Review: Up (Sony PSP)

upcoverUp
Developer: Asobo Studios
Publisher: THQ
Genre: Platformer
Release Date: 05/26/2009

I know last year I flat out said to never play movie tie-in games in my review of Iron Man for the PS2, but I couldn’t help but want to play Up after seeing the movie. Why? After seeing the movie last week, I was flat out stunned by its excellence. Every once in a while a movie will be so good that I’ll want to play the game, if it exists, because of the quality of the film. The little voice in my head telling me that the game will be no good is silenced by another voice saying, “Get that game now!”

I hate that second voice. I really do.

Story

Just like the film, Up follows the adventure of Carl Fredrickson as he sets out to bring his house to the South American locale of Paradise Falls. It was his late wife’s dream to have their house at the falls, and Carl is determined to make her wish come true if its the last thing he does. So, Carl does what anyone would do: ties thousands upon thousands of helium filled balloons to his house and takes flight.

While in flight, Carl hears a strange knock on his door and discovers a young Wilderness Explorer (basically a boy scout) name Russel who was on Carl’s doorstep when the house took off. Russel is looking to get his “assisting the elderly badge” by helping Carl out. When the pair end up in South America, they crash land, and both are knocked out of the house. With neither being strong enough to climb back into the floating house by rope, they instead rely on ropes tied to them to weigh it down and steer it towards the falls.

There are plenty of new characters that are discovered along the way. First up is Kevin, the strange exotic bird that tags along after Russel gives him chocolate. Another is Dug, a dog fitted with a collar that allows him to talk. Finally, Carl’s childhood hero, Charles Muntz is discovered to have been living at Paradise Falls for decades. He’s got his trademark blimp, a legion of trained dogs, and a never ending desire to capture Kevin so he can show him to the world.

The story doesn’t end up nearly as good as the film, but that goal is probably impossible to manage. Still, the game doesn’t rely on silly still shots of the movie or out-of-order cut scenes. Instead, the game uses its own engine and some CG scenes to tell its own version of the story. The strength of the characters comes through pretty darn well here. While it doesn’t illicit the emotional response of the film, the story still manages to be interesting from beginning to end.

As such, the story is far and above the normal lot for movie bases games. It actually tells the story of the film.

Graphics

This is a very ugly game. From start to finish, the graphics just look blurry, undefined, and far and below from what the PSP is capable of.

For starters, the character models are extremely blocky when viewed close up. Several, such as the porcupines and dogs, are incredibly generic and look exactly the same as every other porcupine or dog. The animation can also get incredibly stiff at times. You’ll have moments when you’ve missed a jump or failed to grab a ledge because the character got locked in an animation loop too soon or too late. For example, Carl grabs on to high ledges by using his cane to pull himself up. I’ve missed a few ledges because Carl didn’t reach up with his cane until he was well on his way to falling down a cliff.

up2The backgrounds are by far the worse part of the game’s viewing experience. Any water you see looks like solid ground, with detail only being reserved for turns or waterfalls. During cut scenes and gameplay, so much of the environment is dull looking bluish gray rock that you’ll start to fall asleep from the look.

The movie did in fact use a lot of fog in the film, but the game’s attempt to mimic this is nothing more than an easy way to avoid having any draw distance or detail. Almost every section of the game is engulfed in a thick, ugly gray fog. It all works together to make Paradise Falls a really bland place to look at.

For a game and movie that largely takes place in a tropical rain forest, you’d expect a lot more vegetation. Instead, we get some grass and some fallen trees. Very rarely do you see a tree, and that usually happens because its one of the fruit bearing trees you shake to get fruit used to replenish energy.

All of this is without mentioning the persistent screen tearing and the odd moment where an object will flat out dissatisfy from view. There was one level where the rope that was tied around Carl vanished and I was left to ponder what on Earth was connecting him to the house.

This game looks like an ugly PSX game. There’s very little that the game does right in this department. Just a little bit of color would have gone a long long way.

Audio

The music of the game is taken completely from the movie’s score, and this helps out the game a ton. The main theme is featured prominently throughout, and it’s as excellent as always. Still, some problems arise in the implementation of the music. For instance, there are times when the music is very quiet and you’ll only hear the occasional instrument. As well, the music loops endlessly, and the track that loops isn’t very long. A tune can become grating after only a few minutes of play. This is sad, as the soundtrack is stronger than this.

The voice actors reprise their roles from the film and do a pretty bang up job here as well. There are a few times when you can tell a voice actor only did a couple of takes for a line, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Carl is voiced the best. Whenever you find a picture that has fallen from the house as it floats along, Carl will say something like, “I thought I lost this” or, “Remember this Ellie?” These lines are spoken beautifully and can draw a real emotional reaction from the player.

When it comes to other sound effects, however, the game falls flat. Any of the animal sounds you hear in the game sound as if someone recorded them with a small tape recorder and then decided to rewind and repeat the same split second noise over and over again. I often even heard a clicking sound before several noises began. If you get near to where a dog or monkey is, but aren’t quite close enough to interact with it, the same second long noise clip will play endlessly on loop until you get rid of the thing. There are times I wanted to rip my own ears off because these got so annoying.

