As gamers, we have come to accept certain things as absolutes: double jumping is not only physically possible, but in fact necessary to traverse one’s day-to-day environs; a single guy can carry eight different heavy weapons, several suits of armor and hundreds of potions in a pouch; ancient demonic evils may be able to decimate entire armies, but not one blond teenager with a sword; and, of course, movie-licensed titles will invariably suck. Yet somehow Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian has managed to defy the immutable laws of gaming and offer a product that is actually not bad. With a healthy selection of simple puzzles and a very forgiving level of difficulty, it provides a nice child-friendly companion piece to a very kid-centric movie.
The story follows a cabal of nefarious historical figures as they overrun the Smithsonian and – being a cabal of nefarious historical figures – decide to take over the world. The narrative is fairly barebones and the humor severely lacking. Ben Stiller actually reprises his role from the film here, but offers a fairly disinterested portrayal. It is unfathomable why people are always so excited to hear that movie stars have opted to play their film characters in the videogame adaptations because they always phone in their performances and Stiller is no exception. However, the story is simply a loose outline of a plot that rarely gets in the way and serves mainly just to set up the action.
The gameplay fares much better and in your quest to defeat history’s greatest villains, you will play fetch with skeletal dinosaurs, guide Roman centurions through vending machines to tempt monkeys with ice cream so that they relinquish their ancient treasure, pilot lunar landers in combat with French legionnaires, ally with Cupid statues to defeat Russian tyrants, coerce polar bears and rhinos to demolish steel gates, deflect mystical energy bolts with your key chain, uncover lost secrets with your enchanted flashlight, pal around with Abraham Lincoln, jump across the wings of classic planes and collect loose change. You know, the usual videogame stuff.
The game does a good job of mixing up your objectives and with nearly every level taking place in a new part of the Smithsonian, you get a bit of variety in the environments and hazards. The Museum of Art has you leaping through a maze of portraits, the Air and Space Museum has you flying with Amelia Earhart and the Museum of Natural History has you evading a hungry Allosaurus. Each part of the museum has its own set of quirks and gimmicks – not to mention scenery – that help keep things from getting stale.
These gimmicks include exploration, platforming and the odd vehicle segment, but focus mainly on simple puzzle solving. These puzzles revolve around a series of power-ups that you will acquire throughout the game, including such things as the capacity to control animals, summon lightning and enchant portraits to attack guards, reveal keys or use as portals. There is a decent number of them and the game is good at mixing them all in to each level, so one ability will not constantly overshadow the others. The use of these powers is straightforward, never esoteric, and attuned nicely to the game’s target demographic.
And that’s just it: Night at the Museum, like Trix, is for kids. Every level and load screen is even peppered with random historical factoids, making this a somewhat educational videogame experience (if you listen closely, you will hear Jack Thompson weeping softly into his pillow). It’s by no means a bad game. It controls well – save for an occasionally fussy jump and some spastic vehicles – it runs well and it is completely glitch free. These days, that alone makes it worthy of praise. Really, this game’s only major flaw is its price tag, but that is a deficit that will likely remedy itself before too long. It’s a decent game, but not a terribly ambitious one. It’s not Chronicles of Riddick or Spider-Man 2. It’s not going to redefine how we perceive the movie game. But for kids who want to extend the experience of the second Night at the Museum film, this will provide a great supplement.