Indiana Jones is back for an all new third person adventure that has him trotting the globe to find the Staff of Kings, the staff used by Moses to part the Red Sea. Can he find it before Magnus Voller and the Nazis do? Let's get to the review!
Staff of Kings is a third person action-adventure title that features a handful of different gameplay elements including fighting, shooting, platforming, chase sequences, and puzzles. It's important to note that unlike a lot of other titles in the genre, Staff of Kings is quite linear; in other words, there is no map, it's hard to get lost, and you almost always only have one objective or direction to work with. Exploration and back tracking is limited and you're constantly compelled to push forward to the next room or area to see what challenge awaits, which breaks down into environmental or action oriented sequences.
Most environmental challenges have Indy solving a basic puzzle or using his platforming and whip abilities to get across a pit, for example. Puzzles tend to involve Indy manuevering objects, such as statues or rocks so that a touchplate can be triggered. Most puzzles require little more than time to walk around and set up a chain of events (that an in game cutscene handles), while others require a bit more thought. There is also one particular puzzle that I just lucked out on (the Mayan Planetarium); despite a depiction on the wall to look at, I had no clue what was going on there. Anyway, suffice it to say that the puzzles you encounter, which truthfully there are only about a dozen of, are pretty basic and a little monotonous, but ultimately they do make the experience stronger than if they were not included.
Other environemental tasks will have players using the whip to move a swinging object that might be used to break a wall, for example. Additionally, Jones will use his whip to swing across pits or climb up walls. Many times Indy will have to shimmy or wall-hug his way along a very narrow path, which sometimes breaks out from underneath him, putting the player into an L1+R1 button mashing sequence. Controls for all of this aspect of the game aren't bad, but do however feel a bit unpolished. For instance, I had trouble during the Istanbul chapter moving a statue simply because the on screen prompt, which controls when you can press Triangle to get Indy to grab the statue, was very sensitive (even though I was coming in at a proper angle). As another example, players use the whip to swing over a pit by pressing R2 when prompted, however the prompt will often appear when you actually cannot use the whip until you re-adjust your position. In other words, you'll see the prompt, press R2, cast your whip, but you're either not close enough to the edge of whatever you're about swing over, or you're facing the wrong direction. Other times, which ledge above Indy that he needs to jump up to (to grab it) wasn't clear, largely because camera movement was restricted. I feel like these examples might be nit-picking, but when I take a look at the rest of the game as a total package, these issues are part of a generally unpolished product, as I will continue to explain going forward in this review.
As he traverses the world on the trail of the elusive Staff, Jones will run into plenty of Nazis who are also on the hunt for the powerful artifact. In these moments, Indy will either pull out his trust revolver and engage in a shooting sequence or put up his dukes for a fist fight. The shooting elements seem tailored to the Wii version of Staff of Kings, but work well enough on PS2. During these times, Indy willl automatically run and take cover behind an object. Players are able to see Nazi movement behind Indy and using R1 and and the analog sticks, are able to pop out of cover, target, and fire. A large crosshair turns green whenever Indy is targeting an enemy or a shootable object that will kill enemies in the area, although I had several instances where the crosshair was green and I still wasn't getting the shot. Usually Indy will get situated and have to deal with several waves of Nazis that run into generally any one of four positions on the screen. You basically just have to watch their pattern and pop out at the right time for the shot, and fortunately Indy can sustain several hits from enemy fire before dying. Most Nazis use a pistol, but some will use a machine gun, and very late in the game you will also encounter grenadiers that toss explosives your way. Players also have to keep an eye on their ammo count, shown in the upper right corner, and use L1 to reload. I actually enjoyed these shooting sequences more so than the brawling ones.
