Filled with cut scenes and swashbuckling action sequences, The Staff of Kings has the feel of an actual Indiana Jones movie. There are a lot of concepts included here that, if fully realized, could have made for a spectacular movie-style game. Sadly, as it turns out the imagination of the game’s developers exceeded their grasp.
Indiana Jones, the world’s foremost Nazi-killing grave robber and part-time college professor is back searching for yet another Biblical artifact to satisfy his “gotta catch 'em all” obsession. The story is relatively short and should take maybe around six hours to complete. We say ‘maybe’ because although the game is short it is full of bad design decisions that will force you to replay certain levels ad nauseum until you get them right.
For example, when the game first lets you use your gun it first teaches you how to use it in a mini-tutorial. This is most appreciated. However, what follows is a sequence where one of three things may happen:
1) You get shot to death while trying to figure out how to kill your first gun-toting opponent (hint: you can’t actually shoot him back. Ever.)
2) While trying to figure out where to go next after killing the bad guy, you fall off of a ledge into a fire and instantly die, or
3) Both of the above, repeatedly.
We chose option 3 for a while until finally finding a window that we could get through to advance. Much of the puzzle solving is like this. Wander around until an icon appears showing you what to do next. Rarely is there fire for you to fall into as in this scene, but death is always a possible outcome and when it happens it means that you have to start the level over from the last checkpoint. In this specific instance it means you will have to sit through the tutorial again on how to use a gun. The tutorial, like every other cut scene in the game, is unskippable and you will get to watch it each and every time you die until you get to the next checkpoint. Although there are plenty of checkpoints throughout the game, because of the trial and error technique used here you will often have to replay entire fight scenes to get to the one place you died because you could not figure out what to do next. Each time you fail to figure out your current dilemma means one more trip through replay hell.
After you get to use your gun, you might be thinking the game will turn into some sort of shooter and the fist-fighting tutorial in the first level was a waste. You couldn’t be more wrong. Borrowing an idea from Red Steel, Indy only uses his gun when the enemy has a gun. Otherwise, he only fistfights. This is a rule of engagement that the Indiana Jones in the movies would never abide by as the films document quite clearly that, much like Han Solo, Indiana Jones shoots first. Especially when the other guy doesn’t have a gun.
As a result, much of the combat involves utilizing motion controls to engage in boxing matches with Nazis and others who mysteriously are not carrying any weapons either. This part of the game perhaps best demonstrates the high concept but poor execution problem the game faces in general. While going through the tutorial the controls seem exciting as you learn to do jabs and uppercuts and even to use the whip to knock a weapon such as a board or bottle out of someone’s hand. But in practice, the controls are sluggish and will leave you frustrated and flailing around trying to pull off any punch at all. Combat is best approached slowly and patiently, waiting a second or two in between each punch to make sure that the next one registers. But this is maddeningly slow and counterintuitive when fist-fighting a room full of enemies.
The game changes things up now and again, such as in the second level where you pilot (but don’t land) a plane or at the end of the game where you drive a motorcycle. But these sequences use unique motion controls that are described only in a diagram: prepare to crash your plane multiple times until you get the hang of it. By the way, you’ll be flying through a canyon so you’d better learn how to steer fast as the plane instantly explodes upon crashing. After an extensive sequence teaching you how to fistfight, you might expect more help with something truly difficult like this.
If you survive the canyon scene and manage to shoot down four enemy planes you’ll get a “Glory” (i.e. “Achievement”). It’s not the first glory of the game but it is the first seemingly inevitable one. So by now you should have unlocked the classic LucasArts game “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” as it requires only one glory to unlock. In the pantheon of well-loved LucasArts games, Fate of Atlantis ranks near the top. As such, its inclusion here is very much appreciated and for some fans of this site may be the primary reason for purchasing Staff of Kings. They’re not wrong, as there is more humor and wit in the opening credits to Fate of Atlantis than there is in all of Staff of Kings combined.
The graphics in Staff of Kings are PS2 quality. This should not be surprising as the game is yet another PS2/Wii release, but the music is at least classic Indiana Jones theme music and shouldn’t get too old in the short playing time.
When you finish the main game and have a friend over to play, Staff of Kings features a nice co-op mode with new levels that let you play as Henry Jones, Indy’s dad from the third movie. It’s a nice bookend to the experience and along with Fate of Atlantis leads us to conclude that Staff of Kings is more desirable for its bonus features than for the game itself.
With clunky controls that would have worked great with a little more attention, sub-par graphics, and unsatisfying puzzle solving that can leave you frustrated, Staff of Kings tries very hard to disappoint its players. But the attempt to make a great Indiana Jones game that actually feels like playing through a movie is lying there somewhere under the surface. No doubt some will overlook the frustration factor and enjoy a taste of what could have actually been a great game. Most, however, will find far more enjoyment with the Fate of Atlantis bonus, which saves this release from being a disappointment.