If there is one lesson that we have still yet to learn as a society regarding the entertainment industry, it is that a successful movie does not necessarily mean that it will automatically translate to be a successful video game. If I were to ask you to count the names of huge blockbuster films that landed on the gaming side of things with a huge flop, you could go on and on… and on. This doesn’t mean that every title that has made the conversion ends up being a failure; there are plenty of exceptions to the rule(s). EA had a nice string of games that came out of the Lord of the Rings movies and the Spiderman games weren’t “that” bad. The Shrek series is a perfect example of how bad movies turned into video games can be. With the fourth movie recently hitting theaters, yet another game conversion has also launched courtesy of Activision.
Shrek Forever After will mark the eleventh video game released based on Dreamwork’s big, green ogre. There have been ten previous video game outings over the past 9 years and it would be an understatement to call them all “less than stellar.” This time should be different though as this is based on Shrek’s farewell film (Shrek Forever After has been labeled as the last in the Shrek series); surely Activision and developer XPEC won’t let the fairy tale crew go out on a bad note. Don’t worry, they don’t. The latest Shrek video game may be the best one released in the series to date. While this title won’t be up for any game of the year nominations, it will provide fans of the series with an enjoyable romp through Far Far Away.
Shrek Forever After for the Xbox 360 presents the storyline of the current theatrical film in an action-adventure shell. Players will take control of the series’ four main characters (Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and Puss-in-Boots) and guide them across a wide variety of stages throughout the land of Far Far Away. You can feel free to journey through the adventure by yourself but the game encourages cooperative play for up to four players. Playing with your friends has to be done locally though as Activision, unfortunately, did not include online play in the game. Perhaps the best way to describe the game would to call it a severely watered down version of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, which isn’t a bad thing. Gameplay is focused around the individual abilities of the different characters in the game and you are not only encouraged, but often forced, to use different characters at differing times in your adventure in order to proceed. This isn’t an original formula, but it works.
That may be one of the smartest moves that the development team made with this game: sticking to the mold of the genre. The game hits pretty much all of the bullet points of the “team oriented action adventure” genre. Multiple characters with different skills and abilities: check. Cooperative puzzles requiring said powers: check. Witty conversation injected into the action between said characters: check. XPEC doesn’t try to do anything new with it and let’s be honest, why should they? This is, after all, a port of a movie and the story and structure of the overall tale is already set in stone. It just so happens that the given genre fits the setting of the title perfectly, so why not utilize a tried-and-true mold for your game and focus on the polish of the final product. I think this works well in the sense that Shrek Forever After is intended to be a family oriented game, one that should be played and experienced by a group of players, young and old alike. With this sort of game, the developers have to walk a very fine line. You don’t want it to be too hard for the younger gamers, but then again you don’t want it to be too easy that it bores the older ones. There is a middle level that needed to be found and the devs have done a great job at finding it.
As I mentioned, the gameplay of Shrek Forever After focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of its characters along with straight-forward battles against various villains from the movies. From the battle standpoint, the game has a simple beatem’ up mechanic where players simply need to pound on the attack button to string together combos and eliminate opponents. Each character also has a special ability, which can be upgraded in terms of its effectiveness over time. This ability serves to stun your opponents momentarily and allow you to score some free hits. It isn’t the most effective tactic but it provides a nice buffer if the action gets to be a little too overwhelming, which may happen to the younger players at times. As you defeat opponents, both big and small, you are awarded with coins / currency which can be used to purchase things throughout the game such as character and attack upgrades as well as hints and information from non-playable characters.
