Bolt doesn't know it's just a movie-licensed game. Sure, it has a few of the telltale weaknesses: the plot is thin and the game gets repetitive toward the end. But just as Bolt the dog confounds your expectations in the film by becoming the hero you thought he wasn't, so too does the game overcome its licensed nature. Though this action platformer may be a lesser offering than many other games on shelves this holiday season, Bolt is more than a cash-in.
Bolt's premise is perfect. Rather than trying to jam square-peg game mechanics into round-hole movie scenes, Bolt takes place completely outside of the movie's storyline. Or rather, it takes place within the context of the action movie that Bolt and Penny star in--the one that makes him think he's a superdog. It's a great idea, so it's too bad that the story is really, really boring. The gist is that Dr. Calico is forcing Penny's dad to build a weapon, so Bolt and Penny are trying to save the day, and the dad. There's no story arc, just chapter after chapter of Dr. Calico narrowly escaping your clutches. And there's almost no dialogue. Bolt (the superdog, mind you) can't speak. Sure, he can shoot lasers out of his eyes, but he can't utter a single syllable. The result is a very long, quiet spin cycle of dialogue that begins with "There he is! Get him!" and ends with "He got away! After him, Bolt!"
Fortunately, the "Get him!" parts are pretty good, and so are the "After him!" bits. You play as both Bolt and Penny, though the two aren't interchangeable. For the most part, you sneak into an evil lair as Penny, hack a computer or two, kill a bad guy, and then get caught. Penny's sequences mainly involve platforming and puzzle-solving with her nifty wheelbar. This lets her travel along pipes and up crevices, and thanks to her handy Vision mode, she always knows where to go next. She can also hack into computers by playing a Geometry Wars-like minigame that is hectic and kinda fun.
More than anything, though, Penny's sequences serve as palate cleansers between Bolt's taxing battles. In a fight, Bolt has light and strong attacks (he hovers and hurls his whole body into an enemy), several super attacks, and then a Super mode that can clear a whole room. Regular foes can be felled with regular light and heavy attack chains, and killing them gives you energy, which you can turn around and spend on super attacks for stronger villains. Meanwhile, all of your attacks feed into a combo counter, which in turn charges up your Super mode meter. At first, you'll have a good time just bouncing back and forth between enemies, shooting one with lasers here, and super barking at a group there. But this whole system comes together toward the middle of the game, as the difficulty really ramps up and you have to fight waves of enemies. You'll bounce off the easy ones, use supers to slay the tough ones, and then unleash your Super mode to completely annihilate the next wave.
The only issue with this is the fact that the difficulty peaks too early. As soon as you've won a fight against three whip girls and two mine guys in the middle of the game, it's hard to take a batch of regular enemies seriously, and yet you'll still have thousands of them ahead of you. So though the combat is fun, it can get pretty repetitive, and that's where the game's decent pacing comes into play. For the most part, right when you feel like you'd rather not fight another ninja girl, the game wisely switches to a Penny sequence. This exchange, with a few special events thrown in, keeps things rolling for about eight hours. Unfortunately, the game is longer than that, and it really runs out of tricks toward the end. If you finish it, you probably won't want to replay it (it's long enough the first time), and the only extras to really fool around with are a bunch of the shooter minigame levels. Though there are no PS3 trophies, there are lots of achievements in the Xbox 360 version, and some of them even offer tips. For instance, if you get killed by a mine thrower, the achievement you get will slyly reveal the secret to beating him.
The graphics are strong from start to finish. Most stages in the game have beautiful, soft visuals, and others feature epic vistas. The Xbox 360 version seems to look a little bit better than the PS3 version, and it's definitely more stable. The PS3 version skipped a scripted event and left us hanging about 15 minutes in, while the 360 version never had a problem like that. The music was never good or bad, and was only occasionally noticeable. Lastly, the voice acting was fine, even though the dialogue itself was incredibly limited and infrequent.
Bolt does several things right, and about as many things wrong. It has great graphics and genuinely entertaining mechanics, and it can keep you entertained for hours. On the other paw, it gets pretty repetitive, it has no storyline, and it isn't a very good value. Bolt the game is just like Bolt the dog: somewhere between super and ordinary, and likeable all the same.