Young Adult fiction has become considerably more acceptable to adults over the last few years, with the line often blurring between adult and teen fiction and authors writing stories based on their own merits instead of pandering down to children. One of the best authors leading this charge is Rick Riordan, a man who many have termed the ‘Myth Master’ and it’s a title he’s earned. With two high-budget film adaptions of his first two novels in the Percy Jackson series, it was inevitable that there would be a at least one video game tie-in.
It’s no secret that the films stray from the structure and tone of the novels significantly in places, eschewing the central theme of modernized Greek Gods who have adapted to the times in favor of a more traditional ‘Clash of the Titans’ approach and cutting large portions of the story. Many of these changes appear to be for pacing (Percy flees the city immediately after encountering a Fury rather than several weeks later after learning more of what’s going on for example) whilst others may be to play into the expectations of viewers. This isn’t new for Hollywood and seems to be par for the course these days, though some properties are treated with more reverence than others. This video game was released to coincide with the release of the first film onto the Nintendo DS and structures itself on the movie over the novels. That’s not to say it too doesn’t take liberties with the central narrative.
Visually the game uses 3D models that are competent but not as visually pleasing as one would expect from a DS title. An attempt to incorporate photo-realistic textures leads to the game having a somewhat muddy appearance and has dated very quickly in the manner of an early PlayStation title. Environments cope somewhat better however and add a lot of depth to each battle, fleshing out the areas in which you play significantly, whilst menus are nicely stylized in a moving Greek motif that is visually appealing. Menus in general work well and are uncomplicated, with plenty of room for the stylus to operate without accidentally tagging something else by mistake. Character models are intricate, though a lot of detail is lost due to the texturing and small scale of the display. narrative sequences lack animation and are based on 2D snapshots of larger 3D models, occasionally giving the game a slightly cheap quality that it doesn’t deserve.
The game employs music that attempts to invoke a sense of mystery and wonder in the world you’re exploring and for the most part this is achieved. Though using heavily synth sounding tones and occasional Midi-quality music there are echoes of Human voices in the overworld that give everything a more eerie presence. Combat has a punchy pace and plot sequences are well matched to a handful of tracks for different moods. Sadly many tracks loop frequently if you stop to listen to them. Sound effects are of a similar quality, with movement having a stone grating sound that’s well recorded but annoying after a while, and characters giving reactions to attacks verbally. These work well though are obviously not recorded by children, with Percy sounding considerably older. Attacks have good weight to them and scale appropriately, so clipping damage sounds less effective than a solid hit.
The narrative of the game is based on that of the film, giving those who have read the first book a filtered, third-hand take on the experience. Most of these changes are made in order to inject additional combat sequences (upon which this game is structured) into otherwise thoughtful of slower-paced moments in the tale. The structure of the story is still there however, and it is an excellent concept that’s written wonderfully by Riordan, filtered though it may be the brilliance of this shines through and it is a good narrative for a video game. Narrative sequences play out with stills displayed on the top screen and text on the touch-pad below in large, easy to read characters and in one-paragraph sized chunks. It can be a little sloppy when it tries to convey actions over the static images through its text, with comments such as ‘throws Percy a pen’ italicized. Sadly this does make some narrative sequences lose pace, and dramatic tension is hard to build in this format.
Gameplay is centered around the games combat system, turning the experience into a series of battles linked by narrative sequences. The lower screen is used as a world map of sorts, with the player moving between nodes with a tap of the stylus and each node representing a battle, plot sequence or both. Some nodes are entirely empty and serve to give the impression of travel, which given the map-like background is a good idea as it breaks up the steady waves of battles. When outside of combat you can use recovery items and upgrade your team of three heroes, with each able to take three moves into battle and to equip two coins that carry passive bonuses such as +10% damage or protection from poison. Moves are usually well matched to character types in the story and allow you a level of tactical thought based on the kind of monsters the game is throwing at you at any point in the story. Battles themselves are turn based and displayed in 3D on the top screen with the lower screen serving as your interface. Initially you will be limited to Percy and Grover, who are a mixture of attacker and supporting types, but as Percy learns to use his powers over water and with the addition of a third character the system finds its stride. groups of up to three enemies attack based on a gauge seen at the tip of the screen, showing which side will attack next and larger, more powerful moves give the enemy more chance of striking first, but this also allows for the stacking of smaller attacks in quick succession. At first the game feels weighted toward attacking as damage is healed after combat, but using buffs and debuffs slowly builds a team gauge that when triggered can cause massive damage to a select individual. Status effects have a large sway on character performance too, as does elemental alignment. Additional features based on the games touch-interface are also incorporated, with the player tracing Greek letters to power up, swiping the screen to add bonus damage to critical hits and tapping at the right moment to avoid damage. These all combine with the three-action rule to make an excellent battle system that supports the game well whilst never becoming confusing. Sadly there’s not much more to the game, which is fairly linear by design, than battles and narrative moments linked on a dotted board.
Overall, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief feels like a wasted opportunity. Whilst it released onto the DS at the time, today it would probably see launch as a mobile title and incorporate Freemium elements. Actually, a mobile port would offer the chance for cleaner graphics and touch-based interface without the hassle of using a stylus, and would probably see great success across a wider audience for a budget price. The series is perfectly suited for an RPG and this does feel a little like a quick cash-grab rather than a legitimate attempt to do the best by the license. Today you can pick the game up mint in package for under £5 and it’s worth your time to experience the story alone, even if nothing compares to picking up the book.