During the course of your battles, the characters have a combo meter located on the side of the screen that fills as you defeat enemies in rapid succession. As the meter fills, enemies will drop more effective power-ups that enhance both your offensive and defensive abilities. This works well in theory, but the game doesn’t really give you a chance to let up on the attacks before the meter’s progress stalls and it starts to decline. Unfortunately, you usually need to fill the meter up faster than the game spawns opponents, which almost defeats its own purpose. The more mature crowd will likely find the gameplay of the fighting somewhat repetitive by the end of the game, but younger players should enjoy it immensely. I played the game cooperatively with my young niece and she was having a blast long after the appeal wore off on me. I must say that there is an aspect to the battling that will put a smile on your face and that is the use of the game’s licensed soundtrack. Every time that a battle sequence is initiated, the game begins playing one of the tracks from the soundtrack. I couldn’t stop laughing the first time that I had to battle an onslaught of enemies to the beat of “Walking on Sunshine”. I cannot help it, it made me smile every single time.In addition to the fighting, the four main characters of the story each have their own individual abilities which will aid your party in their journey. Each character serves a specific purpose on the squad. Shrek is the brute of the bunch and his strength will be required to move large objects out of your way like boulders or crates. Fiona is the cunning warrior in the party and her knowledge of battle allows her to light and trigger various explosives in the environment. Puss, being the feline of the bunch, is agile and nimble, allowing him to reach places in the world not accessible to the others. Finally, there is Donkey, who is a (excuse the irony) a donkey and can mule-kick objects to either destroy or reposition them as needed. In addition to their specific abilities, some actions require a certain character for no reason in particular. It doesn’t really make sense, but only Puss can trigger the firing mechanism of a catapult and only Donkey can rotate an object in place. You will run across numerous examples like this throughout the game and often find yourself scratching your head and asking why. The only reason this sort of gameplay exists is to push the focus on the cooperative gameplay; it doesn’t make sense but it perpetuates the gameplay focus of the journey.
Throughout your adventure you will be presented with a wide assortment of puzzles which will challenge you to find and use the right combination of character powers in order to proceed. These puzzles will range from being ridiculously simple to occasionally being downright frustrating. The players’ hands are held through most of the process as the game constantly tells you which characters are necessary as you stand in front of various objects in the game’s environment. If Donkey is needed, he will appear in a thought cloud above your current playable character. This hand-holding may be a bit much for the older crowd, but it helps to move the game along for the younger crowd. In order to help with the more difficult challenges the game offers a hint system via the Three Blind Mice. These little guys appear occasionally and allow the player to spend their earned coins for three levels of hints. Each hint gives a little more information regarding what the player(s) must specifically do in order to proceed and costs a little more than the one before it. The final and most expensive hint from the Third Mouse pretty much spells out exactly what the player needs to do. I will have to admit, I used them at least once or twice in the game though half of the fun is figuring it out on your own.
Perhaps you don’t have anyone to play through the game with. If you happen to be playing by yourself, you can actively switch between the characters at any given time by simply pressing a direction on the d-pad. Your ability to change to another character is limited by the amount of people that you have playing; if you are playing with 3 friends, you will each control a single character throughout your adventure, but if there is a spot open in the roster, participating gamers can opt to switch to the character(s) that may not be in use at any given moment using the directional pad. All of the puzzle solving and fighting occurs at a pretty swift pace throughout the course of the game. There is always an arrow in the top right-hand corner of the screen that directs the player(s) to their next checkpoint; rarely are you ever left in a position where it isn’t explicitly spelled out where you need to go next. Following in that straight forward mold of the genre, each stage conclude with a boss battle that usually requires you to combine both your fisticuffs and your intellectual skill. It is a nice balance that will keep multiplayer games focused on its participants functioning as a team.
All of this comes together and is presented in a great graphical style. The gameplay occurs from a top-down perspective and looks rather nice. The environments are lush, colorful, detailed and represent the source movie well. Occasionally, the gameplay is interrupted with either short cut-scenes using the game’s in-game engine or actual film clips from the feature length movie. Both look as good as you would expect a game on the current generation of consoles to look. The in-game engine looks highly polished and is arguably comparable to the quality of the Hollywood production(s). The same things can be said for the sound aspect of the game; the game utilizes the Hollywood voice actors and the actual licensed soundtrack to give a highly accurate representation of the film. Kids and adults alike will have no doubt, visibly or audibly, that this is in fact Shrek Forever After.