|Developer: Behavior Interactive|
Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios
Xbox Release Date: September 25, 2012 (according to Xbox.com)
This month's Games With Gold release for the Xbox 360 was Brave: The Video Game and it's one that pleasantly surprised me with a crisp and fun gameplay experience. I haven't been this pleasantly surprised by a free Xbox game since I downloaded and played Dark Souls back when it was offered for Games With Gold back in 2014.
The first thing you'll notice when you play this game are the visuals. Brave has the look of a budget title visually. Textures are simple, animation is limited, and the camera is pulled back greatly. With the amount and placement of enemies, you'll be glad for the latter, but it all does give Brave the look of every other licensed title that hardcore gamers prefer to skip. However, once you get into the gameplay, the simplistic visuals are a mere afterthought and are competent enough to not get in your way while offering a nice enough backdrop to the action.
During my initial playthrough of the game on Normal difficulty, I found the game to be a fun breeze of running, jumping, shooting, slashing, and collect-a-thon action. The controls are simple, easy, and smooth. Shooting Merida's bow is done with the right thumb stick. There is no targeting reticle to deal with which works in this game's favor and the projectiles generally go where you want them to go. Melee is performed with (X) and is standard, quick, and competent, but I always preferred to use the bow. Jumping with (A) feels good and the level design leads to some fun and sometimes challenging platforming.
The game breaks up the standard combat sections with simple puzzles that I sometimes managed to solve in only a few seconds along with a different style of combat featuring a freaking bear -- ahem -- Merida's mom, Queen Elinor I mean.
The puzzles are done by playing as Merida's three cursed brothers (also bears) and using them to maneuver to the necessary switches and levers required to solve the puzzle. (RB) is used to switch between the three brothers and each of them can jump and activate switches and levers with (Y). The cool thing about the puzzle sections is that when you redo the levels (to farm for coins for instance) you can completely skip the whole puzzle by pressing (X) as soon as the prompt appears. The puzzles weren't so painful to make this a necessity, but it's an amazingly kind gesture from game developer to player.
Queen Elinor's combat arena sections also give a nice break from Merida's style of combat, platforming, and collecting. The queen uses her ursine size and power to basically dominate her enemies. If you're struggling with Merida's quest, these sections could bring you some satisfaction, since you're mostly just dominant here. The queen's hitboxes are massive, especially for her AoE ground pound and her damage is incredible especially as you collect tapestry upgrades while using Merida, which affect all combat related characters. The queen comes into play on nearly every level.
One of the coolest parts about the combat is the sheer amount of ways you can approach it and upgrade your character. The basic gameplay is simple but satisfying all its own. Even so, constantly running, jumping, shooting, and slashing does run the risk of getting stale really quickly. To combat this (no pun intended), the developers at Behavior Interactive have included elemental charms to augment Merida's sword and bow & arrow attacks with a variety of effects. These charms even effect the environment by activating earthen and stone platforms, freezing water and flaming impediments, and burning down thorns. In combat, each charm has the effects you'd imagine and more. For instance, fire hurts wood and ice based enemies WAY more than the other elements. Along with a pokemon-esque system of strengths and weaknesses, the charms can also be upgraded with most of the upgrades effecting Merida's powerful assortment of bows.
Before we get into that though, let's talk about the sword. I mentioned before that Merida's sword skills are augmented by the charms and this includes the two sword skills you can upgrade, the Slam Attack and it's three AoE upgrades. The Slam Attack can be used to eliminate enemies that are surrounding you. You must jump all the way into the air and slam your sword into the ground to release a pulsating wave of whatever element you have equipped. Sword attacks are strengthened by finding new swords on your journey while bow attacks are strengthened by finding new bows. Very simple and effective.
Now back to the bow upgrades. Bow attacks can be upgraded in what amounts to two paths. There is a power attack path and a charge attack path with the four elements each having distinct upgrade options in each of those paths. The elemental upgrades for the bow alone give twenty-eight different choices that heavily effect your playstyle especially on harder difficulties (such as the frustrating Brave difficulty.)
The Power Attack itself -- activated with (B) and performed with the right thumbstick -- can be upgraded. You must first get the upgrade to use the power attack, which can be activated after doing or having a certain amount of damage done to you. The power attack offers boosted damage and gives each charmed arrow additional properties of the equipped element. The fire charm adds DoT, while the ice charm adds slow, wind charm adds pushback, and earth charm adds increased AoE. Additionally you can upgrade how fast the power attack gauge charges, either by upgrading the damage done path or the damage taken path which have three upgrades apiece and a noticeable effect on the gauge. I found the use of the power attack to be limited, but it did come through for me in a pinch a few times on both difficulties I played on, though in very specific and rare situations where the charged shot was inadequate.