The fight system in Staff of Kings is pretty rough, but works well enough. Using X, you can execute a series of punches, while holding X has Indy rearing back for a heavy punch that will knock most enemies down, giving you a chance to literally kick them in their nether regions (although I don't know if that's what the developers really intended). You can also use your whip to slap enemies, although surprisingly this doesn't do much damage. Additionally, you can use the whip to reel in foes and drop them to their knees, so that you can execute a few punches or a devestating hit with your knee (vital for the fire-breather boss fight). Some areas, although I personally only noticed and used four, give Indy the option to use his whip to topple a weak structure or pull down an object in the world that the enemies are standing under, instantly killing them. Additionally, Indy can pick up a variety of melee weapons including plates, bats, and chairs that you can either toss with Square or swing with X. Some enemies, known as the Brutes, can only be hurt with objects or by dodging their attack with Circle and quickly countering with X. The best tactic I found, however, against most enemies (not Brutes) is to grapple by pressing R1. For enemies with a weapon, this causes them to drop it, and you have a good two to three seconds to decide what action you want to take next. A strong punch isn't a bad choice, nor is using the environment for a quick finishing move (press Square when prompted if close to a valid object). Even better is pushing then enemy, especially when near an edge for an instant kill.
This basic fight system does okay, but it also has several awkward shortcomings. One goofy annoyance was that Indy can't block, but the generic 'Brutes' can; and when they're blocking, you can press X all you like (until they just hit you), it won't damage them, and it won't break their block. It's not that the game doesn't warn you of this during the handful of tips that are shown during loading screens, but it just feels very contrived to have an enemy that is made harder by the fact that you can only defeat them with counters and objects. Another silly aspect of the fight system is how players can grab the average enemy with a grapple and hold them for two to three seconds before the enemy pushes out of it. During the final stage aboard the Odin, I literally abused this feature to toss overboard probably a dozen bad guys during the game's longest fight sequence. I simply grabbed them, walked a few steps, and pushed them out, while the other bad guys stood by, some watching, some stuck looking in the wrong direction. Another weird thing occured during this particular sequence too whereby I picked up a chair, intending to throw it at one of the tougher enemies, but instead my chair goes sailing off in a different direction towards an entirely other foe. With no targeting system or means of control for throwing objects, I suppose this is to be expected.
There are two other significant portions to the gameplay of Staff of Kings in addition to the puzzle solving, platforming, and action ones. These include button mashing and chase sequences, which actually go hand in hand. During several of the chapters, Indy will get aboard some kind of vehicle, be it a plane, car, trolley, elephant, boat, or motorcyle. Controlling every motion of the the vehicle is not the priority, but shooting while aboard the vehicle and/or navigating successfully through environmental dangers is. I've already discussed the shooting element, but for navigating dangers, players will be prompted to quickly press one of the face buttons, causing Indy to duck, charge forward (with the elephant), or go to the left or right, depending on what the situation requires. This button mashing mechanic occurs on the ground too, and sometimes immediately after a cutscene, which got me a few times as I had set my controller down to watch. Failing a button mashing sequence is instant death usually, and they can be unforgiving on response time, so be prepared. On the ground, these instances usually have Indy running away from a danger, rolling out of a collapsing platform, or struggling to recover his grip after slipping while wall-hugging along a ledge.
During all of these gameplay elements, you will want to keep an eye on Indy's health, which is represented by a meter in the upper left corner of the HUD, although the HUD is nicely hidden until needed. Players can only replenish Indy's health at checkpoints, which come fairly often and your progress is also saved at each checkpoint. The health system works out well for the flow and style of the game; other than those sometimes picky button mashing moments, the health system seems nicely balanced for the challenge, giving players the opportunity to make some mistakes yet still pull through until they can reach the next checkpoint.
Speaking of checkpoints, I did appreciate how many of them their were, although the placement of them left something to be desired at times. Granted, I think the average gamer is going to breeze through this game like I did, and will probably not have to repeat any one particular sequence more than three to five times. However, when you do have to use a checkpoint, it's often placed in such a manner that you have to do something monotonous like watch a cutscene again that you cannot skip, or spend ten to thirty seconds getting back to where you were. I also thought that the loading times seemed abnormally long for a game that feels years, not days, old.
As someone who regularly plays games that are twenty-plus years old, I'm not often concerned with the quality of graphics or sound that presented to the player. That said, I still notice when a game looks and sounds great, and when it does not. Now, nothing in Staff of Kings' presentation is so bad that it acts as a deal breaker, but frankly this is a rough looking, and sounding, game. I can appreciate the variety of locations that Indy travels too -- dense jungles in Panama, iced over mountains in Nepal, the desert of Sudan -- but regardless where Indy goes, the experience is weakened by drab colors, blocky textures, lackluster or absent effects, rigid and repetitious animations, and several technical problems as well. There really was no scene in the game where I thought it looked like anything more than something that came out several years ago. All of the colors, despite covering a wide palette, are so subdued and dull that they lack any 'pop' whatsoever while the lack of even basic effects in some areas will leave you shaking your head. For example, there is a part in the Istanbul chapter where you hop into a pool of water. The water looks terrible to begin with, but on top of that, while running around in this pool, there are no splash effects or anything to even indicate you're in water (I'm not even sure from memory if there were proper sound effects). Similarly, there are no footprints in the snow during the Nepal chapter, which again I feel like might be a minor point, and it it would be on it's own, but when combined with the total package of this game, one word keeps coming back to mind: rough.
