Take a liberal dollop of Crash Bandicoot and knead it in a bowl, then add two whisked eggs and a tablespoon of Metroid Prime. Mix ingredients together with a hearty pinch of Tomb Raider and a sneaky dash of Broken Sword. Place in the development oven for around two years and, when ready to serve, sprinkle some crushed Prince of Persia on top for aesthetic garnish?and call it Pitfall: The Lost Expedition.
Platform games are a dying breed in this age of strategy based RPGs, carnage heavy first person shooters, and military stealth simulations. The Tomb Raider franchise is flagging desperately, and Lara’s repeated facelifts have only succeeded in making a mockery of a once original title. More recently, Ubisoft’s gorgeous Prince of Persia has received admirable critical coverage but sales figures have not risen to reflect that praise. Are gamers simply not interested any more? Have we all been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt? Can faith ever be rekindled for rope swinging, abyss leaping, log jumping, and trap dodging?
Sadly, not on the strength of Pitfall: The Lost Expedition. As artifact hunter, Pitfall Harry, you embark on a two-pronged mission somewhere deep in the heart of the Peruvian Jungle. After your plane is struck during a freak storm (a la Broken Sword) and nosedives into the dense jungle foliage, you set out to rescue the scattered expedition members, passengers, and crew, from the clutches of the renegade natives. However, an evil mercenary named Jonathan St. Claire also walks your trail seeking four precious artifacts that could mean certain doom for you and the expedition if he is not thwarted. Knowing no fear, Pitfall Harry must step up and save the day.
When it comes to story, it’s nothing you’ve not heard before; and, unfortunately, where execution is concerned, it’s nothing you’ve not seen before. All in all, Harry is treading a trail we’ve all walked many times before him.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition isn’t a bad game, though. It’s constantly vying for your appreciation and it so desperately want you to like it. From the Gerry Andersonesque marionette character designs to the bright jungle environments and comical dialogue, it’s tongue in cheek from start to finish; but its cuteness overrides every attempt to bring forth atmosphere and tension, and the plot sequences, which should provide story arc and suspense, only allow for a tea break or to poke fun at their startlingly average graphics and design. You see; Harry’s story never grabs hold. You never care sufficiently to pay attention?because you already know what’s coming. There’s nothing in the story to fire your interest. Nothing original. Nothing inspiring. Only Harry seems to care regarding the outcome?and that’s simply not enough motivation.
The game plays well though and its overall mechanics are competent throughout. Harry’s in-game character animation is impressive in all aspects, and there’s very little he can’t do. Prerequisite rope swinging aside, Harry can scale ice walls, swim underwater, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and run faster than a speeding bullet. Everything you’ve come to expect from your video game adventure heroes; and, if you leave the controller unattended for any length of time, Harry will dance a jig, scratch his butt, or fight off a pesky mosquito. Like I said, it’s unfailingly cute at all times.
The control system is easy to grasp and soon becomes second nature as you leap effortlessly from rock to pedestal to vine. Sliding into the game’s flow is not an unpleasant transition. The opening section is semi-tutorial and gently introduces the player to some, but not all, of Harry’s gymnastic abilities. It’s a welcome addition to the game, mainly because the first few hours of game play are relatively weak in layout and wow-factor; though things do pick up the further you progress. However, the only major control gripe is the camera. It loosely follows behind Harry’s movements but constantly needs manual input from the player (through the shoulder buttons) in order to keep up with the action. Occasionally this can become extremely distracting if faced with multiple adversaries attacking from different angles. Frantically swinging the camera while initiating fight moves and tracking the bad guys, can lead to a few choice words spat at the television.
Just like Harry’s stationary animations, Pitfall: The Lost Expedition is filled with charming touches, which almost succeed in papering over its lack of innovation and shallow storyline. The audio samples of screaming monkeys roused from slumber and the nonsensical jabbering of the masked natives brings a smile to your face and a chuckle to your lips. The rousing musical score lends an air of grand occasion to the levels without ever forcing you to notice its existence. Harry’s periodic character interchanges with a diaper-wearing chimp, a bad-tempered scorpion and a belly-sliding penguin all serve to sprinkle some magic dust on the proceedings. Even the game’s obligatory power-up purchasing is obvious but still fun; collectable hidden statues can be traded with a snoozing shaman?should you find him. And, locating and releasing captive expedition members will sometimes lead to inventory gifts, which help open sections of the game previously locked to your exploration. Yes, it’s all quite lovely looking and very professionally assembled, but it doesn’t solve the game’s main deficiency.
Pitfall: The Lost Expedition is like a poor man’s Metroid Prime?or perhaps a young child’s Tomb Raider. It’s attractive in a bright, vivid, and colorful kind of way. Its characters are appealing in a big-eyed Japanese animation kind of way, and its level design draws you in simply because you can’t stop smiling; but, and it’s a big but?it has no sense of challenge and no sense of urgency. If you don’t pause to hunt for all the statues and power-ups, the whole game can be a pleasant but fading memory in a mere fourteen hours. The puzzles are laughably simplistic by today’s brain frazzling standards and each level slides gently by without incurring so much as a frown or a scratched head.
Almost the entire game map will be uncovered by the time the 60% complete mark is reached on the save screen. The remainder of the game soon becomes backtracking from one side of the map to the other in an effort to unlock secret areas or access the next step of the story. This quickly becomes tiresome (as it did in Metroid), but the difference here is the game doesn’t let you wander blind for eons, preferring to instantaneously pinpoint your next location for you. Although the game’s assistance initially appears helpful, it perhaps suggests a need from the developers to guide you by the hand because there’s really not very much else in the game to keep you otherwise occupied.
Little more than the main story exists to drive you forwards or preserve your interest. A handful of mini-games surface upon visiting a native village, where Harry needs to perform certain simple disciplines to prove his mettle; but, amazingly, compared to the general ease of the story game, these mini-games often lapse into complete frustration through steeply ramped up difficulty. It’s all rather unbalanced and unrewarding.
Completing the overall game will unlock various cheats and bonus materials, including costume and character changes and the original Pitfall and Pitfall 2. Somewhere in the main game sits an old stone video games console, a static filled screen, and two huge carved controllers. The site for more Pitfall fuelled capers? Not for this player. All the hidden statues and power-ups must be secured to unlock the old Pitfall titles?and, personally, I was a few short of the mark when I finished Pitfall: The Lost Expedition. I won’t be making any return trips to find them, though. I think my platform days are over.
Perhaps I’m just too old and cynical to look at Pitfall: The Lost Expedition with anything more than an eye for times gone by. Maybe the younger, less experienced, game playing demographic will welcome it with open arms. Hmm. I doubt it.
Now, when’s Full Spectrum Warrior coming out?