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The Golden Compass – Xbox 360 Review

There’s something morbidly fascinating about SEGA’s late 2000s movie tie-in games. There’s so many of them and they’re all outsourced to little studios who were probably given an extremely tight deadline to work towards and the results are telling. Why on Earth SEGA commissioned a game based on 2007’s underperforming The Golden Compass (currently rocking a 43% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an opening weekend described by New Line Cinema as “a little disappointing”) is a mystery to me, but I imagine it’s probably down to being a family orientated movie with an insane amount of fantasy gimmicks that can be utilised for a video game.

The Golden Compass has a bit of an identity problem and that shows throughout the entire experience. The protagonist is a girl called Lyra who is partnered with a little animal buddy called Pan. All humans in this world are partnered with little transforming animal friends called daemons and it turns out that your father, Lord Asriel, is performing experiments in the icy wastelands of Svalbard to separate daemons from their human counterparts. As Lyra journeys to Svalbard she befriends Iorek; an armoured polar bear who has been cast out of his clan.

Between Lyra, Pan and Iorek, the game is given its three playstyles. Lyra’s gameplay is mainly focussed on platforming, deceiving non playable characters through mini games and using a device called the alethiometer. Pan’s gameplay is limited to giving Lyra more platforming abilities, as well as joining in with some scraps that play out in little quick time event sequences. Iorek is the most action orientated and you’ll mainly be using him in Svalbard to attack hunters, witches and soldiers of the Magisterium.

None of these playstyles are particularly well executed. Lyra’s platforming is clumsy and uninspiring, the mini-games that you play when deceiving NPCs are boring and repetitive and seeking answers using the alethiometer is dull busy work that essentially amounts to waiting for the hand on the device to tell you what button to press. The fights that occur when you’re in control of Pan and Lyra are completely hands off. You basically wait for the enemy to lunge at you and press the corresponding button to dodge and watch your enemy hurl themselves into the scenery.

The most fun you’ll be having with The Golden Compass is when you’re in control of Iorek. You barrel around the snowy plains getting into rucks, performing simple combos to defeat enemies and occasionally blocking to avoid damage. It’s nothing special but it’s functional and executed well enough.

It’s a shame then that you’ll spend most of the game mucking around with the alethiometer and in menus full of mini games as you attempt to deceive NPCs. The Golden Compass is obsessed with getting you to seek answers to questions and understanding the meaning of the symbols on the alethiometer. You spend so much time navigating boring menus and playing uninspired mini games that are more akin to those extremely limited LCD games of yesteryear. Considering how much time you spend with the alethiometer, you’d have hoped it was a little bit more interesting to use, but sadly, it’s not. You essentially pick 3 symbols which are supposed to represent 3 keywords in the question you’re trying to answer. For instance, an apple can be interpreted as knowledge, or the image of the Madonna can be interpreted as faith. Once you’ve set your symbols you basically have to keep a reticule over the centre of the alethiometer until you’re told to press a specific button. Do that 3 times and you get the answer to the question. It’s woefully drawn out and uninteresting and it feels like the developers were trying to fit more of the film’s set-pieces into the game instead of focusing on interesting gameplay features that would have kept the player engaged.

Then there’s the presentation. Because this title was ported to so many platforms, it appears the same assets have been used across the board. This means the Xbox 360 port basically looks like an upscaled PS2 game with higher quality textures. The character models lack detail and the animations are hilariously ugly in motion. You can tell that no motion capture has been used at all and the whole thing looks very archaic as a result. The voice acting is some of the most phoned-in I’ve heard in a video game. The children in particular sound like they’ve recorded their lines on the first take and that’s what’s ended up in the game. There’s no emotion in anyone’s voice and it just doesn’t sound like anyone cares.

At the end of the day, you shouldn’t care about The Golden Compass. Shiny Entertainment have tried to make a game based on a fantasy film that just has too many gimmicks to be coherent. The world of The Golden Compass is full of talking animals, witches, transforming animal friends, polar bears wearing armour and a device that can answer any question you bring to it. Shiny have managed to include all these elements into their game but completely forgotten about the user experience. The Golden Compass is a rushed, messy and consistently boring game that tries to do too many things and does them all badly as a result.

3/10

Written by Lewis “Sonic Yoda” Clark on 01/06/2017

Cover, instructional manual and disc scans
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Screenshots
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