It's become cliché. The derivative motion picture-licensed game failing to meet expectations, that is. That said, rarely does a game actually sink to the depths of inadequacy as The Golden Compass, especially given its source material. From the brilliance of the Philip Pullman novel to divisive film adaptation to sheer abhorrence of its interactive debut, The Golden Compass isn't just bad. It's without question amongst the worst games to be release on PSP.
This handheld version expands upon scenes from the film, replacing quips between Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman with mini-games and platform challenges. You take the role of one Lyra Belaqua, a young girl entrusted with a truth-divining instrument known as an alethiometer. Beyond keeping this compass safe, Lyra must effectively learn how to use it in order to survive an adventure that spans the globe.
How Lyra's epic journey plays out is rather disconcerting. Unlike the side-scrolling Nintendo DS iteration, the PSP counterpart falls in line with its home console cousins; that is to say, making your way through the three-dimensional adventure involves a mix of platforming, button-pressing mini-games, and simple combat. None of these is executed particularly well, but they take a backseat to problems with the presentation.
Of great concern is the audio, which possesses an unsettling number of technical flaws. For instance, dialogue frequently pops in and out, with some voices stopping in mid-sentence. At other times, voices overlap despite the fact that only one character is actually speaking. Were it not saving you from a disappointing script and fake accents, you might find yourself angered at such a horrible defect.
The only consistent audio comes from the spinning of the UMD as the system is forced to constantly pull data from the disc. Loading screens populate The Golden Compass with wild abandon – you'll find them between levels, during levels, while engaged in conversation and, astonishingly, even in the middle of combat.
Technical glitches aren't the only thing that blemish the presentation. A general lack of quality pervades the game, from hackneyed voice acting to ugly environments. When the audio actually works, you're treated what sounds like the corn-fed stylings of American Midwest voice actors hamming up faux British accents. Not that you'd be able to actually distinguish one character from another since the visuals are so murky you'll feel as though you need your eyes checked. The levels are a little better, albeit plagued by a host of different problems such as blurry textures, clipping, and choppy animations.
Were it only for these technical demerits, The Golden Compass could have potentially still salvaged some reputation through brilliance in game design. But it's the ill-conceived play mechanics that ultimately cement this as the appalling mess it is.
Mediocre mini-games make up the vast majority of gameplay, usually involving time-based button presses. For instance, Lyra frequently has to talk her way out of sticky situations – lie, in effect – via conversational mini-games. These range from collecting small green orbs with movements of the analog nub to matching like symbols on a 3x3 grid. Succeed in completing the games under the time limit and Lyra accomplishes the deception.
Speaking of lying, the mini-game structure is also tied to readings with the alethiometer. Progressing the story occasionally requires answering an important question to which Lyra must assemble symbols to divine on the compass. Moving the analog nub and tapping a couple of buttons completes the task.
Sandwiching the assortment of uninspired mini-games are platform sequences and random tasks such as chasing down rival boys or swabbing seagull droppings off a ship deck. These challenges, aside from being a complete bore, are poorly tuned and don't work well as a result of loose controls.
Some ingenuity is derived out of the shape-shifting ability of Lyra's partner in crime, Pan. Pressing the D-pad mutates Pan into one of three alternate forms: a sloth for swinging, hawk for gliding across gaps, and wildcat for dashing and climbing special walls. Sadly, even use of Pan's forms is mostly underplayed because of lacklustre level design.
Moments during the game do offer a little action, but these are so far and few between, not to mention frequently hampered by the game's technical issues, that they're effectively a barely noticeable lake in an ocean of inadequacies.
Ultimately, and regrettably, all you'll ever remember from playing The Golden Compass PSP is the shockingly broken movie licensed experience it offers.