The game gets really meta with the Charged Shots. Without knowing how to properly use these, I don't believe I could have even gotten halfway through the Brave difficulty. Charged shots must be unlocked with an upgrade and are performed by holding down the (RT). Initially it takes a little over a second, perhaps two, to charge the attack to max. Only when fully charged can the special affect of a charged shot be activated. Unlike with the power attack, each distinct element of a charged shot must be unlocked in the upgrade store. They each have vastly different effects and strength. To start, the Charged Shot: Fire explodes with and AoE blast when it connects with anything, doing extra damage. Further upgrades cause bigger explosions via wider AoE. Charged Shot: Ice freezes an enemy in place with longer duration depending on the upgrade. Charged Shot: Wind unleashes a wide fan of arrows, something like seven of them on the initial level. When fully upgraded you basically shoot everything in front of you with a wide horizontal wall of wind. And last but not least, Charged Shot: Earth. Earth is the very first charm you get and yet Charged Shot: Earth is displayed last amongst all the upgrades, likely to psychologically deter people from purchasing it first because it is by far the most powerful upgrade you can get and you can buy it right from the start. It trivializes any danger to Merida on lesser difficulties and turns the hardest difficulty in the game into something moderately challenging because each completed charge and subsequent hit summons a minimum of three exploding minions that do massive damage in a large AoE range regardless of element typing. The whole game conditions you to think that the earth charm is the weakest and it's only with trial and error, ability testing, or dumb luck that players would discover just how strong this ability is.
You'll need it if you intend to take on game's hardest difficulty, Brave, for the 100pt Gaelic Hero achievement without driving yourself crazy. Brave difficulty must also be commended. Though it adjusts the difficulty by simply adjusting the numerical values of the enemies and the player, it does turn Brave: The Video Game into a much more desperate affair, which makes for a much more enjoyable game all things considered. That's coming from someone who's not even a challenge gamer, but even though I'm not super duper into playing challenges, I still like a challenging experience or rather an experience that means something and a sense of challenge does add to that especially if I enjoy a game's mechanics. If that doesn't make sense, what I'm saying is that you won't catch me doing Dante Must Die mode in a Devil May Cry game for the hell of it, but I do enjoy the challenge of a Devil May Cry game even if its a little higher than Normal Mode.
But back to Brave. Despite all the good things I've said about it, the game isn't without its weaknesses. The two glaring weaknesses of note are the enemy design and the truncated story, the latter of which makes the game feel like nothing more than an arcade game. I thought the game could have gone on a little longer too, but won't count that against it because I'm satisfied by the experience.
As far as the enemies go, I get the feeling that there's not enough of them. One enemy in particular, the treelike archers, could be at fault for this because they have at least four different functions such as shooting arrows at you, chasing you down and using melee, having a body that damages you when you're too close to it, having a lot of HP, being resistant to every charm but fire, and exploding into arrows that fire in eight directions when you kill them.
But overall, the enemy design feels lackluster and sometimes downright lazy or maybe rushed. The fire branch of enemies is particularly notable because there's only two fire type enemies, with those annoying wooden archers often being paired with them (and every other enemy type) for whatever reason. There are four bosses in the game, but you fight two of them twice. And worst of all that is the fact that every enemy spawns from either under you or above you. With some enemies, a simple touch is enough to cause damage to you so this constantly spawning above or below you becomes a real problem on harder difficulties. Sometimes enemies just appear out of thin air and immediately begin attacking.
One enemy in particular needs to be patched and that's the biggest golem in the game. His AoE is totally busted. He stomped his foot to the front one time and hit me several feet behind him. There was no indication his attack could hit that far. He also throws a boulder every three or four seconds with deadly accuracy and if you're able to dodge you'll likely be hit by a very wide and nasty AoE splash that goes far beyond the visual range of the attack. What's worse is that every time you fight this particular boss, he is surrounded by a cavalcade of constantly spawning BS. There's smaller golems that also throw boulders, overly mobile boars that constantly hound you, and exploding rock minions. The two times you deal with this on Brave difficulty is enough to stop a run cold and make you rethink playing on this difficulty.
You can see my frustrations with that fight here: https://youtu.be/jmAGclySjnE?t=27m11s
And finally, there's not much to say about the story except I felt like more could be done. I haven't seen the movie, but I'm guessing that the game's story is likely a truncated version of that or something in the same vein. But the game is short, no matter how you slice it. At most, I can see someone getting 4 hours out of a single playthrough. And there's not a ton of replay value, but the shortness of the campaign may also help it in that regard, because I don't mind starting the whole thing over and playing again. I haven't tried the co-op yet so I might get another replay out it, which would make three for a likely total of ten gameplay hours when you count my Normal Mode, Brave Mode, and a Co-op gameplay session. Since the game is so short, it could only benefit from a Time Trial mode, but again, I won't ding it for what it doesn't have but will acknowledge that such an addition could boost my own enjoyment of the game.
When you combine simple fun of Merida's collect-a-thon/hack n' slash/platformer gameplay, with the short puzzles of her brothers, brief and dominant Queen Elinor sections, and the wealth of combat and upgrade options you get a game that rises above the sum of its parts and forges a unique identity of its own. You get something with a really snappy pace that rewards those who like to explore with prizes that range from simple (a few extra coins) to awesome (new weapons, clothes, powerups). You get a gameplay experience that feels satisfying and complete, despite only offering about four hours of initial play and ten hours after three potential playthroughs. I'd likely be a little more critical of the game if I'd spent any more than $10 to purchase it, but since it was free this month courtesy of Games With Gold, I feel lucky to have even played it and that is a good feeling to have.
Games With Gold DL Available until 3/15/2018
Xbox Link (sign-in for Games With Gold): https://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Brave-The-Video-Game/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d80242560817