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Netflix's "The Dark Crystal" Deserves a Better Game

Roberts has been a games enthusiast since 1997, a reviewer since 2009 and a cynic since 2014. Yes, he realises he looks like Animal.

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If you weren't aware of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics, you were in luck. I say that in past tense because you've come across this article. I'm by no means a fan of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal but I can safely say no movie, television or web series deserves such a poor throwback to the movie tie-in games of old. The idea is certainly there - build up a force of freedom fighters in the mythical land of Thra, unite the various clans and take on the antagonistic Skeksis in the prequel to the 1982 film. I'd even dare to say the turn-based tactics genre would work better than a generic third person shooter or cobbled together platform game like the usual bad movie tie-in games, but then that's an insult to the good ones we've seen over the past decade.

Developer Bonus XP knows enough about the property it's slandering with its shoddily put together mechanics, as they manage to fill about 21 hours with the premise of the Netflix show. Except it's done with the unstylish comic book panels slotted on a black background like all these games that don't want to spend the time making memorable 3D cutscenes, and minimal voice work to back it. All of this ends with a disatisfying conclusion having defeated the grossly overtuned enemies, and it still expects you to play it again in New Game+ mode to earn its spiteful final achievement.

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It's hard to imagine what a bad turn-based tactics game would look like in the modern day. Every schoolboy knows how to avoid the mistakes of the CRPG Fallout and its sequel with the clumsiness of the user interface and animations, and we've long established how acceptable a turn-based game's speed can be depending on its depth. Bonus XP spent a lot of time with this thought exercise, and decided to go one further and make a bad turn-based tactics game in the modern day. Anything that should be quick and intuitive is slow and easily forgotten once you've done it the first time. Instead of right clicking an enemy to perform a basic attack, one has to click their own character, click the attack, click the enemy, and if they're not in range, move first (and undo move if not in range to start again) and repeat all those steps.

While characters have jobs, gear upgrades and unique racial abilities, the diversity doesn't help the amount of frustration that goes into using any of its myriad features. Mercifully the game tells you what its many arcane symbols for buffs and debuffs mean, but to do so you have to once again navigate menus and radial wheels that don't seem fit for PC, console or even mobile. Such design makes me wonder if artificial intelligence (AI) had made this game within certain parameters. It pains me to think human beings did.

That's how I spent my 20 hours on-and-off with this game, wondering how and why it plays like a game from 2002 (that's being astronomically optimistic) and not a game from 2020. How did Netflix with all its resources decide the publisher they chose, En Masse Entertainment, would be the one to fund? And that Bonus XP were the studio to be paid to do it? Netflix has practically reinvented the way many people consume regular visual content, ditching the license fee for a subscription fee, turning off the mainstream for something trendier and new, from humble beginnings as a DVD rental service-by-post. And yet their want for a game of this quality comes from the time when they first started out.

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For context, movie-licensed games really started to up the ante when Batman: Arkham Asylum released in 2009. Though it wasn't based on any movies per se, Kevin Conway and Mark Hamill returned from a number of Batman series to voice Bruce Wayne and The Joker, respectively, and various designs were based on the number of comics and one-shots DC had published. Warner Brothers followed this up with other games in a similar vein such as the Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor/War series, set in the universe without being part of the main adventures. WB Games would then go on to publish Mad Max with the familiar "Arkham Combat" featured in the forementioned titles, with the addition of open dune vehicular mayhem.

Arkham Asylum did wonders for movie tie-in games, with other non-WB properties coming along. Where it'll be hard for the internet to forget Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines, the survival horror Alien: Isolation by Creative Assembly did much to improve the hit-and-miss reputation of the license in video games. And 2018's Spiderman by Insomniac Games is what every fan of the webslinger has wanted since the Playstation One games.

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The very existence of all of these other games puts The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics to shame, not counting how well nurtured many of them are with stellar voice acting, consultation of the license holders, and adapting to industry trends.The game in and of itself isn't good enough either, the most I can praise is its graphical fidelity and the one song it features.

My immediate instinct is to call this game lazy but that isn't true. Partly because all game developers work hard to pay the bills, but in the case of this game I say it isn't lazy because a concerted effort was made to make it bad. Why, I don't know. But there's enough story true to the show dotted so unevenly across this mess that I can't quite say it's lazy. It's still awful, but not lazy.

If this is some sort of punishment for all the times I - and only I - have bad mouthed and belittled developers, I can accept that. But the late and great Jim Henson, and the property he and his team created, deserve so much better.

RTwP would not fix this either.

Comments

Kyler J Falk from Corona, CA on April 22, 2020:

I watched "Return of the King" and bought the game on original Xbox the day they both came out. Some of the most fun I've ever had!

I think the biggest problem is that dev companies don't have all the flash and charisma that publishers do, can't make the same immediate promises, and thus they enslave themselves for the promise of income guarantees.

John Roberts (author) from South Yorkshire, England. on April 21, 2020:

Thanks for the comment, Kyler! I had hoped that the industry had shaped "the f" up but apparently not. I have to wonder who the license holders at Netflix had decided to go with the publisher and developer they went with in the end. I'll cover crunch and all that in later articles, I just need to fit as much info as I can into a 1000 word count and cut down on the axe-grinding. ^^

I should've mentioned the Battle for Middle-Earth games as while not necessarily true to the story (IIRC they were about if the Fellowship *hadn't* been formed), they were some of the best movie tie-in games I'd seen during their time, back when games like TDC:AoR Tactics were on their way out.

Kyler J Falk from Corona, CA on April 21, 2020:

The amount of movie/show offshoot video games that deserved so much better than they got is innumerable. Big business really loves to step on their own toes, grasping at whatever straws they can reach first rather than waiting for their chance to get a firm grasp on the roots of quality success, and thus their products suffer and we get blamed by their marketing teams for their own failures.

The game industry needs to shape the F up, and this article is a step in that direction. Publishers need to stop pushing developers into forced crunch, and shitty practices. I mean damn, look at "Lord of the Rings" and their games, at least they tried and for the time their hack 'n' slashers were at least average and true to their stories.