To describe Staff of Kings as a game seems a bit disingenuous – this is a collection of smaller sub-games, similar to Disaster: Day of Crisis. There are puzzley platform bits, typically involving copious whip-cracking; there’s brilliant environmental combat, which lets you hurl pool balls at bad guys, shove enemies into aquariums or whack them in the head with garden tools. On-rails gun battles will also occasionally break out, dumping Indy behind cover and letting you peek out and aim at enemies.
If you were hoping for a robust plot to hold these elements together, expect to be disappointed. Indy has his passport stamped everywhere from San Francisco to Istanbul, but cutscenes are so stilted and awkward it’s difficult to be entirely sure why. He’s searching for the legendary Staff of Moses, we know that much for certain, and, as ever, heaps of Nazis are right on his tail.
Previous Indy games The Emperor’s Tomb and The Infernal Machine translated the license into Tomb Raider-style exploratory platform outings, but aside from similar pastimes Indy has very little in common with Lara Croft. This series has always been more at home with spectacular action sequences than precision acrobatics or slowly dragging a box across a room. With a focus on the action, Staff of Kings is probably the closest a game has ever come to recreating the spirit of the movies, even if it does fudge the execution quite a bit.
You do get to trudge around ancient environments, but stages are limited in size and not that interactive – you can only use your whip to climb walls, topple structures or swing across gaps at particular moments, and never at your discretion. “Exploration” soon comes to mean “running around, triggering occasional quicktime events.” As such, the platforming’s never particularly exciting, but as the glue that holds the superior combat and puzzle sections together it suffices.
Indy’s all about the set piece, you see, and there are some genuinely impressive moments here. Puzzles are typically of the block-pushing variety, but some – including one based on Mayan football – are inspired. On your travels you’ll happen upon a pirate ship that was somehow moored under San Francisco, ride an elephant through the streets of Istanbul, and stumble into messy bar fights with Chinese hardmen. It’s all terribly Indiana Jones.
The combat also embodies the spirit of the films, and for the most part involves highly enjoyable man-punching, with the ability to pick up tools and make use of your surroundings. You can dish out jabs and hooks, dodge blows, grapple and throw people, and chuck anything littering the environment at enemies’ heads. Your trusty whip will also bring bookcases and the like down on enemy heads, offing them in one crushing swoop. It’s great fun, reminiscent of a number of fights from the films.
Still, brawling’s only part of the package. The on-rails gunfights can be mediocre in comparison, while the (blessedly) few minigames are never less than soul destroying. The combat may be a triumph, but as it’s dumped on you in huge chunks – rather than integrated properly into the flow of the game – it soon becomes a tad repetitive.
As with a deep-fried Mars bar, Staff of Kings’ disparate elements shouldn’t work in combination – and, indeed, they don’t quite – but the individual ingredients are right tasty. It’s an enjoyable game, but so bitty and shallow it’s difficult to recommend.