Few things make you feel older than when you come to review a game based on a series of children's books - yet alone one with over a decade's worth of material, all of which was released well after you stopped being the target audience... Still, if you're a bit younger than us, you'll no doubt be familiar with the series, mashing up the best bits of Narnia, Pokemon and Harry Potter to stonking success. With a few mobile instalments already under its belt, this latest game marks the series' debut on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, in an attempt to bring the fantasy world alive on consoles.
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And actually, this is a really nice idea. An adventure game created with youngsters in mind, Beast Quest is an attempt at bundling all the excitement and action of a blockbuster game, into a package the whole family can enjoy - unlike the other big action adventures like Uncharted, Tomb Raider and Assassin's Creed. Mixing together combat, puzzle-solving and exploration, Beast Quest tries to come up with something more child-friendly, inspired by the medieval fantasy world of the aforementioned kids books, full of witchcraft and wizardry, dragons and curses. However, no amount of good intentions can save what feels like a rather flat rendition of the Beast Quest world and lore.
The game here tells the tale of series protagonist Tom, a boy about to embark on the titular beast quest of yore, in a story that's straight out of the books. All is not well in the kingdom of Aventia, with a dark wizard going by the name of Malvel having cursed the four legendary beasts that have protected the land for centuries. Now running amok and causing chaos and destruction across the land, the fate of the kingdom rests on an unlikely lad's shoulders, who must muster the courage and heart to defeat Malvel, free the beasts and save the land.
Though it may be an adventure, Beast Quest isn't a free roaming game - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Seeing you journey through forests, cliff-top caves and icy plains, you'll make your way across the kingdom in search of the four legendary beasts - Fero the Fire Dragon, Arcta the Mountain Giant, Nanook the Snow Monster and Epos the Flame Bird. En route, brief platforming and puzzle-solving sections break things up, seeing you hop over a series of rocks to cross a river, or move a giant stone block into place to give you a leg up to a higher cliff top. Collectable keys in three different tiers - iron, bronze and gold - can be used to unlock the various chests scattered around the kingdom, with better chests housing better loot. Side quests can also be found in towns, and mostly revolve around fetching or finding certain items for characters, or killing a certain number of bad guys - although one of the more imaginative ones saw you taking a boy's pet rock on a tour of the kingdom, with the occasional funny pop-up giving you the rock's opinion on a cliff-top view, for example.
You'll also come across plenty of bad guys - perhaps goblin guards, fire lizards and oversized spiders, that need a good smacking - but unfortunately, this is where Beast Quest starts to come undone. Instead of going for a fairly straightforward button-mashing affair, Beast Quest's battles are both slow and needlessly complex. When you encounter an enemy, the screen will transition so that the enemies sit in the centre of the screen, with Tom locked to a circular track around the outside. From there, you have a choice of fast-but-weak, or strong-but-slow melee attacks, as well as a handful of special abilities and magic spells.
So far, so standard. However, the problems come when you try to dodge, block or otherwise avoid enemy attacks, as there's a fairly substantial delay between trying to dodge (by pushing left or right on the left analogue stick) and your character actually dodging (or rather, leaning left or right slightly), which makes actually dodging incoming blows a lot easier said than done. Theoretically, you can also strafe around the circle to try and avoid enemy attacks that have a wider area of effect (handled on the shoulder buttons), but half the time the game doesn't seem to notice your inputs - and the rest of the time you're fighting in such a small space that its not even an option. Blocking is about the only workable option you have, but again, the input lag means about 50% of the time you'll still take a sizeable amount of damage - and when you're (initially) limited to carrying a paltry three health potions, you'll find yourself running low on health often.
These problems are exacerbated when you end up in a fight against multiple enemies, because of how the game locks you to the aforementioned invisible circle around your foes. When faced with multiple foes, the game automatically locks on to the enemy in the middle, and there's nothing you can do to change it - you're stuck focussing your attacks on that one enemy until it's dead, which can be a bit frustrating. Say you have an annoying archer hurling arrows your way from the back of the group - there's no option to take him out first, and no way to try and glitch it either. Even if you rotate around your circle until you're face to face with him, Tom will still stubbornly target the original enemy, until it's dead, before moving on to his next arbitrarily selected target. Theoretically, you can hold either of the attack buttons to charge up an attack that damages everyone on screen, but it takes so long to charge up - and a single attack from any enemy will cancel its charging - that it's pretty much useless.
