PS3 Review: Rise of the Guardians



By most accounts, Dreamworks Animation’s latest film Rise of the Guardians is a charming, witty animated adventure that strikes that Pixar balance between entertaining kids and adults in equal measure. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for the tie-in game, which offers some enjoyable, colourful co-op action before descending into repetitive, simplistic tedium.

As in the movie, the evil boogeyman Pitch – a sinister, Brit-voiced conjurer of nightmares – is out to destroy childhood belief in magic and wonder, increasing his dark power and allowing him to conquer the world. To defeat Pitch, Santa Claus forms himself a mythical, holiday-themed Justice League, and along with The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and The Sandman, he recruits young rookie Jack Frost to help them fight Pitch’s minions, restore belief in magic and vanquish evil once and for all.

The game itself is a hack-and-slash action game that lets you control all five heroes as you fight your way through five distinct realms: The North Pole, Sandman’s Ship, The Tooth Fairy’s Palace, The Easter Bunny’s Warren and the suburban town of Burgess. Each realm is split up into multiple levels with numerous missions sprinkled throughout and you’re given the luxury of being able to jump into any world at any time and tackle things at your own pace in whatever order you like.
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If you’re playing solo, tapping left or right on the D-pad lets you cycle through each of the five heroes, or if you have up to 3 friends around, you can team up for some 4-player co-op. The heroes have their own unique abilities, but all fall neatly into one of two categories: Strong, up-close brawlers and fast, ranged attackers. Tooth and Bunnymund (aka The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny) fire long-range bursts of magic but aren’t as strong, while North (Santa’s new alias in the game/movie/books) and Jack Frost wield swords and staffs with strong close-range attacks but can’t cover much ground.

There’s special moves to even things out, though, once you’ve built up enough energy; Jack gets an especially handy ranged attack that fires a devastating burst of snow balls. Naturally for a hack-and-slash game, there’s some light RPG elements as you earn perks and skill points to level up your character. There’s three perk slots to unlock for each character (boosting attacks, health regeneration and attack range, for instance) and the skill points leave you free to beef up weaker characters’ strengths or compensate for their weaknesses, building up strength, health, durability, energy and speed.

It’s all familiar stuff to anyone who’s ever played an action RPG and there’s an option to simply auto-assign all your skill points if you can’t be bothered. The added sliver of combat depth is nice, and the special attacks are a nice varied option, but like so many hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers, the combat ultimately amounts to hammering the attack button constantly – simple, uncomplicated fun for kids to jump into easily, but nothing that will provide any lasting appeal beyond a few hours or provide any real challenge.
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The missions on offer only drive that feeling home more as the initially enjoyable action quickly becomes tiresome. The quests found in each level are incredibly simple. You’ll find collectibles in some, defend innocent creatures in others, free warp gates from enemy control or liberate friendly prisoners from cages, but while there’s some cosmetic variety, they all boil down to fending off wave after wave off evil, shadowy animal enemies. Every collectible and mission is marked on the map and crystal warp points allow you to fast-travel to other levels and realms easily to cut down on needless backtracking, which is nice. But with a lack of any challenge or variety in enemies or gameplay, it can get tedious pretty quickly, with the ‘protect the innocent’ tasks dragging on especially long.

Still, the mindless fun that Rise of the Guardians offers is certainly no worse than so many arcade action games on shelves and will keep younger, less discerning gamers entertained. The in-game visuals looks rather lovely and the 5 distinct realms offer up plenty of welcome scenic diversity, whether you’re fighting through the wintry snow of the north pole or exploring the lush forests in Bunnymund’s Warren. That visual variety extends to the characters, too, and while having five main characters and hordes of enemies all fighting on-screen in tight quarters can be hectic, the distinctive, colourful character design makes it easier to separate your character from the chaos, making the action-filled madness more fun than overwhelming (though the frame rate does stutter at times). The cast of the movie are no-shows here, so you won’t be hearing dialogue from Jude Law, Hugh Jackman and Alec Baldwin, but the stand-ins do a solid job all the same.

Rather than simply have you play through every story beat of the movie, Rise of the Guardians instead pares down the plot to the briefest set-up and lets the gameplay take it from there. It’s awfully handy if you haven’t actually seen the film yet, and saves spoiling every moment and set-piece, while the freedom of being able to explore the entire game at your leisure in any order is a nice idea, but it also results in the game feeling bereft of actual story or momentum.
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There’s a tiny opening cut-scene to set up the very basic ‘Santa and pals must fight evil Pitch’ plot, rendered in incredibly lazy, low-res animated storybook style. After that, there’s next to nothing. To cater for the fact that you can play any level at any time, the boss battles in each realm are all identical from a gameplay standpoint, and certainly so when it comes to story. Every boss encounter begins and ends with the exact same cutscene, which gets replayed at least 4 times across the 5 realms.

You can even wind up completing the game unexpectedly before you’ve even set foot in 2 of the 5 worlds – the boss encounters against Pitch pop up randomly when you’ve done a certain amount of stuff in each level, leading to the final boss just sort-of popping up out of the blue halfway through the game. Given the out-of-left-field appearance and the fact that the final cutscene is supremely anticlimactic and over in seconds, you might just assume that it’s simply another low-level boss fight until you see the credits start to roll. Thankfully you can still hop back into the game after to visit those unexplored realms and complete unfinished missions (though playing to 100% completion won’t take you more than an afternoon), but it still amounts to a game with an incredibly underwhelming ending, next to no story and zero sense of real progression.

There’s certainly stuff to like about Rise of the Guardians: The 4-player co-op offers some colourful, chaotic fun that’s on par with most hack-and-slash brawlers and the freedom of exploration is a cool touch. Sadly, the simplicity and lack of variety means that it won’t sway anyone over the age of 10, and even then, the lack of story and content means kids can plough through everything in the game in barely half a day. It’s a cut above a lot of licensed tie-in games, but Rise of the Guardians still doesn’t capture the charm of the film or offer up more than an afternoon’s distraction.

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Rise of the Guardians is available for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U, DS and 3DS.
Click here to buy the game from Amazon.co.uk.