Shrek the Third

When I first watched Shrek the Third — seeing the princesses fight through hordes of bad guys, watching Artie earn his kinghood, watching Shrek trade barbs with Charming –- I thought, “man, this would make for a great video game.”

Sadly, it didn’t. Is there a rule that decrees all movie-based games be mediocre?

Shrek the Third, the game, is not a bad game, but it isn’t good either. For what it is — a chance for game companies to cash-in on a movie’s success — it’s alright and can keep kids entertained for a bit, but it plays like it was put together by the lowest bidder. Strangely enough, it wasn’t.

Activision, which touts itself as makers of the most popular children’s video game franchises, had dozens of different teams working on this game, had the groundwork laid by the Dreamworks films and met various levels of success with Shrek franchise games like Super Slam and Smash n’ Crash Racing, but it seems like they just couldn’t find the effort to put into this game. Y’know, with all these licensed games out there, you’d think someone in a dark office somewhere would realize that if they just focused on “one game per movie” rather than spreading themselves thin over a dozen spinoffs and knockoffs, they might actually make more money.

Of course, it helps if the movie the game is based on was good, but Shrek the Third is the weakest of the trilogy. It wasn’t a bad film, per se, but it felt like it was missing something — more plot, more humor — something. One can’t help but notice how some elements, most notably the princesses’ escape, seem made for a video game. I’m glad to report that Sleeping Beauty is a playable character in the game, but she doesn’t use the fall-down attack from the movie. If only the other girls made it in as well.

In fact, while the movie’s premise — a group of guys go for an adventure away while a group of girls have an adventure at home — seems perfect for a multiplayer adventure game, the makers of this game seem not to have noticed. It’s a shame, really, because children, believe it or not, like playing together. The game for Shrek 2 was decent, and made an effort to include the much-sought-after party element to the adventure mode by allowing for four-player cooperative modes, but Shrek the Third‘s game misses out.

That doesn’t mean the party element has been dropped altogether. Mini-games and multiplayer events are added, and will likely be the main draw for young players. “Castle Capture” is a fun 3-D version of the classic missile-launching games where each player must estimate the perfect trajectory to destroy the other’s fort. This is easily the most polished sub-game. “Catacombs Leap” takes the main game’s annoying physics (I’ll get to that in a minute) and turns them into a race. “Ships Ahoy” is a fun time killer, as players see who can take out the most pirate ships (or get the score-winning shot after another player has done the hard work). “Shooting gallery” is basically the same thing, with less guess work and faster targets. “Frog Herder” seems lamest at first, as one of Shrek’s sidekicks must shoo frogs toward a pond, but the exploding mushrooms and lovesick amphibians can get a laugh out of younger players. Finally, “Shrekleboard” combines the fun of shuffleboard with the Shrekiness of, well, Shrek. The less said about that, the better.

A sleepy shrek charges the camera

The main adventure game, with which new multiplayer characters, costumes, and other goodies can be unlocked, is intended to be the main fun of the game, but it falls miserably short. Bad camera angles, sloppy frame rates, poor character animation, horrible physics and the occasional un-Shrek-like character design results in one sad mess. When the camera changes, the directions shift, causing characters to suddenly turn backwards in midair if a player was jumping forward when the camera shifted. Players will routinely find themselves floating near some platforms yet falling through others. The main characters are horribly built with no effort whatsoever put into facial expressions or body movements. Character designs are decent, though some non-speaking characters look like they were designed for a Lord of the Rings tie-in rather than a Shrek one. The game was designed, I assume, for young children, and the adventure and straightforward button actions are simple enough, but the unintentional difficulty may drive some children away. Quickly.

That said, what saves this mediocre game from being an outright bad game is the clever writing and overall fun game design. Cut scenes are cleverly animated and voice acted. New elements add a lot to the story, especially the inclusion of the Lady in the Lake (who would’ve fit in perfectly with the movie). A Madagascar penguin even makes a cameo (voiced briefly by Madagascar director Tom McGrath) — it seems you can’t have a children’s property without penguins these days.

Some elements of the game’s design are also pretty clever. Unlockable elements must be “purchased” from the game’s Gift Shop using coins players earn by completing skill-based “Quests” built into each level. This novel approach helps add replay value to an otherwise so-so platformer. By far the most ingenious addition is the option of “commentary,” voiced by the main characters and characters not otherwise in the game, like the Three Little Pigs and Cinderella. These short commentaries only take up about a minute or so of gameplay but they add a little of that metafictional fourth-wall-breaching comedy that Shrek is famous for.

The writing is actually pretty good, particularly the character dialogue. The story diverges a bit from the main film; most notably it leaves out the clichéd body-swapping gag and shortens the ending. This doesn’t hurt the plot (in fact, the film didn’t need those parts either), and the added story elements actually make the story a little more exciting and unpredictable. This seems to be due to two writers I’ve never heard of: Jim Dunn and Sam Ernst. Near as I can tell, the only other thing these guys have written is an independent film from 2004 called Myron’s Movie. They, along with Adam Foshko and J.C. Conners, crafted a fun adaptation, even if the game itself didn’t live up to the witty banter and interesting story. It also helps that Monty Python alum John Cleese stepped in as narrator, that film voices Cody Cameron (Pinocchio) and Conrad Vernon (Gingy) joined the action and that Shrek game veterans like Mark Moseley, Holly Fields, Michael Gough, Andre Sogliuzzo and James Arnold Taylor also returned to lend familiar voices to the franchise.

Strangely enough, everyone I just mentioned is listed near the very bottom of the game’s rather lengthy credits scroll.

It’s worth mentioning that the game includes a demo for The Bee Movie Game. The demo seems, appropriately enough, designed for some of the youngest console system players with simple and easy to follow up-down button instructions that trigger film-style animation. I’m not sure if the whole game will be this way, but it would be refreshing to have a children’s game that really young children could actually play. Most importantly, the demo has nearly film-quality graphics and the voice of Jerry Seinfeld!

Overall, Shrek the Third is a decent console game, although it doesn’t live up to current (or last) generation console standards. It’s worth playing if you need to see everything Shrek, but if I were a video game company, I’d try polishing the next one up more to have something I could be proud of. At least include gameplay that can live up to the writing.

RATING 5 / 10