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DS  header logo

The Golden Compass

For: DS   Also on: Mobile, PSP

Not exactly precious

Product: The Golden Compass | Developer: Behaviour Interactive | Publisher: Sega | Format: DS | Genre: Action, Adventure, Film/ TV tie- in | Players: 1-2 | Version: Europe
The Golden Compass DS, thumbnail 1
Apparently Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, was renamed The Golden Compass in America because audiences there might be confused about what the northern lights are. The end result is that we in the UK are confused about what The Golden Compass is, especially as the book's alethiometer isn't anything like a compass in the traditional 'point north' kind of way. But, to be clear, this is a game based on The Golden Compass film (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) which, in turn, is based on the Northern Lights book.

The Northern Lights book is brilliant. Think of His Dark Materials like an acceptable alternative to Harry Potter if you're an adult, and can therefore easily read it on the train into work without worrying about what anyone else thinks because it's actually quite, well, dark.

The PG-rated film, however, looks like it's been made with the commercially friendly family entertainment sector in mind and, as such, we were expecting a similarly child-friendly game to accompany it.

Yet, while there's no denying the story sequences have been simplified, this game is surprisingly challenging – in parts, there's platform jumping and puzzle solving that'd give Lara Croft a run for her money. Sadly these levels aren't matched in quality throughout, but if you can forgive some ropey combat and often bland visuals there are at least some moments that work very well.

Of course, with such rich source material to hand-pick ideas from, we would have been sorely disappointed to find The Golden Compass delivered close to nothing. Thankfully this isn't the case, and the game wisely hones in on the key features in the book and film, before translating them rather successfully to the DS.

First, there's the mechanic of how daemons work in the game. Daemons, for those that don't know, are physical manifestations of a person's soul which take the form of an animal. In children, these daemons can alter their shape from one animal to another, which is rather perfect for a game. So tapping X switches between lead character Lyra and her daemon Pan, and then pressing R enables you to choose from four Pan forms (more are unlockable as you play but they essentially do the same as the four you start with and just look different).

So Pan's wildcat form, for example, is used to attack enemies, the ermine digs and activates switches, the hawk flies and can pick up and carry items, while the moth fits into small gaps and can scout the area ahead without alerting suspicion during stealth sections.

These various forms are what make the game's puzzles more intelligent than they might have otherwise been, and some solutions really require some thought. You might need to fly through an air vent as the moth to reach the other side of a locked door, switch to ermine form to dig up a key, and then rely on the hawk to carry it back to Lyra.

The second key part of the book implemented into the game is the use of the alethiometer, which Lyra picks up about halfway through the adventure. Initially, this is remarkably fun to use and deliberately complex so it's not just there for effect.

How does it work? Well, if a character asks you a question and you need to discover the correct answer from the selection given, you must look in Lyra's diary to find three symbols that sum up the question, spin the three shorts hands on the alethiometer to select those icons, then follow the swishing, spinning long hand with the stylus. Then you draw the shapes given to you on the touchscreen to read the answer.

We say it's only initially fun to use though because later in the game, when you're expected to keep inputting formulae to find hidden doors, it becomes very long-winded and tiresome. Unless you have some sort of photographic memory to consign the formulae to, of course. Or, alternatively, a pen and piece of paper so you don't have to keep delving into the diary.

The Golden Compass isn't all morphing and alethiometers, though. Iorek, an armoured polar bear and the third playable character alongside Lyra and Pan, brings with him some game variety. He's actually first controlled in the game's prelude levels, then disappears for over half the game but pops back in time for the end combat.

Unfortunately, combat is where this game doesn't deliver. Enemies throw themselves at you quite randomly and their animations are so stilted that Doberman dogs and wolves look like they're mechanical. And although still menacing, you're limited in how you deal with them. Iorek has a few special moves, like smashing down on the ice to stun enemies, but mostly it's just about bashing one button when up close to an enemy until it's dead.

At its core, The Golden Compass isn't a terrible game and it's clear it started with some decent ideas. Some of the puzzles and level design are good, even if ideas start to get repeated quite quickly. The lack of polish – no doubt due to the rush of getting this game out in time for Christmas – is where the game jars. Character animations stutter, the backgrounds in some levels are so similar you worry you've gone back on yourself and there are frustrating inconsistencies and glitches in places, such as with how you can fall 15 metres and survive one minute, then stumble down a step and die the next.

Unfortunately, all this means it's a hard game to suggest you purchase, particularly if you're a fan of the Philip Pullman books. And if you're not, you'll find that even the great story isn't told especially well through the cut-scenes, so you need to know it before playing to really get the gist of what's going on.

On the plus side, the DS version of the game is arguably the best out of all the formats available (helped in part by its stylus moments) but it's faint praise when you consider how poor those other versions are. And it's little consolation if, like us, this is a game you were quite looking forward to.
The Golden Compass
Reviewer photo
Kath Brice | 12 December 2007
A side-scrolling adventure based on a great book, with platforms, fighting and puzzles to negotiate. Some levels are fun, as is the touchscreen alethiometer, but a few good puzzles aside it's nowhere near as good as it should have been
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