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The Polar Express

Reviewed by  Mariann Wilson


"Ooohhhh... say it ain't so!"

Normally this dedicated Adventurist commences with almost all of her expeditions into the world of virtual entertainment by entering through the portal known as the 'PC'... Windows XP, to be exact.  However (there's always a however) every once in awhile I have, when the opportunity presented itself, tried my hand (or hands and wrists, I should say) at exploring Adventure games with the use of a Console Platform, such as 'The Dreaded PlayStation 2'.

(Oh.....knock it off!  There are a number of Adventures that one can play on these machines...  Yes, Virginia... I do not lie.  I have 10 in my collection so far, and I've only had my PS2 for one year.)

Some are true Point & Click Ports from the original PC versions such as Riven or Myst III: Exile, while others are third person Adventure/Action Interactives such as the Harry Potter series or Escape from Monkey Island games.  Still others fall into the genre of Adventure/Platform Games such as The Haunted Mansion, and I've even tried my hand at a beautiful game (albeit 'modified', I'm sure, as the diehard PS2'ers will tell you), the Adventure/RPG piece known as Kingdom Hearts.  "Why?" you may ask.  You may well ask indeed, and I will answer, "Why not?"  For years my boys have been trying to get me to play on a Console System of some kind, and for years I've avoided it... giving them perfectly plausible Adventurist excuses such as:

Or... there are always those tried and true tactic ploys that Adventure Gaming Purists like me always use:

Last December, my sons found that my hands were still firmly attached to my person, promptly gave me a PlayStation 2 for Christmas, a few adventures to go with it, and 'duck-walking' me to the couch in my den, hooked up the system to my 27" television (complete with surround sound speakers) and dared me to prove them wrong.  The result?

I found that after a few attempts:

Funny thing about using a console system... there are very few technical issues.  No compatibility modes to get frustrated with.  No patches to speak of.  There's just the disc and the console and whatever you choose to hook it up to, be it a television set or a wide screen monitor.  Simple, easy and very quick.  The other interesting thing I've found is that sometimes the adventures that are created for the PC, when also created for a console system (as in the case of my PS2), can be much more expanded for the latter.  I have a feeling it's because the developers can pack more graphics, video, audio, and basically just more game onto a disc made for a console than on one made for the PC.  Geez Louise, who knew?...   My sons did.

Technical Stuff and Nonsense

Keep in mind that the game that I am about to review is not a true Adventure Game, whether you choose to play it on a traditional PC or you have done as I have and have entered into the world of the console system.  Instead 'The Polar Express', developed by the Australian company Blue Tongue and published by THQ, is really what I like to call a 'cross-genre' game: part Adventure, part Platform and part Arcade.  So let's get down to it then, shall we?

When we first enter into The Main Menu for The Polar Express, we find that it allows the gamer to:

  • Play Game:  This will let you begin a new game, which you must name.  It also allows you to load a saved game by first selecting your Named Game and then selecting the correct Chapter and then the Section where you left off.

  • Bonus Content:  Ahh... the Bonus Content!  This function offers two EYE TOY games, which are interactive affairs.  My six-year-old nephew will have a blast with this function.  You can also watch clips from the movie here.

  • Options:  This section lets you turn off the vibration for the controls, and if you are anything at all like the novice that this reviewer seems to be...  well let me just tell you, it's a welcome relief to be able to shut that function off. The very last thing I need is that darned controller zapping me with it's oh-so-mild electrical current, reminding me of just how incredibly bad I am at playing arcade games!  You can also set the Audio Controls here as well.

  • Credits:  Here you can view all the Credits... and take notes on just who was responsible for the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome you are about to contract.

  • Playing the Game

    After viewing the opening cut scene (which you can elect to bypass, after you've seen it a couple of times, by pressing the X button and starting up the game), you'll see that in the upper left hand corner a GOLDEN HEART appears.  This is your 'life meter'.  When it goes out, you'll have to start the chapter sequence all over again from the Main Menu.  The lower left-hand corner holds the COINS that you find.  For every twenty coins, you gain a new life.

    At any time during gameplay, if you press the Start Button it will bring up a menu that gives you a choice of either Continuing The Game, Saving The Game, the Regular Options or Quitting The Game.  It will also show you how many of the SECRET TOY PARTS that you've collected, and will assemble them as well for you at the bottom of the screen.  The top of the screen tells you how many are still available within the Chapter that you are working on.  If you are successful enough to collect all the toy parts that are hidden within the game's universe, then you'll be able to unlock THE SECRET MINI-GAME SECTION.

    The puzzles and riddles that you would normally find present in your garden-variety Adventure Game are absent here.  This is a platform game, which isn't inventory based at all.  There's plenty of action though, as you play the main character from the story, HERO BOY, who runs from train car to train car jumping, ducking, slipping and sliding, and all the way collecting toy parts, finding golden tickets, kicking soccer balls, collecting coins, throwing food, catching clockwork mice, breaking ice, playing a round or two of tennis, and fighting with the 'bad toys'.  (There are five Chapters of this, and that's just the first one!).  As the game progresses, the arcade sequences get more difficult, but a lot more fun to play, and you really get a feeling of accomplishment when you complete them (the Skiing Sequence and the Elf Tubes were my favorites).  This finally culminates in a mad Dirigible Balloon Race against time, complete with Santa's bag full of toys in tow, as you try to catch Santa and his magical sleigh before he leaves the North Pole.