You will also notice a distinct lack in the variety of enemies too as wave after wave of foe looks exactly like the one before. Fallen enemies also disappear immediately, which to me is another graphical no-no. Animations during fighting, shooting, and death are also very limited and generally stiff too. Cutscene animations are better off and do okay for themselves, although I saw at least one instance when Indy was saying something but his mouth wasn't moving.
Technical issues occur too; during the final sequence of the game, on a motorcyle, the animation was very rigid, to the point to where at first I wasn't sure if it was a framerate problem. Other times I was able to partially clip through certain walls and even through a touch plate when, after I stepped on it, it rose back up, clipping my feet, making them disappear until I moved.
Overall the graphical experience of Staff of Kings isn't pretty and at times not even all that functional, but it does well enough to keep the experience intact and playable. I just think it, like the rest of the game, could have used a lot more polish.
Now as far as sound goes, the best aspect is the soundtrack, which is made up of snippets of various tracks from the movie scores. Voice acting is mediocre at best, and Indy's weakling yelp as he falls even just a short distance makes him seem much less badass than we all know him to be. Of the voices however, Indy's is the best of the bunch, which is fortunate as you will hear him the most, usually while entering a new room that has a puzzle. Whenever you enter such a room, Indy will often recite a quote from an ancient text regarding the puzzle you are encountering. As far as effects go, they're quite basic and uninspiring, even questionable at times, such as when a Nazi fires at you with a machine gun -- the sound plus the action on screen doesn't always seem to match up right. Lastly, I thought the game could have benefited from a little more of the classic John Williams' score, as there are lots of times where everything is very quiet and a little "Indy music" would have helped.
The Staff of Kings is a fairly short experience that your average gamer can easily finish in a weekend, perhaps even one sitting. It took me less than eight "real" hours to complete, although I didn't get all thirty-eight collectible pickups that are spread throughout the story. I managed to get twenty-six of the thirty-eight, and I saw about three more that I either missed and couldn't go back to get, or decided not to pursue. These collectibles are used to view trailers of the four Indy films, unlock concept art of the characters and locales, and unlock additional playable skins, including Big Heads, Tuxedo Indy, Henry Jones, and even Han Solo (if you get thirty-six of the thirty-eight pickups). With the ability to go back and play at any one of the checkpoints, coupled with the ability to view your got/need status of the collectibles per chapter, it shouldn't be too hard for most completionists to snap up all thirty-eight fortunes, which are represented by the same bright yellow icon in the game world. Each fortune is also unique and includes a brief description and picture viewable in the Pause or Main menu.
There is also a Hard mode that some gamers may want to play, but for me, Staff of Kings is a 'one and done' as far as playing through it goes. Notably, the Wii version includes a co-op mode that I've read is pretty bad; additionally the controls are apparently quite frustrating, although it does include Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, one of the greatest games of all time (seriously).
In closing, I would add that despite its numerous flaws both technical and in design, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings was still fun to play through for several reasons. For one, it starred one of my favorite fictional icons, Indiana Jones, and featured plenty of the familiar tomb raiding, artifact hunting, Nazi punching, whip wielding goodness we've all come to know and love from this character. Additionally, the game has a good sense of difficulty and pace -- I think the brievity of the game is actually to its benefit because it makes it very tempting and easy to play through, despite its flaws, because it ends before it gets too much to tolerate. As bad as that sounds, I think we've all played games that wear out their welcome, long before they're actually over. That Staff of Kings swings in, presents a mediocre to decent experience that feels good to complete, and ends before it runs itself into the ground, is a good thing, and to its credit.
Ultimately I would suggest renting this title before purchase, although that's never a bad idea, despite its budget price. Let's get to the summary...