Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
I was excited when I heard that Netflix was entering the video game market. They have a ton of money and lots of interesting IPs that would make for amazing game experiences. I mean imagine if Castlevania was made into a game!
Anyway, their first project was a tactical RPG based on Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal which just got an amazing new series on Netflix. I’m a fan of both tactical RPGs and obscure ‘80s children’s movies, so I figured this game would be right up my alley. At a $20 dollar budget price I didn’t expect anything on the order of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, but I could at the very least expect a competent indie game.
A first impression
So I booted it up and within minutes was thrown into a cutscene filled with handpainted art - cool, and text boxes with some pretty ugly default fonts - less cool. Then I decided to go into the menu and switch my game over to full screen mode and it crashed. Hooo boy. This was going to be one of those games. After wrestling with it for a little longer I eventually got it running semi smoothly, with just a few graphical hiccups and only minor crashes here and there.
I will say that Netflix is a master of marketing. All the trailers for this game put its best foot forward. You’d think that you were in for a game filled with cutscenes filled with puppetry and practical effects, battles with flashy spells, and voice acting on par with the series itself.
No. No this looks straight up like a mobile game. Character models look well enough but animations are stiff and robotic. Spell effects all feel like they are some sort of stock effect included with a designers first copy of Unity. Icons for equipment are basic outlines shaded in with a gradient filter in Photoshop. Everything just feels so unpolished.
The game itself isn’t that bad. It’s essentially just Final Fantasy Tactics with a shade of Dark Crystal paint plastered over it. You know the drill here. Every turn you get to move and act. Actions can be anything from attacking to magic spells (which use MP) to special forms of movement and more. Kill all the enemies or fulfill a battle goal (like get your army to a specific space) to win.
More of the Final Fantasy Tactics influence can be felt in the mechanics. There’s a job system complete with a job grid with pre-requisites for newer more powerful jobs. You can equip multiple jobs at once, from which you can set specific actions to use in battle. Your primary job determines what equipment you can use. This isn’t anything you haven’t seen before.
The thing is, I am OK with that. If you told me that someone was making Final Fantasy Tactics again but themed after The Dark Crystal, I’d be standing in line on launch day. It’s not the gameplay that is the problem here. It’s the polish.
Simply put, this does not feel like a game that came out of Netflix’s huge budgets. This doesn’t even feel that good for an indie game. It feels, and I say this in the most respectful way possible, amateur.
Just think about some of the things that characterize first attempts at video games. Unwieldy menus with text boxes that are far too large? Check. Strange control schemes that make it hard to perform basic actions and or navigate menus? Check. Music that cuts off suddenly? Abrupt transitions between narrative scenes? User interface elements that range from “basic copy paste” to “MS paint job?” Check, check, and double check. None of this game looks or sounds good which is a problem because Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal is known for being a masterpiece of practical visual effects!
The storytelling doesn’t do it any favors either. The story itself is fine. It follows the events of the Netflix series which, once again, is quite good.
The problem is that we don’t see much that we haven’t already seen here. Most of the events happen exactly as they did in the show, just without the fantastic puppetry, practical effects, or voice acting. You do get to see some expanded story on certain characters but it kind of feels like filler. It wasn’t needed in the original show and it’s not needed here.
Not to mention, it has no respect for people who haven’t already seen its source material. It hits the ground running without spending a second on backstory. If you don’t know what the Gelfling or the Skeksis are, sucks to be you.
It’s just not clear who this game is for. Anyone who watched The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance won’t want to play this game because it’s just an inferior way to tell the story that the Netflix series told. Anyone who didn’t watch the show, won’t want to play this game because they won’t have sufficient context without watching the series. Anyone who just wants a good tactical game won’t want to play this because there are way, WAY better tactical games on the market, some that cost less money. Anyone who wants to play a good indie game is facing a similar problem.
Maybe I would have been more charitable to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics if it was slightly cheaper. Even though $20 is a budget price, it’s still quite the heavy ask for a game with this level of polish. Maybe $15 or $10 may have made me a feel a bit better about the price tag. Or hey, they could have just fixed up a few things. Slightly better animations, slightly more voice acting, U.I. that was a bit more stylized instead of what feels like stock assets, take your pick! This just doesn’t feel like a Netflix project, frankly.
Netflix is the network of prestige TV! It’s the service that frequently greenlights experimental projects that never could have made it on network TV. It’s gotten us to look at media in so many different ways, gotten us to change the way we look at the very way we consume media. It will be remembered as one of the most important influencers in this age of storytelling.
So I can’t help but be disappointed when the first video game with its logo feels like any of a number of half-baked RPGs that I can download off iOS App Store. You’re better than this, Netflix. Try harder next time.