    The Not So Good Stuff

    Saving is a strange thing in this game.  The Polar Express is conveniently divided into Chapters, which hold the storyline, and then is subdivided again into smaller sections, each of which may hold a number of arcade levels.  As you progress through the game world, the program will automatically save at various points... frustrating for me again because I'm not very proficient with action/arcade platforms.  Although all of your saves are overwritten in one place, as you complete the sections in each Chapter you can, if you like, go back and replay any of the Sections already completed.  I did figure out, however, that if you really messed up in a particularly difficult arcade sequence (as long as you did this before your Golden Heart Meter ran out), you could restart the arcade sequence by pressing the Start button.  This will bring up the Menu that gives you a choice of Continuing The Sequence, Starting The Sequence, Saving where you were, or Quitting The Game.  However, if you wait until your Heart Meter is empty, then our poor Hero Boy falls to the floor and a message to access The Main Menu appears, and you have to start the Chapter Section all over again from the beginning.  So my tactic here was to spend some time loading up on those Coins at the earlier arcade levels, before I entered into the level where I kept getting obliterated.  Where there's a will... there's always a way.

    The saving ability in The Polar Express is not one that I as a gamer would have chosen.  To my mind, it would have been much better if the developers had taken the time to make it so that you could have saved at will, and also saved each game separately if that was your choice.  Although I must say that once you've completed a Section within any Chapter, you can replay that section anytime you desire.  Also, because of the age that this game has the potential to appeal to (the four to ten year old set and their parents), it might have been a more prudent idea to be able to vary the difficulty level.  Apart from that I have no complaints, even though we won't mention the fact that it took me over 72 tries to chase across the top of that train to try and catch the Conductor!  Yet on the lighter side, I've recently been told by those FPS'ing-RPG'ing-Platform-Jumping-War-Anihilation-Gaming-All Grownup and Oh-So-Incredibly-Handsome Sons of mine, that I've become quite proficient at Platform games, and am now welcome to play with the both of them and their friends anytime that I choose.  Such joy!

    (Quick... Let me grab my Halo2 and just run right over.  Uhmmmm... that’s SO not going to happen.)

    The Good Stuff

    I must say that it was the lyrical writings of Chris Van Allsburg, his enchanting illustrations and the poignant memories that I had for the story of The Polar Express, along with the voice of Tom Hanks, that drew me to this game to begin with during this very rainy November.  In fact, most of the character articulation for the Console versions, the PC version, and the movie production as well, were created under the direction of Robert Zemeckis and Jerome Chen by utilizing the talents of Tom Hanks via a technique known as 'Performance or Motion Capture', which is a very complicated process of digitally rendering an actor so that there is no need for computer animation.  Here, hundreds of tiny mirror-like sensors were attached to Mr. Hanks while he was wearing a specially designed performance suit and skullcap.  Then against the backdrop of a blue screen, he acted out the live motion for each of the characters that he portrayed (and trust me, they are legion in this production): The Conductor, Santa, The Hobo and yes, even physical attributes of the small child known only as 'Hero Boy',  just to name a few.  I'm absolutely ecstatic over the fact that Mr. Van Allsburg held out for this kind of animation, giving this game the guise of richly painted watercolors instead of succumbing to the cheap trick of a half-hour Saturday morning cartoon lookalike.  Now that's not to say that 2D or 3D doesn't have its place, to be sure.  But his fear was that if it was used, The Polar Express would certainly have lost its magical and elegant quality.  And with this, I heartily agree.

    Mr. Hanks' vocal quality was truly incredible.  While remaining vocally distinctive for each of the myriad of roles that he created for The Polar Express, he still kept a single thread interlaced throughout, connecting all of them together.  This calls to mind the metaphor that each adult was actually reminiscent of Hero Boy's father (who unfortunately was absent from the game).

    ...Well, it was really only a dream... or was it?

    The rest of the voiceovers were quite fresh and entertaining, and included Daryl Sabara (who is a child, recently of Spy Kids) as the voice of 'Hero Boy', Nona Gaye as 'Hero Girl' (who is not a child, but IS the child of the late Marvin Gaye), and Jimmy Bennet (another child, last seen as 'The Flash/Tony' in Eddie Murphy's Daddy Day Care) as the voice of 'Lonely Boy'.  All were entertainingly perky, quite enjoyable and full of life.  But it was the grating tones of Eddie Deezen (also not a child, but a child at heart... some of you might remember him from the TV series Homeroom, circa 1981) who stood out for me quite noticeably as 'Know it All Boy'.  True to his character's name, his delivery is hysterically aggressive with his knowledge, and called to mind why some children are sometimes stuffed into lockers by their peers during their years at school.

