemies spit out coins as well, and it’s important to collect every last one you can, to help you with your upgrades. Brave offers some “RPG lite” customization elements, where you visit a merchant’s store to buy upgrades for your abilities. Since the coins are a finite resource, you can’t max out every ability over the course of one play-through, so you’re forced to be selective about what you upgrade, RPG-style. You’ll also unlock better bows and swords (some of which are ridiculously huge — as big or bigger than Merida herself!) as you play; there’s no shortcutting this by simply buyingbetter weapons from the merchant. They aren’t available for purchase. You’ll also find bits of tapestries that increase your defenses and your health, and a handful of different outfits for Merida to wear. These wardrobe choices are purely aesthetic, offering no offensive or defensive enhancements for players.
Discovery of four special charms is central to your progression, as each one unlocks a special kind of elemental ammo for your bow: earth, wind, fire, and ice. You cycle through these charms with the shoulder buttons. Every enemy you encounter comes with an icon floating over their head that identifies them as most susceptible to one of the four kinds of ammo. Fire-based enemies will take more damage from ice bows, for example. When you get over halfway through the game, you’ll no longer face just one kind of enemy at a time. Having to switch between charms numerous times during a single fight adds a challenging dynamic to all the button-mashing.
There are also some specialty moves that Merida can unlock with gold coins. My favorite is the slam move, where you double-jump and then mash the sword attack button. Merida jumps high into the air and then hammers the ground with a straight-down sword plunge. (I recall an identical move in LEGO Star Wars.) The slam sends out a circular wave of destruction, taking out any nearby enemies. This attack grows especially powerful when you max out its upgrades. You can perform the move as much as you like, no need to charge it up. The ice charm, when powered-up, will shoot arrows that briefly turn your enemies to ice. There are other nifty moves as well that are all lots of fun to execute. If you perform flawlessly — dole out repeated damage without taking any yourself — you can charge up bonus powers that can be unleashed on the strongest of enemies.
Occasionally, you’ll get to play as… another, much larger character. (Trying to be vague here, to protect Pixar’s story secrets.) This character jumps into the action and pivotal moments to help Merida against overwhelming numbers of enemies. It’s all but impossible to die while playing as this character, because it’s built like a tank and can take down any enemy with minimal effort, even though it moves very slowly. Once in each level, you also get to play as Merida’s triplet brothers in puzzle games that find you switching between the three rascals in order to activate various switches and help Merida unlock the next part of the level. These puzzles can’t be solved unless all three of them work in tandem.
Every level ends in a massive boss fight, and some of these can be surprisingly hard to beat. Even on the “normal” difficulty setting, the bosses will call up multiple kinds of enemies to slow you down. While fighting them, you’re required to continually change ammo types, while dodging their flying projectiles, and somehow find time to shoot or whack away at the boss.
Co-op lets a second player join in as a blue Will-o’-the-Wisp (tiny creatures that have an important role in the movie), which stays close to Merida and can assist her in fights. The Wisp also has its own power-ups and upgrades you can buy. This is a different model for co-op play, an intriguing idea where the second player can only add to the first player’s effectiveness, without any chance of taking away from it. As such, the Wisp is an ideal character for smaller children to play as.
The graphics aren’t anything special, but the game looks nice. The coolest bit is the nifty lighting effect that surrounds Merida at all times. When she changes charm powers, the light shifts its color tint. For example, the fire charm lights Merida in an orange/red tone, while the earth charm lights her in a green tint. This minor visual touch serves a practical purpose, too: you know instantly which charm is activated just by glancing at Merida. Arrows and swords also take advantage of this difference; both weapons leave trails in the air that match the color of whatever charm is active.
One of Merida’s defining features is her mane of wild, curly, red hair. Pixar made enormous advances in computer animation just to render Merida’s hair realistically, and the game’s developers can’t be expected to easily replicate this complex effect. Still, their results are so laughable that we only ever get a good look at Merida’s gnarly locks during short cutscenes. During gameplay, Merida is frequently so far away from the camera that she’s practically a dot on the screen. Accordingly, depth perspective can be an issue at times with jumping games and the like. Depth is always a problem in any 3D game world where the player has no control of the camera (I’m looking at you, Epic Mickey). A little camera control can go a long way, but there’s none whatsoever in Brave.
The levels are always interesting and challenging, and they’re filled with coins and villains. At times they get a little repetitive; there were many occasions in the second half of the game where it felt like I was going from one battle scene to the next, with almost no exploration in between. I enjoy some exploration in my games, so I really missed those elements when they weren’t there. All of the requisite level types are represented, some of them twice: the cave level, the ice level, the fire/lava level, the forest level, etc. Granted, medieval Scotland doesn’t provide a lot of variations in geography.
There’s a selection of Kinect-powered mini games separate from the main game that feel tacked-on. It sounds fun in theory: there’s a full selection of archery challenges, where you pose and move just like a real archer. But in practice, I found it lacking precision, requiring very specific movements that were difficult to replicate. (Maybe the PS3 Move version is easier.)
The average casual gamer will require at least six to eight hours to complete Brave. A hardcore gamer could finish the game in a single sitting, but hardcore players don’t typically seek out family-friendly platformers, do they? Another downside is that there’s almost no replay value, unless you have a youngster who’s a superfan of the movie or its characters.
Brave provides casual gamers with loads of entertainment, and enough RPG-style elements to keep things from growing stale. It’s not without its flaws, but the fun of leveling-up and clever platforming variations, combined with the lovely setting of a fantasy-infused medieval Scotland, make Brave a winner.