Version tested: Xbox 360
This interactive adaptation of the movie of the books is one of those games that starts off better than you expect, and then slowly droops to being exactly what you expect. At one point, near the start, I was wondering if I might have to dollop out an 8/10 for a game based on a kids movie. By the end the score had whittled down to...well, you'll see.
The setup is standard tween fantasy fare. Three squabbling siblings - twin brothers Jared and Simon, plus older sister Mallory - move with their post-divorce mother to the old family estate. Once the home of their great great uncle Arthur Spiderwick, the trio come to discover that their dotty and reclusive ancestor had spent his life documenting the "unseen world", the world of folkloric creatures only visible to human eyes by looking through the Seeing Stone. Having catalogued this world in the Spiderwick Chronicles, the old fella disappears, leaving his life's work in the care of Thimbletack, one of the diminutive creatures that has befriended him. Needless to say, the inquisitive youngsters discover the book and attract the attention of Mulgarath, an ogre living in the forest surrounding the house - and the only thing keeping this ravenous monsters and his goblin hordes at bay is an enchanted toadstool circle.
So, the promising start. To begin with, Spiderwick Chronicles is an adventure game. An honest-to-goodness old-fashioned7 adventure game. For kids. In 2008. Controlling one kid at a time, you're sent on a series of bite-sized quests to first investigate their creepy new home, and then to uncover and arm themselves against the invisible beasts around them. It's simplistic, with objects lying in plain sight and only available to be picked up once you've been told what they're for, but it's very much a game where thought is more useful than action. The 3D world is basic, and largely non-interactive, but it soon livens up once you gain the ability to see sprites.
These fairy-like things flitter about the gardens, and the other areas of the game. When captured like butterflies, using a special net, you must complete a painting of them in the Spiderwick Field Journal within a time limit. Do this and you get a power-up. Once a sprite has been recorded, you're free to net them as many times as you like without having to do the whole painting thing again.
However, as the game progresses through its seven main chapters, it loses its gentle focus and unwelcome elements of generic licensed kid fare start to creep in. Platform sections with Thimbletack inside the walls of the house are bearable enough, despite a couple of poorly-staged jumping sections, but it's the steady incursion of button-mashing combat that starts to drag the main game down. There's a rudimentary combo system in place, and the attacks are surprisingly brutal (mashing a goblin's head with a baseball bat seems more GTA than Harry Potter) but it doesn't take long for the endless onslaught of respawning bad guys to become a chore rather than a thrill.
Outside of the Spiderwick grounds the level design becomes confused, despite the relatively small play area. Identical-looking leafy paths and rocky tunnels twist and turn back on themselves, and it's easy to get in a muddle as you try to remember the quickest way to get from the forest road to the caves. One quest in particular, involving a griffin, relies on the sudden and inexplicable use of hidden teleporting trees and will frustrate its intended audience no end. Control isn't so bad, with a subtle lock-on feature that ensures kids won't get trampled in a melee and responsive attack moves. However, the automated jumping, which triggers whenever you reach a ledge, isn't quite so well planned. In the underground caves, as you battle goblins on thin pathways above an abyss, it's all too easy to wander too close to the edge and make a suicidal leap into the chasm.
So it's a decent-but-compromised action-adventure with an encroaching emphasis on combat mash-ups. Nothing to get excited about, but probably worth a rental for the eight hours it'll take to play through. Where the game really falls apart is the ending. There are eight chapters, and the seventh - the big confrontation with Mulgarath - takes the form of a long-winded escort mission as you keep family members safe from invading goblins. Hmm. It then gets even more irritating, placing you in a split-second instant-death no-checkpoints chase sequence with Mulgarath himself, during which you will die and restart (and watch short unskippable cut-scenes) many times before you realise where you're supposed to be going.
It's after you beat that section that the game really sticks it in and twists it around though. Having defeated the evil monster, you're then told that if you want to play the final (brief) chapter and see the end of the story you'll need to complete the Field Journal. This means catching every sprite in the game, finding every item and completing every not-optional-after-all side quest. None of these tasks are particularly arduous (though the location of some of the sprites can be confusing) but it does mean another few hours of backtracking and searching right when you were enjoying the glow of victory. In any game, such a switcharoo would be annoying. In a kids' game, it's downright sadistic.
There's the kernel of something really interesting in The Spiderwick Chronicles. Glimmers of a free-roaming kids adventure game with RPG overtones, based on actual folklore. Sadly, it only manages to be that game for an hour or so, before steadily becoming less interesting and more generic and annoying, culminating in an ending that is absolutely cruel considering the age of the intended player. In terms of gameplay, it's better than the usual game-of-the-film efforts - Stormfront's last entry was the woeful Eragon - but it's the gulf between potential and reality that makes this one sting.
5 / 10