After a fair bit of trial and error, we found that it's perhaps easier to think of the battles as turn-based, even though they technically aren't. Basically, Tom has a window of time in which he can hurl off a series of attacks, whatever they may be, before the enemies retaliate - at which point you'll want to switch to blocking until they've all returned to their standing around, idling animations. Then its just a simple matter of rinsing and repeating until they're all defeated, although you'll want to be prepared for a long slog with some bad guys, as Tom doesn't exactly deal a huge amount of damage with each attack. Enemies are fairly obvious at showing when they're gearing up for an attack, though, so knowing when to block is relatively easy - then you can just forget about all that strafing and dodging that never seems to work when you want it to, and just suck it up and use a healing potion when the odd attack still manages to get through your blocking.
However, boss fights offer a whole different level of challenge, as you'll need to face off against each boss several times before you break their curse. As with the regular fights, Tom is locked to a ring around the boss in question, and the previous strategy still applies - attack in the gaps, block when they're gearing up to attack you, and curse when you inevitably still take damage. But, because bosses are generally stronger, and you're in for a longer fight, you will find yourself having to heal periodically, which really eats away at your paltry three healing potions - unless you've bought a potion storage upgrade from a guy in town.
Around the circumference of the battlefield, you'll find a couple of conveniently-placed rock piles which Tom can hide behind to regenerate health, but it does rely on the dodgy strafe mechanic, with its terrible tendency to either not work when you press it, or work so well you end up strafing past your target. To top it all off, if you spend too long behind them, either because you need to regain a lot of health, or because you're busy wrestling with the controls, the boss will destroy your hiding place, preventing you from using it again.
Should you run out of hidey holes and health potions, though, you'll essentially be a sitting duck, and when Fero the Fire Dragon still has half his health left, then decides to unleash a barrage of unblockable attacks, defeat will be swift. A game over gives you the option to continue from the last campfire checkpoint you passed, which are mercifully close to the boss fight, but your supply of healing potions will stay depleted - something you won't actually realise until you find yourself back in battle and low on health. On the plus side, you can at least fast-travel between camp fires, so you can zip back to a town to buy more before heading back into the boss fight, and potions are rather cheap, but it still feels a bit frustrating.
While Beast Quest's battle system is arguably its biggest issue, there are a few other bits that a re bit rough around the edges too. Thanks to the input lag, jumping is trickier than it should be, as when leaping from platform to platform, you'll need to press the jump button several seconds before you want Tom to leave the floor, or else he'll simply run off the edge of the cliff instead. It's like the 90s era Tomb Raider games, but not as predictable - and at least Lara's grab tended to save her from a bad leap, but Tom has no such skill in his arsenal. On the plus side, the lack of polish does lead to some funny moments too - Tom's impressive vertical leap can be used to scale some rather impressive hills during your adventure, as, providing it's not a 100% vertical wall, he'll leap and essentially hover up along said incline, pretty much indefinitely. It's a great shortcut in towns especially, saving you a rather long dog-leg by just leaping straight up and over a 50ft incline instead. Still, you do have to wonder about Tom - despite being told by the wizard who sent him on his quest to keep the beasts a secret, pretty much the first words out of his mouth to the first person he meets are 'Hi I'm Tom and I'm on a quest to save the legendary beasts' (we're only slightly paraphrasing too). Good going lad.
While it may not live up to its lofty goals, Beast Quest is a game that fans of the books will enjoy, yet one that really could have used a bit more polish. With nothing fundamentally broken, it's just the awkwardness that lets the game down, particularly in the battles. Still, as a Zelda-alike for the younger audience, it's one of a pretty small selection of games like this that are suitable for the whole family - be sure to check out the link to the parent's guide below for more.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4