When early preview screens of Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace got out, I was excited. After all, the last time LucasArts tried to mold a graphical adventure game with a movie license, we were blessed with the classic Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis. But looks can be deceiving as The Phantom Menace was later revealed to be more of an action-oriented game with only traces of adventure-style puzzles. Undaunted, I remained optimistic because it was said that a strong sense of exploration was involved and anyone who's seen the actual movie knows that the elaborately conceived environments that sparkle throughout beg to be explored and closely examined. Needless to say, I didn't know what to expect and in an industry where expectations run high, that's a bad sign.
My suspicions of confusion proved to be correct. Trying to figure out what the developers were going for is difficult and describing the results isn't easy either. The best I can say is imagine the jumping platform elements in Super Mario 64 mixed with the puzzles in Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time; all from a locked-down, overhead, three-quarters perspective. There's nothing wrong with trying to mimic two of the greatest games of all time per say, but the execution makes so many mistakes along the way, that the game gets dragged way down from the high aspirations that might have conceived it.
Let's start with the awful controls, which are a travesty considering how well Mario and Zelda handled. The whole movement scheme, based on a first-person shooter-(FPS) rotating axis rather than a push and go arcade quality, which would make more sense, is such a mess that it makes jumping inadvertently hazardous and dodging laser fire needlessly difficult. Fighting effectively is no walk in the park either because weapon-switching, again adopted from FPS, is inappropriate for The Phantom Menace's style of closed quarter confrontations, which allow little time for reaction or mobility.
Still the game could have made up for the poor controls with level design that captured the awe-inspiring feeling of the movie and allowed wondrous exploration throughout. The developers succeeded in recreating the environments with great detail and attention, but faltered on the exploration aspect and in my mind, this is the game's greatest fault. Rather than being allowed to curiously ponder through the stages, I was constantly bombarded with obstacles and enemies of the most annoyingly laborious sort. It seemed as though every scene and situation in the movie was reduced to nothing more than elaborate rat traps of near-impossible jumps and dead-ends. Confusion reigned, as it was never obvious to me where I was supposed to be going. Add the aforementioned controls to the equation and any enjoyment left in the experience has dwindled to the role of arduous chore. Fortunately for the developers involved, not all is bad with The Phantom Menace. The production values are extremely high, the voice acting is very capable, and music and sounds keep in line with the integrity and quality of the Star Wars milieu.
Attention to detail is apparent and the lengthy game does not feel rushed by any means. I think the problems are more associated with the conceptual direction the game took, which skewed its execution. It feels as though The Phantom Menace started out as an adventure game, retooled midway through (possibly spurred on by the success of Zelda) to capture the more mainstream action-oriented console audience, and ultimately failed in being good at either.
Personally, I would have been happy to simply traverse through the wondrous lands George Lucas envisioned minus the aggravating obstacles. Success on that level could have been the game's one saving grace, but without that enjoyment, The Phantom Menace ends up being a disgrace.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.