Version tested: Xbox 360
As a kid, you have might have loved Tintin; as an adult, you probably appreciate him. Hergé's great achievement wasn't just in bringing action and adventure to European comics, but in bringing sophistication, technique and an increasingly cinematic eye along with it.
There's a visual language in Tintin so delicately evolved that you don't even notice it most of the time - the way that faces are caricatured but bodies aren't, the way that a funny little coiled squiggle can effortlessly suggest when a vehicle's in motion, or the way that, in the later books, Tintin (check this out: it's actually true) only walks right to left if he's headed towards some kind of a set-back.
It feels entirely fitting, then, that The Secret of the Unicorn should feel like a victory for technique and sophistication, too - although, with much of the team behind Beyond Good & Evil working on it, that probably shouldn't be a surprise. Ubisoft Montpelier hasn't been graced with the largest budget by the looks of things, but it's worked smartly with it - for the most part - and has found what seems like an ideal video game expression for Hergé's world.
And that expression, it turns out, is the 2D platformer. Unicorn's at its best when you're working your way through Marlinspike Hall, or an Arabian mansion, or even a craggy Brittany castle that isn't in any of the books, clambering up ladders, jumping from ledge to ledge, and tinkering with gentle environmental puzzles.
The storyline blends elements from The Secret of the Unicorn and The Crab with the Golden Claws as the search for three mysterious model ships leads the boy reporter into dangerous waters, but the game itself would rather steal judiciously from the likes of Donkey Kong, Metroid, and even, in some of the brilliant co-op missions, Super Mario.
Mostly, it's Donkey Kong, with its scatterings of gantries, its roving low-level threats and its daring leaps and last-minute escapes. The best chapters of Unicorn are a mixture of puzzle mechanics and traversal dexterity as you scope out the territory, work your way into enemies' blind spots, take them out and then open up access to the next area where you'll do it all over again.
It's like moving from one panel to the next. At first, you'll spend a lot of time merely lining up jumps, bursting through switch-plates and stealing keys from guards. As things get more complex, though, you'll have to send Snowy sneaking into gaps in the walls, flap through the sky with a parrot on your back, hit switches with pots or beach balls and even rely on tipsy old Haddock to stand on the occasional pressure plate for you.
Tintin's nimble enough with a nice range of wall-springs, ledge grabs, and forward rolls, and the game's forgiving, too. It's kind with its checkpointing, and generous when it comes to hopping you up onto a ledge that you might just have missed by a hair. The puzzles will hardly pose much of a threat to someone who's tackled Limbo or Braid, but there's a lovely pace to proceedings, and each location's enlivened by a steady trickle of new ideas.
Combat's threaded in with a similar elegance. A mixture of comical stealth takedowns and simple brawling, it eventually gets more tactical once armoured foes, machine-gunners, and enemies that can only be attacked from one side come in. Banana peels, wet paint, and a handful of other elements play up the puzzling aspects of each battle, as do the occasional - and rather repetitive - bosses.
It's a kid's game at heart, so you're not going to be unduly challenged, but there are definite opportunities for flair along the way: taking out a screenful of enemies without being spotted, say, or throwing a lit torch into a shielded baddie who then stumbles into another baddie, who then falls onto a TNT barrel, blowing down a wall that's been blocking your path. At times, there's a welcome flash of clockwork lurking behind the pratfalls.
Unicorn's quietly pretty, too, if you can overlook the fact that Tintin will probably never look right in anything other than Indian ink, and that Haddock has a little of both Saddam Hussein and the Yorkshire Ripper to him in his new incarnation - which is probably not what they were going for.
Characters aside, Ubisoft's art team draws everything from storm clouds to canyons and underwater tunnels with a pastel-coloured clarity that suits the Tintin universe well, while animations are packed full of classic poses, and fights erupt in a knockabout cacophony of wind-chimes, ringing bells, and cuckoo clocks.
It's got great personality, and you'll wish that the designers had the courage to see that this was enough. As a 2D platformer, Tintin's a delight. What lets it down, though, are all the moments when it isn't a 2D platformer - and there are quite a few of them throughout the course of the adventure.
Plane flights, scent-tracking jaunts with Snowy, motorbike chases: all of these interludes provide a little variety, but they're unconvincing in execution and a bore to play through. With sleepy steering and feeble weapons, Unicorn makes for a poor arena dog-fighting game and it's even worse when it comes to bike combat.
Lamest of all, though, are the on-rails sword-fighting sections. Playing as Sir Francis Haddock in a series of flashbacks, you parry and slash awkwardly at a selection of cloned foes and occasionally knock a bomb back in the direction of whoever threw it at you. It's understandable that Ubisoft might want to pad out a rather slight adventure, but it's hard to feel these moments add much beyond a little light spectacle and some pointless busywork.
What makes Unicorn's quest for variety strange as well as irritating is the fact that the game's already found a far more successful means of extending the fun anyway. Local co-op - a campaign of platforming gauntlets set within Haddock's nightmares - is absolutely magnificent: both frantic and intricate as you and a friend work your way through a series of surreal dreamscapes hunting for treasure.
The environments could have been plucked straight from the books' stranger moments - fire places that float in mid air, lifts that look like gramophone records, giant figures watching from the background. At times, the level design is more inventive here than it is in the main adventure, and the bosses are certainly better.
Each character comes with their own skill - Tintin, for example, can fire off a grappling hook, Haddock can move crates and bust through walls, and Castafiore can double-jump and break glass - and every mission requires you to work together to move through the environment, while you fight bitterly for every last piece of gold and silver. If you've played Four Swords much, you'll know about the kind of uneasy alliances this dynamic can create.
It's annoying that Unicorn works so hard to undermine itself sometimes, but in the end, it's hardly a fatal flaw. The game's best levels can be truly brilliant, like a co-op stage that twists and rebuilds itself around you as you move from one switch to the next, or a sneak through the oily decks of the Karaboudjan that plays like Metal Gear Solid 2 directed by Chuck Jones.
Its worst moments, meanwhile, tend to be dull rather than actually frustrating, and are always out of the way fairly quickly, too. It's not perfect, perhaps, and the whole thing feels pretty slight, but The Secret of the Unicorn's clever and deeply charming - a Tintin game for everybody, and not just the super-fans.
7 / 10