So despite absolutely great source material, the game’s audio is a failure thanks to the pathetic and amateurish way it was integrated into the game.

Gameplay

In aways, Up‘s gameplay is very similar to the Lego games. You have two characters that you can control at a time and you must use both in order to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. For instance, there might be a section where you need to jump up on a high ledge. Neither Carl or Russel can make the jump, but there is a teeter totter near by. What you do is have Russel stand on one end and have Carl jump onto the other from a high point that he can reach. Once Russel is up on the ledge, there will be a minigame where he drops a rope and helps Carl get up the rock face whilst avoiding razor sharp spines. Moments later, one character will rotate a log covered in thick vines while the other other crosses the log in order to get to the other side of a river. Once the first character is across, he’ll rotate the log for the other.

Both characters have unique abilities and items that make them both useful. Carl can grab on to high ledges with his cane, use his hearing aid to exude a high pitched sound that scares off enemies, use a golf club to hit enemies with rocks, wield a torch to illuminate a dark cave, or even start fires with a magnifying glass in certain areas. Russel uses a pickax to grab on to special ledges, a grappling hook to attach ropes, a mirror to to blind enemies, and can pick up heavy objects that Carl is unable to.

Of course, much like the Lego series, the game has its fare share of technical problems that inhibit this solid concept from being fully realized. For one, the AI controlled partner can be a real idiot at times. They will stand in the way and prevent you from moving forward. At times, they can get in the way at just the right moment and cause you to miss a jump, causing you to fall off a cliff. Other times, they’ll follow you when you don’t want them to. One time, I needed to backtrack with a single character, but needed the other to stay put. Instead, he started following me as I made the trek back and got on the edge of the platform I needed to get to. I bumped into him and fell. Another problem is that it is incredibly easy to miss a jump thanks to awkward angles. If a box or platform is placed on the edge of the level, the camera will make it hard to gauge how to jump because the platform will be at an angle. There is this silly minigame in every level where you have to either squash or collect spiders that crawl around on the ground. If these guys are around, the AI will always go for them and ignore following you or doing what they’re supposed to. Also, even if you are several feet away from the nearest one, the action button will result in you making the squashing/collection motion. This means you won’t pick up the thing you intend.

I mentioned the camera. Usually, it keeps in tight on the characters and does a good job of showing you what you need to. While this is a 3D game, the levels are very linear and lead in obvious ways, which means you won’t have to worry about enemies coming from the sides that you can’t see. However, any time when Carl and Russel get separated and play on different planes, the camera becomes useless. Carl will be in the foreground and Russel in the foreground, for instance. Carl will need to jump at an angle or walk on a tightrope that leads at an angle pointing towards the foreground. Because you can’t change the camera to focus on him, you’ll probably miss the jump or accidentally walk right off the edge because you can’t see properly. It happens a lot.

up1One thing to note. You can’t die in this game. Sure, if you miss a jump or get hit by an enemy, you’ll lose energy, but you’ll find plenty of fruit scattered around the level to replenish it. If you somehow run out, all that means is that you can’t do certain activities like climb up a ledge. Since there is always fruit with a few seconds walk, this will only be a minor setback.

Apart from these platforming, sections, there are three other gameplay types featured throughout the game.

The first is a canoe section. Here, you’ll need to steer and power a canoe through raging rapids while avoiding obstacles including rocks, thorn bushes, crocodiles, and projectiles thrown by monkeys on the shore. The canoe controls like absolute crap. In can be near impossible to go in the direction you want or change direction when in a stationary position. If you bump something, you’ll completely lose control or get stuck. If there’s a croc on your tail, you’re going to get hit. Thankfully, getting hit merely knocks you off the canoe (I guess the crock wasn’t really that hungry) and you’ll start only a few seconds back from where you were. Still, there are some sections that are nearly impossible. One spot had me in a small pool of water with a rock in the middle. A croc was on the opposite end, and I needed to grab his attention and avoid him to get to the other side. Because the rock was there, room to maneuver was nil to begin with. Tack on the horrible controls, and it took me over twenty tries to get past this section, because often I’d go right into the croc or get stuck so he could grab me. There are three of these levels and I hate them without question.

Another level type involves being tethered to the house and needing to make jumps. There are no enemies in this section. All you have to do is jump from platform to platform without missing or falling off. If the distance is really far, the game will let you do a super jump, where the helium in the balloons tied to the house will give you some bouncy. I don’t think physics works quite like that, but oh well. One problem here is that you’re still controlling both characters, and one will be stuck behind the other. This makes it far too easy for one to get accidentally bumped off a ledge. These sections are OK, but the long jumps are really boring.

Finally, you have aerial dog fight sections aboard small biplanes. These might sound exciting, but the controls are sluggish and inverted, which make it a pain if you’re used to flying properly. Also, the auto aim is far too generous. It steals any challenge from this section.

