Video game tie-ins of big summer movies are usually not the standard of excellence. Add to that equation the game adaptation of the animated film version of a thirty-year-old book, and it would be easy to assume that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a forgettable game that few would want to play. However, Ubisoft surprised me with this particular title, presenting family-friendly gamers and fans of the movie with a viable option. Though clearly aimed at a younger audience and thus lacking in challenge, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs manages to be accessible and entertaining for children without insulting their intelligence.
In the film, an aspiring inventor named Flint tries to solve his town’s hunger problem by creating a machine that turns water into food. As usual, things go awry, and the end result is that food literally falls from the sky in Swallow Falls. At first this is a good thing, but it quickly becomes problematic, particularly when giant objects speeding to Earth become life-threatening. The game loosely follows the movie’s plot, but assumes the player already understands the storyline and doesn’t really concern itself with reiterating the tale. Short cut scenes between acts are presented in an 8-bit style, which I found to be an adorable throwback to my own childhood. Many of the minor characters are present, but not explained, which could confuse gamers who haven’t actually seen the movie yet. Even though Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a tie-in, it should still be able to stand on its own with enough of a plot to follow without having seen the source material.
The player takes the role of Flint, who is given a particular task to complete in each level. The game is fairly linear, though you can choose the levels in each act in any order you choose; the areas themselves don’t allow for a lot of open exploration. In addition to the main objective of each board, a secondary goal tasks the player with finding and destroying all of the assigned food items, like strawberries or ravioli. If you manage to finish a section with all of the extra items found, a puzzle piece of a blueprint will be unlocked. It’s not a huge motivator, but nonetheless collectors will find themselves trying to find each and every last snack, extending the gameplay a little bit.
Flint has five tools at his disposal throughout the course of the game, all of which are his own inventions: a giant fork, heat gun, mechanical boxing glove, a small portable vacuum, and the “Chopper-er”, which does exactly what it sounds like. They all have varied uses, and can be upgraded throughout the course of the game, but you will never be able to bring all of them into any given level. The first act assigns one tool, while later in the game you will be able to switch between two or three. Figuring out what item to use in any situation is never hard, since a giant circle will indicate what can be done with the tool you currently have out. For example, if you have the vacuum, a pile of honey will be highlighted, letting you know that you can suck it up and use it elsewhere in the level. Even when given the choice of switching between multiple inventions, it is never particularly challenging to determine what to do, meaning that the end result isn’t especially rewarding. However, though this is the case for more experienced gamers, it makes for a great introductory title for a young child, especially one on his or her first game system.
Enhancing the learning experience of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is drop-in/drop-out co-op reminiscent of that in LittleBigPlanet. By simply clicking a second controller, another gamer can jump in and take the role of Flint’s pet monkey, Steve. Steve can use the same tools Flint can, so having him around doesn’t particularly enhance the experience, but this is a great option for parents or older siblings to play along with a younger gamer. If the primary player gets stuck on a level, a second player can jump in and assist, and then jump out—or keep playing. Though this isn’t the most hardcore title, I never felt like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was tedious, which is more than I can say for many titles aimed at kids.
Another surprise is that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs looks pretty good on the PS3, replicating the characters and environments of the film nicely. There are plenty of charming elements, like enemy gummy bears that you feel just a little guilty about destroying with the Chopper-er, and overall the presentation is pleasing. There were times, however, when the mostly polished experience felt otherwise. Tools could be unresponsive from time to time, with the fork going right through the object it was supposed to be picking up, and Flint himself occasionally moved through solid objects. These issues made a mostly pleasant game seem rough around the edges, and were all too reminiscent of the trappings of most movie games.
Too many quickly-produced games for the younger generation suffer from lackluster graphics, mediocre gameplay, and even jarring technical issues, with developers hoping that the audience will be too inexperienced to know the difference. I have always found this practice unacceptable, which is why I was happy to see that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs broke out of that particular mold. Experienced gamers will have no problem playing through the game without even the fear of death, but kids will have fun playing alone or with a family member, and parents or older siblings can jump in without being bored to tears. Upping the challenge factor and fixing some of the technical issues would have expanded the audience for this game even further, but it’s a nice step taken as far as video game tie-ins go.