Bolt doesn't know it's just a movie-licensed game. Sure, it has a few of the telltale weaknesses: the plot is thin and the game gets repetitive toward the end. But just as Bolt the dog confounds your expectations in the film by becoming the hero you thought he wasn't, so too does the game overcome its licensed nature. Though this action platformer may be a lesser offering than many other games on shelves this holiday season, Bolt is more than a cash-in.
Bolt's premise is perfect. Rather than trying to jam square-peg game mechanics into round-hole movie scenes, Bolt takes place completely outside of the movie's storyline. Or rather, it takes place within the context of the movie that Bolt and Penny star in--the one that makes him think he's a superdog. It's a great idea, so it's too bad that the action movie he and Penny star in is really, really boring. The gist is that Dr. Calico is forcing Penny's dad to build a weapon, so Bolt and Penny are trying to save the day, and the dad. There's no story arc, just chapter after chapter of Dr. Calico narrowly escaping your clutches. And there's almost no dialogue. Bolt (the superdog, mind you) can't speak. Sure, he can shoot lasers out of his eyes, but he can't utter a single syllable. The result is a very long, quiet spin cycle of dialogue that begins with "There he is! Get him!" and ends with "He got away! After him, Bolt!"
Fortunately, the "Get him!" parts are pretty good, and so are the "After him!" bits. You play as both Bolt and Penny, though the two aren't interchangeable. For the most part, you sneak into an evil lair as Penny, hack a computer or two, kill a bad guy, and then get caught. Penny's sequences mainly involve platforming and puzzle-solving with her nifty wheelbar. This lets her travel along pipes and up crevices, and thanks to her handy Vision mode, she always knows where to go next. She can also hack into computers by playing a Geometry Wars-like minigame that is hectic and kinda fun.
More than anything, though, Penny's sequences serve as palate cleansers between Bolt's taxing battles. In a fight, Bolt has light and strong attacks (he hovers and hurls his whole body into an enemy), several super attacks, and then a Super mode that can clear a whole room. Regular foes can be felled with regular light and heavy attack chains, and killing them gives you energy, which you can turn around and spend on super attacks for stronger villains. Meanwhile, all of your attacks feed into a combo counter, which in turn charges up your Super mode meter. At first, you'll have a good time just bouncing back and forth between enemies, shooting one with lasers here, and super barking at a group there. But this whole system comes together toward the middle of the game, as the difficulty really ramps up and you have to fight waves of enemies. You'll bounce off the easy ones, use supers to slay the tough ones, and then unleash your Super mode to completely annihilate the next wave.