Since he was first introduced to the world in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones has been the reigning king of adventure in film, but despite this iconic status, he’s never been able to achieve the same level of success in the game space, lagging behind such characters as Lara Croft, Nathan Drake, and the ever nameless prince of Persia. Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings is the most recent attempt to change his standing. It’s a valiant effort but one filled with missed opportunities. At its best, it captures the frantic, brawler feel of Indy’s best fights, and at its worst, some horrid motion controls make it frustrating beyond forgiveness.
This outing finds Indy racing against a German archeologist to find the Staff of Kings, the staff that Moses used to part the Red Sea. As far as mythical objects go, the staff fits well with an Indiana Jones adventure; he’s already found two Biblical artifacts, so a third seems far more fitting than, say, an alien’s skull. But no one ever takes the time to explain what the staff actually does or why anyone would want it. In fact, it’s not even mentioned until halfway through the game. The Staff of Kings could have been a fascinating, mysterious object, one the player actually wants to find, but since nothing is ever said about its power or lore, all that potential is reduced to a mere plot device.
Story is not the game’s strong suit but neither is characterization. The character of Indiana Jones never seems to come to life. Whether due to the limitations of the hardware, budget, or the desire to hide the fact that Harrison Ford is not doing the voice work, Indy is strangely silent for many of the game’s action sequences, which is a shame because the actor voicing him is actually quite good. He sounds very much like a young Harrison Ford. When Indy does pipe up, it’s only to briefly explain plot points or make wisecracks stolen directly from the films that aren’t nearly as witty when repeated. The result is a bland interpretation of the famous hero.
The game does take Indy all over the world from Sudan to San Francisco to Nepal, and while he spends most of his time traversing caverns, each cavern feels unique to its location. Indy is nowhere near as agile as gaming’s other adventure heroes, so he can’t climb or jump up any rock like they can. Because of this limited athletic ability, exploring the environments is done mostly through context sensitive actions; if there’s a gap you can swing across, a wall you can climb, or an object you can push, an icon appears next to it letting you know what action that you’re supposed to take. This exploration through icons removes the fun of path-finding and discovery that other adventure games pride themselves on, and makes the whole of this game feel like an extended tutorial.
The crux of the game and its best feature is the combat. Indiana Jones has always been a quick witted brawler, and in the game, there are no special fighting styles to learn, no complex combo system, just quick jabs, hooks, and uppercuts. In addition to his fists, each arena with enemies is littered with items Indy can keep or throw. Shovels, bottles, plates, sticks, pieces of armor, or even a small octopus from a fish tank all become potential weapons. Then there’s the whip: flick the Wii remote up to wrap enemies around the neck and head butt them, flick it down to trip them and hit them on the ground, or use it to bring a bookcase crashing down on unsuspecting Nazis. Whatever method you choose, the game perfectly captures what it’s like to fight as Indy: He’s got his fists, his whip, and his wits, and how we use those is up to us.
But he also has a gun. Everyone remembers that classic scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but other then that guns have never been an effective part of Indy’s arsenal. At certain times, the game becomes an on-rails shooter; Indy ducks behind cover, and we have to pop him out and shoot all the enemies. These moments of gunplay are woefully common but thankfully short. Some are exciting, like a chase in a cable car through San Francisco, but most of the time they feel unnecessary. Indy has never been a gunslinger.
Most of the game fluctuates between moments of fun and moments of missed opportunity, but it never becomes frustrating…until you reach the end. The final action sequence is conceptually brilliant with a clever use of the motion controls, but the execution is so horrible that whatever good will the game has engendered up to that point is lost. The only saving grace is the forgiving number of checkpoints, which means that you’ll be playing a few 10 second sequences over and over again instead of the entire three minute sequence. It’s a shame that the game has to end on such a low point.
Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings tries to imitate the great adventures that came before it but too often misses the mark and is never able to escape from the shadow of its gaming peers. In the race for the title of King of Adventure Games, Indy is still a distant fourth.