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BRAVE enough to rise above movie-based game mediocrity

Movie-based games, especially those adapted from family films, rarely amount to more than cross-marketing cash-ins destined to line the bottoms of bargain bins. Thanks to surprisingly solid entries from Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, though, Disney Interactive has been bucking this trend. Their latest offering, Brave: The Video Game, continues to break the film-tied curse, providing players with an appealing, accessible action-adventure based on their latest Pixar property.

Brave immediately earns points for starring a main character tailor-made to the medium. Despite being Disney’s newest princess, crimson-haired heroine Merida is no damsel in distress. The adventurous young lass, who’s out to reverse a curse that’s turned her mum into a bear, is as proficient with bow and blade as any male protagonist. Furthermore, her sharp skills are matched only by her spirited personality, thanks in no small part to quality voice work from the film’s star Kelly Macdonald.

Beneath the beautiful, tangled mane of Merida, players hack, slash, shoot, and jump through a variety of mysterious Scottish locales—creepy caves, coastal bluffs, cobble-stoned castles–besting any mythical beasts that dare cross their path. The combat, while simple, is both intuitive and engaging; a tap of the X button swings Merida’s sword, while the right analog stick aims and slings arrows, a cool mechanic twin-stick shooter fans will no doubt appreciate.

Where licensed games often keep combat options at a bare minimum, Brave‘s character-shaping progression system yields much more than mindless button-mashing. Unloading on enemies and the environment showers Merida with more coins than Mario sees on a good day; the collected riches can then be cashed in to upgrade her stats, weapons, and skills. Beyond the expected boosts to health and damage, the action/RPG-flavored feature lets players morph Merida into quite the badass by game’s end.

Complementing the character customization is Brave‘s elemental-based combat and puzzles. As players progress, they unlock fire, earth, wind, and ice powers, all of which can be upgraded. Platforming sections can only be completed by utilizing items imbued with one of these specific effects; similarly, enemies are categorized by these same elements, making, say, a fire-based Golem a breeze to take down from behind a flurry of ice-flinging arrows.

This system doesn’t significantly up the casual-aimed challenge, as icons floating above baddies and items indicate exactly what elements need to be used. However, strategically swapping between powers injects the combat with a welcome layer of immersion-amping variety. It doesn’t hurt that the elemental trickery is as eye-popping as it is effective; seriously, I’d take Merida’s screen-clearing ring of fire and minion-spawning arrows over the sorcery skills of any dedicated dungeon crawler’s mage class.

When not barbecuing beasts behind Merida’s arsenal, players tackle light puzzles and mini-combat arenas. The former sees them swapping between her three brothers-turned-bear-cubs to work switches, levers, and pressure plates, while the latter puts them behind the stomping, clawing, and charging attacks of Merida’s momma bear.

Thanks to four difficulty settings, Pixar-loving players of all skill levels are welcome to platform, puzzle-solve, and combat through the Scottish countryside. Additionally, a co-op mode, which puts a second player in control of a Wisp support character, offers a smart option for those of you teaming-up with tykes or less seasoned gamers.

While Brave‘s leaps and bounds better than most movie-based games, a few flaws occasionally sully the fun. Levels sport plenty of lush, Scottish-inspired beauty, but are linear to a fault; scoring all collectibles requires some travel beyond the beaten path, but just barely. Furthermore, a fixed camera sometimes breeds frustration, especially when it’s pulled so far back you can hardly tell Merida from the monsters she’s fighting. Brave‘s biggest problem, though, is its brevity. Completionists are encouraged to re-tackle levels, and a Kinect-enabled archery mini-game works well enough, but at best you’re not looking at more than seven or so hours of playtime.

Minor gripes aside, Brave marks another step in the right direction for games based on family films. Borrowing heavily from Pixar’s blockbuster formula, both Brave‘s gameplay and presentation pack plenty of all-ages appeal. It’s a short ride, but one worth taking for those craving a quality title to play with the kids or Pixar geeks hunting for easy Achievements points.

SUMMARY: While it’s aimed at the same audience as its silver screen counterpart, Brave: The Video Game seems to have been sprinkled with plenty of Pixar’s age-spanning magic. Sadly, for most, its spell will wear off after a weekend or two.

  •     THE GOOD: Brimming with Pixar appeal and engaging gameplay
  •     THE BAD: On the short side, even for a $40 title
  •     THE UGLY: Merida’s messy mop in up-close cutscenes

SCORE: 8.0

Brave: The Video Games is available on PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.