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The ‘Thor’ Video Games for XBox and DS: I Say Thee Play [Review]

With Marvel’s Thor calling down the lightning in theaters everywhere, it’s no surprise that the mandatory video game tie-ins are hitting shelves too. Released by Sega on all major systems — including the PS3, which could probably use a nice single-player game for fans to enjoy right about now — the games promise fans the experience of stepping into Thor’s boots and bashing frost giants’ faces in all across the Nine Worlds.

But that’s a pretty big promise, especially since the movie was good enough to set a pretty high standard. That’s why today, I’ve sat down with Xbox 360 and Nintendo DS versions of the Thor game to find out just how they rate.To say that video games based on comic book movies have a checkered reputation is underselling things quite a bit, and let’s be honest here: it’s entirely justified. Batman Returns resulted in one of the worst video games of the 16-bit era, and Superman 64 — loosely based on Superman: The Animated Series — is ranked as one of the worst games of all time. That’s not just how things used to be, either; the Iron Man 2 game got some pretty poor reviews, and while I haven’t played it, it received a 3.8 from IGN, the site that everyone jokes has a one-to-ten scale that starts at seven. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be that way.

The 2005 Punisher game, for instance, was ostensibly a video game sequel to the movie and featured the voice of Tom Jane, casually narrating his gun rack, hilariously gruesome special moves and levels where you popped out of a coffin to mow down mourning mobsters in a funeral home. That thing was a hoot.

Unfortunately, while the next-gen versions of Thor are nowhere near the abysmal ranks of Superman 64, it falls far short of the fun of Punisher, and ends up sliding right into the ranks of sub-par tie-in games.

There’s something you’ll notice about every version of this game even before it gets out of the box: the instruction manual, or lack thereof. They’re really just four-page pamphlets with not much information to them at all. Now, I realize that in the era of in-game tutorials and training levels, the manual is really just an artifact left over from my childhood, but in a game tied so closely to comics, it seems like a wasted opportunity to not include a short strip introducing the characters or controls. But maybe that’s just me.

The story is the same across all platforms: Frost Giants unexpectedly attack Asgard and end up killing Sif, and while Odin is able to restore her, he then promptly drifts off into the Odinsleep, leaving Thor and his desire for revenge to be manipulated by Loki into a spree of face-smashing. Obviously, this sort of throws Sif under the bus in order to set up the action, but it’s a decent enough excuse for Thor to take a grand tour of the Nine Worlds, meeting interesting new creatures and then bludgeoning them to death.

Visually, the XBox/PS3 version has some great backgrounds with an aesthetic that seems inspired by both the movie’s “techno-magic” aspects (Asgard is defended from an invasion by gigantic turret cannons manned by vikings summoned from Valhalla by the Gjallerhorn) and Pasqual Ferry’s artwork from the comics. There are often monsters and environments that look more sci-fi than “high fantasy,” but it works, and it leads to some pretty interesting combinations.

And by that, I mean trolls with laser guns.

Unfortunately, the fact that there are trolls with laser guns also means that while Thor is standing around swinging a hammer in front of him, there are often swarms of enemies sniping at him from a distance while you’re doing your level best to try to figure out which attack will actually let you damage the other enemy that you’re trying to fight. And that leads us to the most important — and most flawed — aspect of the game.

The best way to describe Thor‘s gameplay is problematic. It’s full of strange, counterintuitive elements that seem like they were rushed out the door without quite being finished. Most enemies, for example, don’t react at all to hits, which means that not only is it a poor representation of Thor wailing on dudes with Mjolnir, but also that every single enemy in the game has unbreakable combos, while even the tiniest hit stops Thor dead in his tracks. Even then, though, Thor’s reactions are either that he’s knocked down and has to spend time getting back up, or that he stands there with his head vibrating for a second like a karate training dummy. It just doesn’t look finished.

The enemies do tend to react to the more powerful hits that they’re weak against. Thor has different elemental attacks at his disposal that are actually pretty fun to unleash, but they take time to charge, which leaves you vulnerable every time you’re trying to hit something, meaning that virtually any attack the move you’re trying to pull off to actually damage an enemy and send you back to the beginning. What’s more, you’re vulnerable while you’re doing the attacks, meaning that while you’re filling the screen with lighting from the attack you just spent five minutes gathering the “Odinforce” energy for — and I’ll admit that I loved seeing phrases like “Collect 5 Volknuts to increase your Odinforce!” pop up on my screen — there can be an enemy steadily sniping at your health from well out of range of the attack you’re doing on the six enemies surrounding you.

Even outside of combat, there are choices in how the game works that are just mystifying to me. The game provides you with points that you can hurl yourself to with Mjolnir, which is a good idea, and sometimes you actually get the pretty cool effect of seeing Thor soar over parts of the stage. Often, though, it just fades out and cuts back in whenever he lands, meaning that the game is basically making you go through the trouble of telling it you want to move on every few minutes, which gets tiresome. There’s even one level midway through the game where you’re on a raft in Niflheim where you just have to press B the whole time. You don’t steer, there are no enemies, you just sit there holding a button down for three minutes until you get to where you’re going. Who thought that was going to be fun?

There’s also a “Hint” system in the game that pops up with hints for every area, but considering that most of them are “Hey, try not to suck so hard,” it’s easy to forget about it until you find yourself in a place with absolutely no cues on what to do next, inexplicably dying for what appears to be no reason. The hints usually help you out — “Oh right, I was supposed to break through the floor that looks almost exactly like every other floor before the invisible electricity killed me” — but that seems like the sort of information that should probably not be optional.

