One of the contenders for the title of hottest toy franchise this holiday season is Lego's Bionicle. The line of action figures is reminiscent of Micronauts and Transformers, so it's a certainty that the colorful little robots will end up under a lot of Christmas trees. Lego and Disney have even teamed up to offer Bionicle: Mask of Light, a straight-to-video animated film that garnered good reviews when it was released in September.
The same kind words can't be offered up for Bionicle the game. Argonaut, a British developer that made its biggest splash in the industry with Starfox for the Super Nintendo way back in 1993, has cranked out a derivative action adventure that's nothing more than an interactive advertisement. All the wonder of the Bionicle universe has been bled dry by a vapid design, an atrocious camera system, and one noteworthy bug. Though the game has obviously been designed for kids, it's hard to imagine even tykes with the briefest attention spans--and the biggest Bioncle figure collections--staying interested enough to finish it. This is really saying something when you consider that the game is also incredibly short.
For a game and toy franchise aimed at children, the storyline is remarkably convoluted. Lego has concocted a detailed mythology complete with prophecies, evil forces, heroes with the power of demigods, and just about everything else that Joseph Campbell ever studied or wrote about. The setting is the island of Mata Nui, a paradise where robots of the Matoran tribe live under the protection of six colorful guardians--Tahu, Kopaka, Pohatu, Onua, Lewa, and Gali Nuva--collectively named the Toa. All of their tropical tranquility is shattered by the arrival of the evil spirit Makuta, who has summoned a swarm of wasplike robots called the Bohrok to devour everything on the island. These creatures are aided by their smarter bug brethren Bohrok-Kal, in addition to corrupted Rahi island creatures, like robotic fish and bulls.
Kids presumably understand this stuff better than grown-ups, who are apt to throw their hands up in frustration over all of the Polynesian names. Basically, though, Bionicle is about six good robots fighting bad ones in a slightly surreal take on Hawaii. Gameplay mirrors the simplicity of the story and setting. You may not have ever played a third-person action adventure with robots named after words in Don Ho songs, but this style of game is as familiar as dirt.
The only real difference between Bionicle and its thousands of predecessors is the encyclopedic narrative and game mechanics based on the elements. All six of the Toa power their weapon blasts (which, oddly enough, come from bladed weapons like swords and axes that cannot be used in melee combat) by drawing light elemental energy from the island surroundings and dark elemental energy from foes (stamina is restored by the more traditional way of collecting power-ups). Each Toa is also linked to the elements of fire, ice, water, stone, earth, and air. Tahu, for instance, is the Toa of Fire, and he wields a fiery sword, of course. Gali is the Toa of Water and is good at holding her breath and swimming like Mark Spitz. Kopaka is the Toa of Ice, and he is skilled at snowboarding his way down mountains. And so on, and so forth. You guide each character--in sequence--in appropriate areas. So Tahu is your man in the volcanic region of Ta-Wahi, Gali in the pools of Ga-Wahi, and so forth.
While these traits do set the game apart from everything else on the shelf, they don't move play beyond action adventure norms. From a behind-the-shoulders perspective, you run around blasting enemies, jumping across chasms, and collecting power-ups. Even something this simple isn't well handled. The camera is obsessed with showing your robotic mug from the front, thus leaving you to fight a lot of offscreen enemies and having you jump to platforms that you can't see. You can rotate the camera with the keyboard or right analog stick on a gamepad, though battles are so fast-paced that the function isn't very useful. The same goes for jumping, as a lot of platforms in the game appear and disappear. Just when you've moved the camera into the right position to attempt a jump, the platform vanishes, disappears beneath lava, etc. On those occasions when you're doing something special, like snowboarding or swimming, the camera wheels about in a way that's almost calculated to induce motion sickness, especially during certain boss battles when enemies whirl around you in a circle.
This not only makes you feel like you're not in control of the game, but it almost eliminates the somewhat nifty ability to collect dark elemental energy. Since these blasts come from unseen foes, it can be very difficult to move your shield into a position to repel and then gather the energy for your own uses. Not that this is much of a problem. You don't really need to harvest energy like this, since you can suck it out of the air by pressing a button while standing still. This isn't much help in combat, of course, although areas where the fiercest fighting takes place often have at least one convenient alcove you can duck into for restoring your juice.
Even if there were more restrictions on energy collection, Bionicle wouldn't likely be very challenging. The oft-invisible baddies don't put up much of a fight. Auto-aiming ensures that almost every shot finds its way to an enemy, so you can take out opponents by simply tearing around and circle-strafing. If you alternate hitting the shield button and the fire button, you can make it through even the boss battles without breaking a sweat, regardless as to whether or not you can see your adversaries. A few puzzles that involve opening doors and activating machinery help to spice things up, and you can even build some Lego-like creatures at certain points. However, all such conundrums can be easily solved by freeing captive Matorans. Regions are so small that it's difficult to miss these peeping robotic hostages. Platform-jumping is the only serious challenge and that's only because of the horrific camera work.
All this makes it a breeze to tear through everything in a single sitting. Some levels--most notably the second one where you just snowboard down a mountain--can be zipped through in under five minutes. It's actually possible to save Mata Nui in less time than it takes to watch the Bionicle movie. And when you're done, you're done, as there is no multiplayer mode.
Getting that far can be something of a struggle, though. Every time we came to the end of the first level while playing on a Pentium 4 equipped with a Radeon 9800 Pro video card, the game crashed hard, thus resetting the machine. This happened whether the game was saved at this point or not. Tinkering with the video drivers (we tried ATI Catalyst versions 3.7 though 3.9) and adjusting various settings had no effect. Only shifting to an AMD Athlon XP system with a GeForce III Ti 500 and the latest Nvidia drivers allowed us to get past this bug. We were able to continue playing on the Radeon machine after moving a save file. Since recent ATI drivers for the Radeon family have been a little shy of stable, it's hard to blame Argonaut for this. But still, Radeon owners beware.
Befitting its status as a quickie console port, Bionicle isn't much of a looker, either. Screen resolution maxes out at a grainy 1024x768, and the overall sharpness is equivalent to what you see on PlayStation 2 games, which isn't surprising when you consider that the game was likely designed for that platform. Regions do have a fair bit of character, though mostly because they encompass extremes suited to the different elements. Colors are bright, particularly in the vivid red volcanic and the bright white and blue ice levels. Robot animations are also excellent. All of the Toa scamper about with a mechanical lurch that seems authentic to anyone who's watched enough sci-fi movies to know that's how robots move.
Audio consists of flat special effects and an old-school musical score that evokes memories of console systems like the NES. These bleepy-bloopy tunes are past their best-before date, though they still hold a certain nostalgic charm. There isn't a lot in the way of voice acting, aside from the occasional "Oof!" when a Toa gets hit by an enemy. What is there seems to have been provided by enthusiastic youngsters and beret-wearing adults with a taste for histrionics, so much of the dialogue is read in a style similar to afternoon cartoons like Pokemon. It's amusing and annoying in turn.
When it comes right down to it, Bionicle is more marketing ploy than a game. It's as blatant as a billboard. Argonaut has done a great job for Lego in getting the franchise name front and center, but that's about it. Beyond promoting brand recognition in advance of the busy holiday shopping season, there really aren't any good reasons for this title to exist. And when you consider the many design flaws and the Radeon bug, there are even fewer reasons for you to buy it.