Film tie-in games often get a lot of stick from the more "hardcore" players for being unimaginative, short and repetitive, and otherwise not worthy of their gaming time. But for their target audience - the young, and young at heart, who've seen the film in question and are eager for more - film tie-ins tend to scratch an itch that few other games reach. Offering a familiar blend of beating up bad guys, pulling a few switches and jumping from platform to platform, they may not have the polish of the Mario and LEGO games, but they're have their own, distinct appeal.
Brave, based on the recently released Disney-Pixar flick of the same name, attempts to follow this familiar formula to a tee, slipping you into the tartan shoes of crazy-haired Scot, Merida, who's mother (and seemingly brothers) have all been turned into bears, thanks to the accidental awakening of an ancient curse. To lift the curse and return her family to normal, the tomboy princess needs to seek out and destroy the evil bear Mor'Du and his minions, by - you guessed it - taking on a variety of platforming levels, smacking enemies around with her sword and bow, and solving basic puzzles.
Not just your average "wee" weapons, though, there's more to Merida's armaments than meets the eye. With the ability to imbue her weapons with different elemental powers at the poke of an icon on the touch screen, you'll need to switch between fire, water, air, and ground to defeat enemies, solve puzzles and activate switches. Each creature you encounter on your travels will have one of these symbols floating above their head, showing you their weakness at a glance - and by defeating them with the correct element equipped, you'll earn bonus orbs, which can then be used to purchase various upgrades for Merida, improving her abilities, learning new moves and increasing her health.
In general, you don't usually have to worry about strengths and weaknesses all that often, though, as the baddies tend to fall by the wayside pretty easily, and frequently drop health potions, should you be in need of a top up. Even if you do manage to die, it's not that much of a setback, as you're simply respawned into the level close to where you left off - albeit a few orbs poorer. Somewhat perversely though, the boss fights, which are scattered somewhat randomly throughout the game, seem to be anomalously difficult. Having to press a number of switches to make a giant vulnerable, all while he's chasing you round a rather small area, dealing tons of damage when he gets near you, and summoning enemies to back him up is about as easy as it sounds. You'll most likely die at least once per boss fight, even if you've managed to make it through all the previous levels unscathed.
The other way your elements play a part is in the switches, which you'll find throughout each of the levels. To activate them, all you have to do is bash it with a sword or pierce it with an arrow with the right element equipped, causing the scenery to shift, granting you access to previously unreachable areas - whether it's grass causing a plant to grow, or fire burning down some brambles which were blocking a gate. From time to time, a switch will have a puzzle associated with it that you'll need to solve before you can set it off. All controlled via the Touch Screen, there's a variety of minigames here that offer a nice change of pace. One asks you to repeat a sequence of elemental icons (a bit like Simon Says), another asks you to shuffle things around, to move a stone to the exit, whilst the last sees you attempting to create a path from the top of the screen to the bottom for the "elemental magic" to flow (think the old Pipe Mania games) - with the difficulty of each ramping up gradually as you get closer to the end of the game. The latter is perhaps the one that gets most complex, because you'll need to work out a path that satisfies up to four different elements simultaneously, requiring some serious thinking (or a lot of guesswork) to solve - but by and large the puzzles are pretty easygoing, and shouldn't pose too much of a problem, at least for an adult (check the Parental Perspective to see how kids should cope).
With it's bite-sized levels that last five or ten minutes each, Brave fits perfectly with the DS' portable nature, letting you fit in a level or two while waiting for the bus. What is a shame though is that the whole game is bite-sized too, and you'll be lucky if you get over three hours out of it. Most film tie-in games tend to be a bit on the short side, but Brave seems to be taking the biscuit - while other games try to extend the game's shelf-life by hiding collectables around the levels, Brave doesn't even have that, giving you almost no reason to come back to it.
As it stands, it almost seems like the developers ran out of time towards the end of the game, with the game's length, and other, odd loose ends starting to make an increasingly disjointed picture. The hints Merida gives you about what to do next start to become almost nonsensical towards the end - placing a block to "create an access to the other platform" isn't the best English in the world, and considering the company behind the game are Canadian (Behaviour Interactive, albeit based in Quebec), it's odd that dodgy English has made it into the game. In fact, the final showdown against Mor'Du doesn't actually involve a battle against him at all - all you'll have to do is plough through several groups of enemies, one for each of the four elements in the game.
In the end, Brave is a pretty decent film-tie in platformer with a budget price and an unusual elemental mechanic - but where it really falls down is it's length. Little over three hours long, with next to no reason to replay levels to find missing collectables, it's likely to just be finished and forgotten. The DS version of the game is definitely the poorer man's game, so we'd recommend getting the Xbox 360/Wii/Playstation 3 versions of Brave instead if you feel you can't get enough of Merida and co.