The game actually improves the more you play it — or it’s entirely possible that I just got more used to it as I went on — but the combat never gets any less frustrating, especially in the boss battles.

These parts seem to owe a lot to the boss fights from last year’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, only done on a smaller scale — which is ironic when you consider that Thor’s meant to be fighting giants and yet they are half the size of Castlevania‘s monsters. But while that game was highly enjoyable with a few annoying parts, Thor has lifted all the annoyance and made it worse.

Basically, Thor fights a huge monster by waiting for the right moment to jump on its body, climb around to a good spot, and then crack it open with his hammer. That’s a nice idea and a lot of the special attacks are very well-animated, but the entire experience takes forever to do. I played through a dozen of these fights, and I have no idea what conditions I had to meet in order to get the opportunity to initiate a grapple, which left me dealing with unavoidable attacks until something decided I should have the shot. And even then, it’s all done as quicktime events — one of the ten plagues of modern gaming — that have no prompts and not much indication of whether you’re doing the right thing.

And if you screw up (and you will, often) you’re dropped back at the start. In fact, you’re usually dropped back before the cutscenes that introduce the bad guy, giving you something else to sit through, so that every five-minute boss battle takes at least a half hour to get through.

A game needs to have a challenge in order to be fun, but when playing the game is that frustrating, the challenge becomes forcing yourself to actually get through it. And there’s no better example of that than the fight with Ulik the Troll.

The fight with Ulik is more or less the third of three boss fights in a row, and it’s a mess. Immediately preceding it, Thor faces off against a gigantic ogre with a cannon that shoots fireballs at you. The hint system reminds you that you can reflect enemy projectiles back at them, and you can, but since the fireballs are rapid-fire, reflecting the first one just means that you’re stuck in the animation when the second, third, fourth and fifth hit you for half of your health bar. You actually can pull off more than one, but you have to start countering at just the right moment before your initial counter is over, and even then, the fact that it goes into Matrix style slow motion — in the year two thousand eleven — throws the timing off. Then, it turns out that that’s not actually the way to beat the guy.

Then you finally get to Ulik himself, in a fight that takes place in a room where magical columns of energy shoot out of the ground at intervals. In a better game, this would be something you could use to your advantage rather than just a random hazard, except that Ulik can run right through them with no problem at all. He also charges at you, and after an entire stage of dealing with enemies who require you to counter their charges — enemies that can only be defeated by countering being the second of the ten plagues — it turns out that you just have to avoid those.

The true way to defeat him, of course, is grappling, initiating a quicktime event that changes every time you do it, pretty much ensuring that you’re going to fail at least your first three attempts at beating him. The first time you’re prompted to hit X, the second time, when you start to hit X, you’re instead prompted to rotate the analog stick, and the third — surprise! — no prompt at all! You figure it out.

It’s insanely frustrating, and it’s the first game in a while where I’ve actually said out loud, while playing it, “why would someone do this?

And then there’s the voice acting. The game makes a pretty big deal of having Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston doing the voices of Thor and Loki — even going so far as to list it on the back of the box in big red letters — and while Hiddleston does a pretty good job, Hemsworth is rough. It’s really surprising considering how well he did playing Thor in the movie, but his “For Sif! For Odin! For Asgard!” might be the flattest delivery I’ve heard in a game in years.

It all adds up to something that just doesn’t have any polish to it at all. I’m a guy who really wants to play a Thor game with this story and those characters, but the next-gen version just falls flat in almost every way.

The Nintendo DS version, however, is fantastic.

If that’s surprising, it shouldn’t be: Thor for the DS was developed by Wayforward, the same group that developed the Batman: The Brave and the Bold game, and they take a similar tactic with this one. It’s the same story — although I think Sif is “badly hurt” rather than “killed,” because much like Wu Tang, this is for the Children — but done up as a side-scrolling beat-’em-up that plays like Final Fight mixed with Castlevania‘s sprites and platforming.

Admittedly, that’s a combination that’s almost scientifically designed to appeal to me, but it’s really well-done. Even with the simplified control scheme and 2D play style, Wayforward throws a ton of varied attacks and techniques, and even with the repetitive nature of the beat-’em-up, there’s some nice variety in terms of how they mix up different kinds of enemies and power-ups to raise the challenge as the game goes on. There are even three different kinds of special attacks you can choose from, although really, there’s no reason at all to use either of the ones that isn’t “shoot lightning at everyone.”

Also, it’s a game that, when you’re being sniped at by an enemy atop a pillar, gives you the option to tear the pillar down with your bare hands and beat the enemy to death with it, which is great.

It’s also worth noting that even on the DS’s tiny screens, massive enemies like Surtur and Mangog actually feel bigger than they do in the next-gen versions, if only because the camera pulls back to show them towering over an even tinier Thor. It’s a neat effect.

There are only seven levels to it, and like its Beat-’Em-Up ancestors, it plays through pretty quickly, but there’s also a nice amount of bonus material added in. There’s a fight-til-you-drop Survival mode, a gallery of the “talking heads” art by Mark Brooks and Sonia Oback that’s actually really nice, and best of all, a crazy time attack mode that lets you play as an Asgardian soldier, Heimdal, Sif, Loki, Fandral, Hogun or Volstagg.

Playable Volstagg, you guys. Playable Volstagg.

It’s probably not going to make any Best Of The Year lists, but it’s a fun, solid game that’s clearly far better than it had to be.

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