The Golden Compass owes a lot to 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia. Like Narnia, it is a game based on a film based on a fantasy novel, and it even goes so far as to summarily lift hunks of gameplay directly from the older title. Yet for some reason, the designers picked all of the bad stuff while leaving behind the good. And just for good measure, the PSP version suffers from incomprehensibly awful glitches that essentially break the game.
If you aren't familiar with the accompanying film, or the Philip Pullman novel on which it's based, you will probably be rather confused by the game. As Lyra Belacqua, you seek to save your friend Roger from the grasp of evil folkloric kidnappers known as Gobblers. Lyra is accompanied by her daemon Pantalaimon (or Pan, for short), who is the physical embodiment of Lyra's soul, and she is occasionally joined by a hulking armored polar bear named Iorek. Lyra also possesses an instrument called an alethiometer--the golden compass of the title--which can answer any question that she asks it. You'll figure out what's going on piecemeal and with the help of short clips from The Golden Compass film. Yet, you'll likely never care about Lyra or her companions, and important chunks of exposition are completely glossed over, leaving you wondering what's going on or why you should care.
Gameplay is a mess. There are a lot of ideas at work here, but none of them pan out particularly well. First up: exploration. You spend a lot of time roaming about doing busywork, particularly in an insanely long and boring sequence on the Gyptian vessel. The highlight during this level is--get ready for it--mopping the deck. In other levels, these tasks may have you hiding under furniture or throwing snowballs, but none of them are interesting. They are also generally sliced up by cutscenes and other gameplay mechanics.
Platforming ushers in more mediocrity. Granted, there are some nice ideas here. Lyra can use Pan as a grappling hook and latch on to poles for simplified Prince of Persia-inspired swinging, which allows the duo to glide for short distances. There are also beams to keep your balance on as you cross, though these moments seem to take forever because Lyra walks across them so slowly. The controls are superloose, which is deadly on the dock level--one of the dumbest platforming sequences ever concocted. Not only do the slippery controls make Lyra a pain to maneuver, but you can't manually control the camera, which makes it impossible to judge distance. Even worse, the camera has a tendency to move on its own in the middle of jumps and balancing acts. Expect to reload this level countless times while cursing the designer who created it.
The Golden Compass relies heavily on timed button sequences, already one of the most overused mechanics in modern-day games. Attacked by a giant bee? Press some buttons in the right order. Need to push over an ice bridge? Press some more. Even some boss fights are won in this manner. There is some action buried in here, though it's found mostly in the game's first and final levels. Playing as Iorek, you'll paw through three types of enemies: witches, Tartars, and wolves. Once you build up enough rage by using standard melee attacks, you can pound the ground to do extra damage. You can also hold two buttons down to grab an enemy and fling it around, but for the most part, you can defeat this tiny assortment of foes by mashing a single button. Some levels are capped by boss fights, which aren't hard, but thanks to the lack of player camera control and the shoddy hit detection, they're plenty annoying.
There are still more elements at play. Sometimes Lyra will try to deceive other characters, which requires you to perform a set of minigames. Some of these games function properly, at least, such as one where you push the left analog stick in a whack-a-mole variant. Others are simply terrible and so poorly explained that you may have no clue how the minigames even work the first few times they appear. There's also the matter of the golden compass itself. Lyra can ask it questions, and the accompanying minigame consists of keeping a reticle centered on the compass with the left analog stick while executing (you guessed it!) another timed button-pressing sequence.
At their best, the production values simply fail to capture the fantasy magic of the film or novels. At their worst, they're broken. Animations and environments are crude while there is absolutely no imagination to be found in the bland art design. There are also some weird graphical bugs, such as blinking polygons and pixelated seams. These issues are less noticeable on the PSP's small screen than on its console counterparts, but they are compounded by the fact that there are four- or five-second loading times in the middle of nowhere, accompanied by the furious whir of the disc. This can happen midjump or midattack, and rather than just freeze the onscreen view, the game cuts away to a black screen with a loading symbol. This occurs every minute or two during action sequences.
Sound fares even worse. The musical score is fine, if unmemorable, but most sound effects are either embarrassingly clunky or missing entirely (and this version is missing even more than on the console versions). There are also constant sound hiccups when the machine seems to be loading data from the disc and numerous examples in which characters don't speak when there is supposed to be dialogue or talk over each other's dialogue--sometimes over their own. Furthermore, sound is often not synched with the onscreen events, to the point where unrelated noises, such as the noises of Iorek fighting, will occur when something else is happening onscreen. From a technical perspective, The Golden Compass is completely busted.
Initially, the wide variety of gameplay elements make it seem like there's going to be a lot to do in The Golden Compass. Unfortunately, most of these facets are too repetitive, too frustrating, or too boring to keep anyone's interest--young or old. The fact that the PSP version suffers from a string of unimaginable technical problems makes it even more embarrassing. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the game is just the latest in a string of movie tie-ins that sacrifice good gameplay and proper quality assurance for the sake of a quick buck.