    Music has always been a predominantly essential point with me in determining my attitude toward what I take away from the experience of any particular game.  If the underscore for the piece is interesting, and lends itself to either the action or sometimes 'reaction' of the plot, so much the better.  If the music goes further by accentuating the tender values of the narrative, then I'm helpless, and I quickly become bound to it emotionally.  I found this to be true with the compositional work and musical arrangements by Stephen Schütze (taken from the overwhelmingly moving theatrical score by Alan Silvestri) and the beguilingly ethereal carols performed by the Eltham East Primary School Choir.  And then, of course, there is the central theme, Believe, written by Alan Silvestri for the Warner Brothers movie, which has been intricately woven and rewoven throughout the game.  Believe, whose lyrics were both written and performed by Josh Groban in the movie version (not the game), has got to be just about THE most exquisite piece of Christmas music that I've heard in a very long time.  I do think that we'll see that I am right once Oscar season rolls around.  My single complaint here is that it wasn't sung by that children's choir for the game...  that would have been truly magnificent.

    Memories of Things Past

    My own beautiful children grew up with this fable at Christmas time.  The Polar Express was read aloud to them year after year, and soon it became one of our favorite holiday traditions to read and peruse through the enchanting illustrations of this brilliantly exquisite tale by the firelight.  Near to our decorated hearth, the three of us would sit together beneath our Christmas tree, bathed in the warm glow of its miniature lights as they twinkled merrily around us.  I would gaze at my little boys in wonder at their naïveté each Christmas Eve as I read aloud the magical story of The Train, and I knew that when the time came to carry them off to their beds, in the last moments before they drifted off into their dreams, they would be listening for the rumbling sound of that enchanted Train to pass by and perhaps stop in front of our house as well.  Their eyes would grow round as saucers as I turned the pages and drew them into the legend of Santa, The North Pole, The Polar Express, and the idea that the true Spirit of Christmas lies forever in our hearts.  And for a few very precious albeit far too short years, they believed.  And I found that through their innocence, so did I.

    The dream-like cutscenes, and the luxuriously tinted look of the game world, brought all those feelings flooding back to me as I began to play.  The music was perfect... as was Tom Hanks, who I think played every part except for my mother.

    ...Oh, all right... I'm just kidding... Mother wasn’t in The Polar Express.

    In fact, the artwork and the look of the game itself so inspired me that on the 20th of November, I started putting up all of my Christmas decorations (both trees, all the wreaths, the lit garland up the winding staircase, and the outdoor lights), and I had finished the task before my Thanksgiving turkey was out of the oven and on the table!

    Conclusion

    While it is true that I am by nature a dyed-in-the-wool, first person, point-and-click Adventurist, and spend most of my time playing the older legacy adventure games, I've found that if the story appeals to me, I'm interested.  Like a moth to a flame, I'll be lured in, and the gaming engine will have very little to do with it.  I must point out here that I am sincerely happy that I've played this type of game.  I genuinely had a great time with The Polar Express, and actually have replayed my favorite parts over a few times just for the fun of it.

    (So much for no replay value, huh?)

    As a parent, I sincerely wish to publicly thank Tom Hanks for approaching Robert Zemeckis four years ago with the suggestion of bringing Chris Van Allsburg’s work to the big screen, for without his proclivity I doubt that the movie, and finally the game, would ever have been made.  As one parent to another, I salute you both.  Well done, gentlemen, well done.  To my mind, I feel that the game was created as a sort of 'companion piece' for the enchanting writings and beautiful imagery of the book, and of course the movie.  I see no problem with that, for ideally if played with parent and child together, it will only serve to extend their holiday experience by adding one more dimension to their Christmas memories in years to come.  Memories that can be hard to come by in this oh-so-very busy age in which we live.

    Will I play this game again?  You Bet.  Would I recommend this game to my fellow gamers?  Absolutely, but I highly recommend that you read the book, see the movie (in the IMAX version, if you can) and then play the game.  Is it worth the price?  My opinion is that it was worth it for me.  I had a great time with this game playing it alone, and a significantly meaningful time replaying it with my own, now grownup boys.  I can't wait to have another go with my six-year-old nephew.

    During my research for The Polar Express, I recently read a review of this game on a site that is predominantly for those gamers who play Action/Arcade and FPS games.  There the reviewer boasted that he was of the opinion (because he had finished the game in less than two hours) that it was worthless.  How misguided he was, and how sad for him, for in my mind he missed the point of the game entirely.  This story, this game, was not built for him or his kind of gamer.  No... no, not at all.  It was built for those who are still children, those who still have children, and those who are children at heart.  For you see, The Polar Express is only for those who are not afraid to admit that they still can hear those distant sleigh bells at midnight every Christmas Eve.

    The Polar Express is for those who still believe.

    © December 2004  Mariann Wilson


    Full View Screenshot

    Visit the Official Polar Express Website to learn more about the game, enjoy a video trailer, see more screenshots and more.

    Developed (2004) by Blue Tongue Entertainment and published by THQ Inc.

    Rated:   E   for Everyone  (mild fantasy violence)

    Platforms:  PC  - PlayStation2  - GameCube  - GameBoy Advance  - Xbox

    Minimum System Requirements:  Windows

    Where To Buy This Game:

    Walkthroughs or Hints:

    "Helpful GameBoomer Forum" available here!


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