If you're not too long in the tooth or have kids of your own, you'll probably be pretty familiar with Jumanji. It's the movie where Robin Williams gets trapped inside a board game and is released years later. Zathura, while not sharing the jungle setting, has many similarities. Some kids find a board game which happens to be more than it seems, and moments later they find their house has been sent into space and they're battling monsters. It's a fairly solid premise for a family movie and could have made for an entertaining video game. It didn't.
Released to coincide with the movie, Zathura the video game has all the hallmarks of a cheap and nasty licensed product. The controls are cumbersome, the visuals are simplistic, the level design is dull and the game is short. Games for kids should obviously be designed with the emphasis on simple entertainment, but Zathura goes past simple and well into the 'might put kids off playing games for life' category. Eight year-olds might not appreciate the complexity of the more sophisticated video games available, but they still know a poor game when they play one.
Playing as Danny, Walt or a Robot, you make your way through a fairly monotonous 3D world, filled with cookie cutter rooms. Danny carries a slingshot that can be used to fire various types of ammo, Walt carries a melee weapon and can also throw numerous objects, and the Robot uses his cannon to fire and can also bash stuff up with his fists. It's simple stuff, with each room usually requiring a button to be pushed or a haphazardly laid out trap to be traversed. Walt can do a little more than Danny, so you'll occasionally do things like swing on monkey bars, but it's basically some platform hopping and simple combat from start to finish.
Enemies aren't all that smart, making for a game that can be breezed through for the most part and the plentiful supply of health pick-ups that come from smashed crates mean that you'll rarely be in too much bother. It's only really the bosses (of which there aren't too many) that show any sign of creativity. Levels are the usual sci-fi fare, with an industrial area, a lava area and a section that puts you on an asteroid. While the designers were obviously limited somewhat by the source matter, it wouldn't have taken much to spice the environments up a little.
Despite the game's ridiculously easy difficultly level, actually dispatching of enemies is harder than it should be. Dual-analogue control is obviously a no no when it comes to designing games for kids, so you're forced to use the game's auto targeting to aim with any accuracy. This is rather hit-and-miss, with the targeting often simply failing to lock on to an enemy. The inability to customize controls doesn't help either, meaning you can't alter the default camera controls. Things go from bad to worse when the camera becomes stuck or decides to give you the view from behind a crate rather than the character.
Dieing isn't really a problem as the game throws you back into the section you were just trying to get past, with full health and no penalty at all. You can die as many times as you like, which given the insane difficulty of a few jumping sections, is rather a relief. In all, even the most novice player will be able to breeze through in under five hours, if you can be bothered to stick with it. The game's menu promises extras, but upon completing the campaign you're treated with a few movie trailers. Hardly enough reward
Visually Zathura is nothing remarkable, with basic character and enemy models and simple boxy environments. It's all nice and child friendly, but those used to the production values seen in EA's Harry Potter titles might be a little disappointed. A smooth frame seems to be the last concern for many developers working on kids' games, and it's pretty awful here, particularly in the PlayStation 2 version. In the larger areas it really bogs down, making an already awkward experience even worse.
The music is perfectly pleasant and voice acting is solid, but more often than not it fails to move the story along as it should. You'll find yourself listening to the main characters talking, and moments later you'll be somewhere that seems to have no relation to what just happened. While the game's main audience will be kids who have seen the movie, if you happen pick this up on a whim with no prior knowledge of what happens, certain sections will be quite baffling.
Zathura is a game almost completely devoid of likeable features. It's awkward to play, the gameplay is dull and lacking in ideas, the presentation is lacklustre... I could go on and on. The nature of the movie-licensed title means this will sell in decent numbers despite being poor, and this review will do little to stop that, but if you're a parent taking an interest in what your children play, make sure it's something a lot better than this.