These sections help break up the monotony and end up doing their job as well as can be expected. The platforming is decent enough, but can get real old after a while. After you’ve used your twentieth teeter totter, you won’t care anymore.

In the end, its a simple platformer with some nice ideas. However, thanks to a few bugs and control issues, it ends up being a less than worthy experience. At times, it can even be bad.

Replayability

Another comparison to the Lego franchise is that Up features items you can collect in each level, as well as areas that are sealed off until you come back with a new item later on. After you’ve beaten a chapter, you can go back any time in order to to grab any missed items or explore new areas with recently acquired items. The game will also keep track of how long it took you to complete each level.

While there is no co-op, the game does have about four minigames that can be played via ad hoc with one other person. These consist of a few head to head challenges such as tug of war and the aforementioned dog fighting sections.

In addition, you can replay any of the canoe, log, balloon jumping, and rope climbing section to get a best time, as well as set up tournaments where you hand the PSP off to another player when its their turn. You can play it by yourself as well.

The main game isn’t too long, but its not as short as your typical movie tie-in game. It will probably last you anywhere from six to seven hours for the first play though. With additional content to unlock through replay, such as cheats and still galleries, there is definitely more incentive to play this game after the credits roll.

Balance

You can’t die in this game. No matter what happens, you’re always a piece of fruit away from refilling your energy meter and being able to try again. In the sections where you can fail, you’ll just restart instantly only a few second from where you just where. The checkpoints are beyond generous.

The puzzles are smart, but never difficult to figure out. This is a kids game after all. There might be the occasional moment where what you need to do isn’t quite so clear, and the controls can make it hard to do, but this is a very easy game.

Except those canoe levels. They are a punishment from god for purchasing the game.

Originality

If you’re looking for something original, you really shouldn’t go towards movie games.

However, I will say that the level of cooperation between Russel and Carl is far and above the usual amount you see in these types of platformers. These guys really depend on each other to get by. If they did a little bit more in terms of variety with these sections, this would have been a much better game.

Addictiveness

Thanks to the ease of play, and the awkward controls, this game is pretty easy to put down. No one section is compelling enough to keep you sucked in. More than likely the only thing that will keep you going is the sheer will to complete the game.

up3If you’re the kind of person who needs to find everything in a game, you might find some value in the collectibles. However, most of the time, the items you’re trying to find are in plain sight and all you have to do is climb a platform or take out an enemy in order to grab them.

Some sort of multiplayer co-op mode for the main story really would have helped this game. Playing with someone else other than the dumb AI would be a lot more fun and a lot less frustrating. Also, parents probably would have had a blast playing this with their kids. If you want that, you’re going to need a different version of the game.

Appeal Factor

This game is very kid friendly. If you’re a parent looking to buy a game for your kid, this one will fit the bill in terms of content if not quality. The mechanics are simple and easy to learn, while the game is easy and incredibly forgiving.

If you’re looking for a quality platformer, you’re going to be let down.

For those looking for a good tie-in to the movie, you might just want to check this game out. The story isn’t nearly as good, but tells in a way similar to the abridged versions of classic novels I used to read as a kid. The meat is there, just trimmed down. If you need something to do while you wait for the DVD release, you might as well play this.

Finally, the game is selling for thirty dollars at retail. This is significantly cheaper than other versions of the game and is also cheaper than the usual PSP movie tie-in. Generally speaking, these kinds of games go for ten dollars more. So if money is tight, this version will have some appeal.

Miscellaneous

The cheats are pretty nifty, if not spectacular. You can affect the basic mechanics of the game. For example, one cheat allows Russel to use the teeter totter without having to jump from a high distance. Another cheat will put a movie film affect over the screen. These are more rewarding than the usual screen shots these kinds of games offer as unlockables.

I will not forgive this game for not offering a co-op mode. Given the nature of the gameplay, it just screams for you to be able to play with a buddy or loved one. They didn’t have to Infrastructure, but some Ad-Hoc gameplay was sorely needed. Without it, the game feels incomplete.

The game also just reeks of the movie tie-in stigma. There are odd touches everywhere that tell you that the game isn’t polished. The screen tearing, dumb AI, and inconsistent audio are just a few of the culprits.

The worst part of this is that the movie itself is simply fantastic. The better the movie, the worse off the game is. If the movie sucked and the game sucked equally, one could be more forgiving. When a movie is great and the game sucks, the feeling of disappointment magnifies greatly.

The Scores
Story: Above Average
Graphics: Bad
Audio: Mediocre
Gameplay: Poor
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Poor
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Poor
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Poor
Final Score: Below Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
diehardjack3Up for the PSP is not a good game. It just barely manages to avoid being full out bad thanks to its decent story and replayability. If you’re looking to rekindle the magic of the film, go see it in 3D. If you’re looking for a good platformer for the PSP, I can recommend several far better candidates. Just ask me. If you’re buying this for your kid, let it be know that is safe, but don’t expect them to be too entertained by it. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t play this, but I’m not recommending it to anyone.

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