Zathura is a third-person action adventure game based on the just-released movie of the same name. The movie is based on the children's book from author Chris Van Allburg, who also brought us Jumanji. Like Jumanji, Zathura is about an enchanted board game that whisks players away on all sorts of fantastical adventures. The game is your basic platformer with plenty of shallow combat and not much else. Zathura is obviously intended for a younger audience, but the game is too short and frustrating to be recommendable to anyone, regardless of age.
Zathura the game sticks fairly close to the movie, so you won't find any surprises if you've seen the movie already. The game starts off with two young brothers being left at home alone one afternoon. Danny, the whiny younger brother, pleads with Walter, his bullying older brother, to make him some lunch. Eventually the two end up fighting, and Danny ends up all alone in the basement, where he finds a strange board game called Zathura. Danny hits a button on the game, and a card pops out. When he has Walter read the card for him, a meteor shower suddenly starts smashing the house to splinters. When it's over, the remainder of the house is floating through space with the two young boys stranded inside. To get back to earth, the boys have to finish playing the game, but each time they take a turn, something crazy happens. The adventure will take you to a couple of typical sci-fi worlds where you'll fight rampaging robots, lizard-men known as Zorgons, and, well, that's about it actually. There isn't much to this game, and you can easily beat it in two or three hours. When you finish the game, you're rewarded with two trailers for Zathura and one for Jumanji--great.
There are a few fun moments to be found in Zathura, but for the most part it's as generic as they come. You'll jump from platform to platform, fight some enemies, and occasionally go up against a boss. The boss fights are the highlight of the game, but there are only a couple of bosses, and they don't put up much of a fight. There are three playable characters: Danny, Walter, and a large robot that is programmed to protect the boys. You don't get to choose which character to play as, since the character transitions are built into the game at specific moments.
You might play as Danny for one section of a level, then switch off to play as Walter for another section. Each of the characters has different abilities. Danny is a weakling, so he can't do much but run around and shoot enemies with a slingshot. He can do a couple of kicks, but they aren't very effective since his legs are so short that you have to get right up on an enemy to make contact. Danny can collect different kinds of ammo for his slingshot by breaking objects like crates and boxes. He has infinite moon rocks, but he can collect only limited supplies of electric shots, freezing shots, and explosive crystal bombs. Walter is similar to Danny except he's a bit stronger, so he can do things like swing on bars and hang on ropes. Walter is also much better at hand-to-hand combat. His main weapon is a metal robot arm collected early in the game. He can swing it like a bat to beat down enemies or deflect ranged attacks. Walter can throw things like radioactive waste containers and sand-crab eggs to damage enemies from afar. The robot has two melee attacks and a built-in cannon that can fire pulse ammo, bombs, missiles, and homing charges. The robot can also jump higher than the boys, and it can perform a boost charge.
The controls are pretty simple regardless of which character you use. You can lock on to enemies by holding a button, which is about the only way to effectively use ranged attacks. You can also crouch, strafe, and side-dodge. Usually, you can adjust the camera with the right analog stick, but sometimes the camera will become fixed at a terrible angle that makes it tough to see what's going on. There are also some platforming sections where the screwy perspective makes it difficult to judge your jumps, so you'll end up missing a lot of platforms and falling to your death. It doesn't help that the characters never seem to make contact with the ground, and sometimes they float around as if they're on ice.
Zathura is very forgiving when it comes to dying. You have unlimited lives, and when you do die you usually respawn almost right where you left off. It really takes away any sense of danger or risk this game might have had. On one level we found that when we fell off a platform it was easier to commit suicide and respawn at the top of the level rather than to climb all the way back up. Even without the infinite lives and frequent health pickups, this game is supereasy except for a few poorly designed platforming sections.
In addition to the generic gameplay, the graphics are pretty unremarkable. Some of the enemies--like the zorgons--look detailed and animate well. For the most part, though, the characters aren't the least bit interesting. The three playable characters have only a few animations that quickly get old. The environments are standard fare for a sci-fi game of this type. There's the industrial stage with lots of metal crates and laser beams, the lava stage with, well, lots of lava everywhere, and one level that has you hopping around on the surface of an asteroid. None of the levels look particularly interesting, and the few themes you'll see here don't feel very distinct. The Xbox version of Zathura suffers from the occasional bout of slowdown, but it's head and shoulders above the PlayStation 2 version of the game, which is constantly plagued by a choppy frame rate.
The sound in Zathura fares a bit better, but it's still nothing special. Most of the music sounds like it was taken straight from the movie. The soundtrack is about the only thing that makes this feel like an epic adventure. The actors from the movie lend their voices to the characters in the game, and while it isn't Oscar material, it's competent enough. Walter and Danny's father and sister both have roles in the movie, but they have been cut entirely from the game. That doesn't matter much since the game focuses on the two boys anyway. The sound effects are rather shallow in Zathura. You'll hear the same metallic creak every time your robot swings his arms, the same laser sound whenever an enemy turret fires, and the same hollow clatter when you destroy a box or piece of machinery.
Zathura is ultimately just another perfunctory action game based on a movie license. For the price of this game you could go see the movie twice and then go pick up the recently released Jumanji (Deluxe Edition) DVD and still have money left over. In doing so, you'd be getting about three times as much entertainment as you'll find in this game. If you've seen the movie, though, and just can't get enough, you might find something to enjoy here, but Zathura is way too short and uninteresting to be worth the $40 selling price.