"Imagine a game that is all games," boldly asserts the official website of Haven: Call Of The King. With this statement, the game sets an impossible task for itself by presuming to be the definitive culmination of every videogame genre that has come before it. Predictably, it is a goal that Call Of The King fails to fulfil, and instead it comes off as a parody that does nothing more than exploit numerous comfortably entrenched videogame stereotypes.
The game starts out as a straight-ahead 3-D action platformer centring around the quest of the young man Haven to free his enslaved people from the overlord Vetch. However, it doesn't stay that way for long. Call Of The King's claim to uniqueness is it's FreeFormer gameplay system, which allows the player to experience a "seamless transition" between various genres. Like a restless child playing with the television remote control, the game switches from 3-D platformer to shooting on rails, dirt-bike and boat racing, gliding, swimming, jet-packing, aircraft flying, hovercraft piloting, and even navigating a course in an energy sphere reminiscent of Super Monkey Ball.
The frenetic pace created by this system actually provides quite a thrill, at least until the game exhausts its bag of tricks and begins to bring out the same ones over again. It is then that it becomes easier to notice the imperfections: The uncooperative camera during the jet-pack stages; the endless mid-air collisions in the free-flying levels; and the fact that Haven seems to arbitrarily decide whether he feels like grasping onto a ledge or just ignoring it and letting himself fall into oblivion. The mediocrity that results from such a mishmash of genres is a perfect example, if I may quote a proverb, of why a jack-of-all-trades is a master of nothing.
Another consequence of the pacing is that the beautiful environments are often merely blurry footnotes that the player doesn't have time to observe properly as they are propelled relentlessly forward by the game. Designed by fantasy illustrator Rodney Matthews, the graphics reflect an interesting meld of rural fantasy and Myst-esque mechanical structures. The frequent cinematic cutscenes, with charmingly expressive and well-acted characters, are without a doubt what impressed me most about Call Of The King. It's just unfortunate that the interactive portions of the game don't always hold up their end.
More often than not, Call Of The King's levels fall into the same predictable pattern of collecting cogs to unlock a piece of machinery, or gathering feathers to summon Haven's pet bird, Talon, as the two means of triggering events and unlocking the next stage. I understand that videogames need to have "stuff to do" in them, but I was disappointed that so much of Call Of The King's content came across as barely concealed make-work that even the occasional boat or dirt-bike found in the middle of nowhere wasn't enough to make up for.
Certain levels are even more brazen about forcing the player to Do Something. An example of this occurs during one of the outer-space flying levels, where Haven must attack a space station. Instead of justyou know, attacking it, Haven has to first shoot down an enemy aircraft to obtain a special kind of missile power-up, which is the only thing that can damage the space station. The power-up runs out after about five seconds, whereupon Haven is forced to repeat the process ad nauseam until the space station finally blows up.
The item that Haven relies on while in the action-exploration mode is called the Mag-Ball, which functions as a more lethal version of the common Yo-Yo. It hangs on a string from Haven's wrist, and he can flick it at things. He can also use his wrist gauntlet to collect small energy orbs and use them to perform a handful of special attacks and to charge up pieces of equipment (yet another task that involves running back and forth to power up something).
The last thing worth mentioning is that Haven is dying from a virus. It's actually not as big of a deal as it sounds, which is why I held off mentioning it until now. The overlord Vetch's way of ensuring the cooperation of his slaves is to infect them all with a fatal disease, then tightly control the distribution of the antidote so that the slaves can never revolt. However any sense of anxiety that could been created by such a potentially interesting scenario is sabotaged by the fact that little blobs of antidote are scattered absolutely everywhere and can be collected at Haven's leisure. Not only that, but the antidote blobs regenerate after a few seconds and can be picked up again and again. The only time it ever becomes an issue are in some of the turret-shooting levels, where Haven actually has to leave his post as the enemy is blasting him in order to go and collect antidote before his meter reaches zero. These levels are few and far between enough, however, that when combined with a stage-by-stage autosave feature and the ability to more or less continue from wherever Haven left off the last time he died, kills off most of the urgency and challenge.
It's disappointing to see such an ambitious game unable to evolve into something greater than the sum of its parts. This disappointment stems not only from the reasons I have mentioned (that the game, like a movie trailer, provides various disjointed snippets of action without delivering the complete picture). Beyond that, it is the assumption that three laps around a dirt-bike track is enough to properly represent "dirt-bike gaming," or that flying a glider through a few hoops gives one the right to say that they've explored a flight simulator. This, in effect, is what Call Of The King does. The game tells us to "Get ready to use everything we've ever learned." Not by a long-shot. I could graft fifty two-minute movie-trailers together, and they would still never make a film.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.