In Brave you play as Merida, a flame-haired princess who fights, explores and puzzles her way across the Highlands to lift a curse and save her family. This is Scotland before Scotland, so there’s not a deep-fried Mars bar, Tunnock’s Tea Cake or can of whiskey in sight. This is only to the detriment of the title.
The game starts with a series of storyboards to get you up to speed – the gist is that our heroine got fed up with her mum's nagging and bought her a cursed cake from a witch. The witch told Merida it would 'change' her mother which sounded like a good idea, as Merida thought it would make her mum lighten up, but in fact it changed her mum and her three little brothers into bears, which was definitely bad. To make this all worse the kerfuffle with the cake unleashed an evil spirit that, as the game starts, is blighting the land and spewing hordes of evil creatures into the previously tranquil world. The spirit is personified by Mor'du into who is, confusingly, another bear although he is distinguishable by a handful of broken sticks that poke out of his back.
Brave is a third person action-platformer with the a camera fixed at an angle above the action. With the X button you can slash your sword and with A you can jump. You use the right stick to fire off arrows in all directions. As you progress you can upgrade your firepower and learn new moves. Fairly soon after starting you reach a magic grove with eight portals that transport you to the levels of the game, a new one unlocking each time a level is completed. Over the first four levels you unlock the different charms that add to your weapons the power of earth, fire, wind or ice. Each level has a number of platforms that can only be created using the right charm – for instance an earth arrow will make a platform grow out of nowhere, enabling Merida to climb to a new section. The places where you can do this are clearly marked by a symbol that tells you what charm to use. In some of the levels you will pass sections that are only accessible by charms you do not yet possess, but the game is designed so you pick up the right abilities in the same level and are brought back to where you need to use them through clever design.
As well as navigating your way through the linear world, Brave has a substantial combat element and though there are relatively few enemy types the mechanics keep the action entertaining. The baddies are susceptible to the different charms you possess – so some will be destroyed quicker with fire arrows, other with a swipe from a wind-charm-charged sword. Further into the game where enemies are greater in number and are tougher making sure you have the right charm active is essential to survival. Helpfully, the enemies have their Achilles’ Heel, as it were, floating over their heads – a big symbol that shows what charm to equip when you attack them - so as long as you pay attention you'll never fire off an earth arrow when an ice arrow would do the job twice as efficiently.
Whatever charm you have active also affects your sword so instead of sniping from a distance a combination of up-close slashes and slam attacks can quickly decimate a horde of weird shadow-wolves, strange twig-archers or even the lumbering mini-boss golems that you come across every now and then. On the higher difficulty settings, getting though some of the more frantic encounters is by no means easy. Whilst the number of enemy types are relatively few and the AI is simple the repetitiveness of the battles does not stop them from being quite fun, especially when you’re required to use your range of charms to best effect.
Of upgrades there are many, but you have to pay for them with the currency you collect. Swipe any plant or log and you will get a few coins, a mysterious property of wild grasses that video games have exploited since the earliest Legend of Zelda titles. Kill an enemy or find large pots shaped like your father and a further shower of coins will fall around you. If the game has a moral lesson it is that teenage girls are likely to get pocket money increases if they nag their dads, perhaps. In each stage there are a couple of mini-boss battles and when you clear these the 'blight' on the land in that locale will clear away and you can access the purified standing stones to improve your arsenal. It's sort of like someone has installed Amazon.com into Stonehenge. For starters you can purchase a dodge move and a slam move. You can buy a power bar that charges as you give or take damage and when it's full you can access a brief period of super arrows. You can unlock charge shots for each of the four charms and you can improve these to increase the spread and duration of the effect. These are only some of the goodies on sale and all in all there are a pleasingly large amount of ways you can improve your character. On the playthrough for this review, even with fairly assiduous collection of coins, probably only about two thirds of all the options had been unlocked by the end of level eight so for completionists there is likely room for further play here.
All of this action is broken up by puzzle sections and your three teddy bear brothers crop up to help you here. When Merida gets to some locked doors (more or less one a level) the camera will pan up to the side and you will have to use the brothers to unlock the way ahead. This involves switching between the little bears (done with a tap of the right bumper) to open gates, raise platforms and even fire giant crossbows - the goal is always for one of them to hit a big switch and let sister Merida carry on. These are reminiscent of shareware games from the 90s or any number of Android or iOS puzzlers out there. Whilst the puzzles themselves are really quite straightforward to solve they are fun and the accompanying music is particularly good.
The game is not long and on medium difficulty levels is completable within a couple of hours. This includes collecting the various weapons, costume, health and power upgrades that are hidden in treasure chests, usually just off the main path through each level. In the secret grove hub world, before you choose which level to go into, you can see how many of the hidden items you've found and if you want to get them all you can re-enter levels. Because the levels are linear, if you want to search towards the end of a level for something you need to fight your way through all of the enemies, though you can skip puzzles you have already completed. Irritatingly there are points in levels where an seemingly-arbitrary wall of spikes will grow to prevent you backtracking. The problem with this is you have to start the entire level over to get back to sections near the start. Mostly though the hidden items are fairly obvious and will be picked up throughout the course of play.
Presentationally Brave isn't bad but it's nothing notable either – the graphics look a bit outdated and paint-by-numbers - indeed the whole style of linear action platformer feels a bit Crash Bandicoot. That may be a little unfair as third person action games are made in quantity and many have made a good fist of it in recent years, the Fable series being vaguely comparable to [b/]Brave[/b] although the Fable offering is something with much more depth and complexity. What makes Brave sub-par, even though it is not striving for greatness, is the fact that the texture palette and models used seem very generic. The levels span woods and swamps (that look samey), a couple of frozen/ice levels (that also look samey), a few that take place in creepy castles (you get the idea) and one that is in a volcano because Scotland is so famous for those. The only substantially different setting uses a series of hexagonal blocks to build a sort of Giant's Causeway landscape which seemed appropriate for a game set in the Celtic fringe of the British Isles.
Outside of the game the menu design is ultra-basic and lets Brave down, the title screen and options interface looking so sparse it's like their design was never completed. The storyboard sequences that set the scene are poor and the drawings are low quality. Given this has the Pixar and Disney stamp all over it I had expected something a bit more polished than what was on offer. The soundtrack is fairly good, lifted from the movie I assume: a mix of 'celtic' style tunes that you may well be whistling for days afterwards and suitably epic-ish melodies for the main play sections. Parts of this are reminiscent of the music from a series of films about a young wizard who shall go unnamed.
Overall Brave is a good offering, even if the story does seem to be borrowed in large chunks from Studio Ghibli's masterpiece Princess Mononoke. A fun combat mechanic and upgrade options make this of interest. Generic design, lack of polish in terms of visuals or interface and overall lack of content stop this being anything other than fun – but ultimately forgettable. Gaming parents who buy this for their kids might just be asking for a go before the afternoon is out but by the next day it may well be heading towards the trade-in pile.
This Highland fling is more a blended whiskey than a single Malt, but with some interesting notes.