What time is it?
I dunno. Review time, probably.
Having recently started its fifth season, Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time is a freakin’ ridonkulous show. It can best be described as a modern fairy tale where you follow the heroic adventures of the last (pure) human alive and his magical shape-shifting dog in a world of magic. Unlike most shows made for kids, it isn’t really made only for kids. It uses the Pixar touch of having things that are child-appropriate along with some seriously mature themes and innuendo jokes that hide right on the surface and only become apparent to you once the world has beaten a lot of the innocence from your brain goo.
The show is full of weird humor, imaginative creatures, and some of the most unique dialog I’ve ever heard in my life. Many of the creatures in the Land of Ooo are somehow disturbing and adorable at the same time. Not to mention, I haven’t seen a character design style that is this recognizable since Dr. Seuss. Most importantly to this animation fan who also happens to be an avid gamer, you can feel the influence that video games have on the writers of the show. None the least of which is the character BMo (bee-mo) who lives with the main character and is quite basically a living Game Boy robot.
That is why I was extremely pleased to hear that not only was a 3DS game in the works, but that the show’s creator Pendleton Ward was on hand to lay out the plot and dialog. This meant the game had the greatest potential to stay faithful to the tone of the show. Even better developer Way Forward, the same studio that was able to give us the stunning reboot of A Boy and His Blob, was making it. There have been a few weak-sauce iOS and browser games so far, but the anticipation for a full retail action-adventure Adventure Time game was so damn math.
The result is a game that surprisingly takes a lot of inspiration from Legend of Zelda II. Yeah, that one. The one everybody says they hate. You will travel by way of a bird's-eye overworld in which our heroes are depicted as the size of the towns they are traveling to. Along the way there will be randomly appearing enemies which will initiate a 2D side-scrolling combat area if they contact you. You will have to perform fetch quests to unlock passage into the next dungeon. Um … there are dungeons. You get the idea.
Finn jumps, slide kicks, punches, and swings Scarlet, his golden sword. The controls are pretty much perfect. Everything does what you’d expect it to and any damage or pitfall you take completely feels like your own poo-brained fault. The combat is almost completely Finn’s domain. This is explained in that Jake has woken up completely unmotivated to use his legs and so he spends the entire adventure riding around in Finn’s backpack. On one side, this might feel like a cop-out, as Jake functions much like a horse on the show. On the other, having full access to Jake’s abilities would have given us the easiest most boring game ever. This is also keeping completely in Jake’s lackadaisical character.
As you keep playing Jake will also be able to lend a super stretchy paw with more and more abilities unlocking as you play. Many of Jake’s abilities can be used in combat, but are generally more focused on being able to better traverse the environment. For example, you can have his ear stretch out to form a shield which will deflect enemy projectiles. However, you will likely use this ability more as a windshield to allow you to continue down hallways with excessive gusts. This is coupled with his out of combat abilities, like becoming a bridge or a raft that are only accessible on the overworld. Through this mechanic they have given us the Metroid/Zelda exploration of going back to previous areas with new abilities to get where you couldn’t before. It is a nostalgic form of backtracking that is not as annoying as one would think when using the b-word.
Outside of combat, you will find many characters from the first four seasons of the show within the different villages and areas that you can talk to. Here in lies this game’s biggest leg up on other franchises … interesting dialog from the NPCs. Even if some of them are communicating gameplay tips straight out of the manual, it has Mr. Ward’s quirky flair added to it. In many ways it does really feel like you are playing along with an episode of the show.
While all the action takes place on the top screen, you do have BMo acting as your inventory/menu screen on the touch screen. You will have a map (helpful in late game to keep your bearings) and stat screens. The screen that you will likely use 90% of the time is the stuff screen.
As you defeat enemies, you will occasionally get stuff (treasure). Fans of the show will recognize why there is a plate of spaghetti next to a tiger claw spell below baby boots and above a crystal apple. A majority of this stuff is typically food which is used as a health boost. Some food is better than other food and it can be made better (or worse) with condiments. A stack of pancakes can give you a full heart, a jar of syrup half a heart, but syrup covered pancakes can give you three hearts. There are also magic items that will increase your stats temporarily. You can feel safe experimenting with using these as the game tosses them at you quite often, next to nothing is a unique item. Your inventory is limited and similar items do not stack. The game throws so many of these items at you, it is important to keep it organized and combine food with condiments to free up space.
All is not rainbows and gumdrop farts in this digital land of Ooo. Firstly, while they copied much from the nearly 25 year old Zelda II, what they didn’t copy was the one thing that made it special … experience points. Finn does have stats that can be leveled up, like health and attack strength. This is performed by locating Wizard Stars hidden in the game world. This is really not terrible, but it drags down the game in one major way - you begin to avoid combat.
Yes, what is supposed to be the biggest thrill in an action-platform game becomes a thing you look to do as little as possible. Why you may ask? Well …
Most enemies are rather mindless and either act as obstacles or just patrol a single section. By and large a few donks with your sword is enough to end their threat, almost none of them require a special tactic to dispatch them. Now, enemies do drop healing items, but enemies are also the most likely source of taking damage. Simply jumping over them and continuing ends up being the fastest and safest route much of the time. The plentiful save points full heal you as well so a lot of the challenge is diminished. Once you get Jake’s umbrella ability, you’ll end up float skipping over most of the combat sections just to avoid the monotony of combat and the possible damage it will entail.
Basically, the game tossed so many healing items at me in the early stages that my inventory was in a constant state of being 90% full. I would purposely waste food items to free up space for magic items. These magic items lose their effect if you leave an area so they end up being largely worthless in normal combat situations. I ended up saving those for the boss battles, where they would do the most good.
So that is why the lack of experience points brings down the game. Combat is not rewarding enough on its own. The enemies don’t chase you and they largely don’t block your path. They aren’t arranged to make platforming more challenging, nor do you ever have to clear a room of them in order to unlock the next room. The dominant strategy ends up being to just jump over the enemies you can and mow down the few that are in your way. You never have to fight anything for your upgrades, you just find them. Even with backtracking the game only last about eight hours, there is a slightly more challenging new game plus ... slightly. All in all the game is just too short and way too easy.
It sounds complainy and yeah it is. I’m a game critic. I’m using my powers of critical analysis. It’s like my job or some junk.
I had plenty of fun with this game. The animations are spot on, the music is excellent, and the dialog is crazy good. The gameplay is fine. It works. It is good. It just doesn’t seem to be integrated into the progression of the game, rather busywork you will find yourself avoiding when you can so you can get to the boss.
I really enjoyed this game, but I am aware that enjoyment is wrapped up in how much I like the show. There is so much fan love it is banay nahs. However, the gameplay itself is simply somewhere between great and good. Instead of being a game so good it might get people interested in the show, it just ends up being a better than average game that uses its license well.
Sorry super fans, I'm just being honest.
You love this show? You’ll enjoy this game.
You hate this show? You won’t enjoy this game.
You’ve never seen the show? Go watch it! This game is not a good introduction to the franchise. You like it? Buy the game.
This is one of the best cartoon licensed games I’ve ever played; it just isn’t close to being one of the best games I’ve ever played. Fingers crossed on a sequel that actually realizes that a majority of the show’s viewers are older than seven and can handle a game with some teeth.
This review is based on a 3DS copy of Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?