Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia is barely a game. That needs to come up front, because there will be a lot of surprised and disappointed people otherwise. Circus Atos’s previous title, Under Leaves, was very much a game, although a simple one (a kind of Where’s Wally? with animals), but Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia is not.
What emerges from Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia is a children’s reference book about European wildlife, with animations on the plants and animals. There is very little here that couldn’t have been put onto paper and cardboard, with interactive tabs for pushing the animals about and flaps to reveal something hidden. That’s fine, as there’s room on the Xbox for that kind of experience, but it should be mentioned early.
You control Little Mouse, who isn’t much more than a replacement for a child’s finger, as they move from flora to fauna. Move close to something interesting, and you will be given an A and Y prompt (plants tend not to have that A prompt). The A button will cause the creature to animate in an adorable way, yawning as they lay asleep, or yanking a worm out of the ground. Y will bring up a flash-card of information about it, diving into information about its behaviours, life cycles or physiology.
Circus Atos have made the decision to not gamify any of Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia. It would have been easy to hide more of the creatures, or at least obscure them, making a game out of finding them. Equally, they could have accentuated the collecting. When you find an animal or plant, it doesn’t ‘tick it off’ in any meaningful way: you can view Little Mouse’s actual Encyclopedia at any time, but it’s complete from the beginning and there’s nothing to indicate what has been found or not found. You can even use the Encyclopedia to immediately zoom to the relevant animal, so there’s no difficulty in finding a given creature.
The closest Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia gets to feeling like a game is the achievements, as you are rewarded for finding all the wildlife in a given scene (there are four scenes on offer here, taking you into a burrow, a forest, a vegetable patch and to a pond), or every creature in a given genus. But it’s largely lip service, as finding a creature is trivial thanks to the mentioned ‘zoom’ function, yet it’s not particularly clear whether you have or haven’t found a plant or animal.
The question is: does it matter that there’s no game to speak of here? It’s a difficult one to answer, and more so when you have to supply a score.
We’ve got a two- and six-year-old who have racks of actual, paper books similar to Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia, and my wife is an ecologist who has poured over nature books on them, so we’re surprisingly well-placed to look at Little Mouse through the book lens. So, as a book, Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia is really quite attractive, and – just as it was with Under Leaves – the watercolour cut-outs are adorable as you prod them and make them move. They are also instantly recognisable as their real-life counterparts. My wife took issue with a few names – apparently it’s black napweed, not brown napweed – but generally the accuracy is spot on. As a Brit, there are a few bits and pieces that you wouldn’t find on our shores (Circus Atos are based in Prague, so you’d imagine this is based on Czech wildlife), but 90% of what’s here could be found in our back garden or thereabouts.
The info-tainment stuff is beautifully presented – heaven knows how long it took to create the hundreds of flash-cards shown here – but we found them dry enough that the information evaporated out of our heads as soon as it went in. Too often, the flash-cards toss out gestation periods or life expectancy when you would have rathered a single, memorable anecdote. Our children who are, admittedly, on the younger side, soon stopped bothering with the cards and just prodded creatures instead.
It does raise a question, though, of who Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia is for. The lovely watercolours seem to aim at a more junior audience, but the cards – with their scientific language, small font and focus on stats over anecdotes – seem to aim for the teens. And so we come back to Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia’s effectiveness as a game. For teens or even pre-teens to stay interested, we suspect that more is needed to offer objectives or progress. Without a tally of animals to find, the dry information-cards are going to grow old quickly. For our younger players, there were squeals of joy as a buzzard leaned over to say hello, or Little Mouse jumped into a forest elevator or pond boat, but there were only so many of these moments. Each scene took them ten minutes to play, and – while they gently approved of their time in each one – it only amounted to forty minutes, and they had no intention of ever coming back.
A parent will know that artful kid’s books don’t come cheap, so the price tag of £10.74 won’t necessarily come as a surprise. But as an Xbox game, you lose the tactility of a book, the ability to share it, the pick-up-and-read factor for a child in bed. As a gamer, the price feels steep, particularly with the sub-one-hour play length. It doesn’t feel particularly well-pitched to either crowd.
There are two ways of looking at Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia. It is a children’s reference book that happens to be on the Xbox, and as such it’s lovely to leaf through for a few minutes. The watercolour art could happily grace the walls of a nursery, and that’s intended as a compliment. But while it does a great job of putting names to animals and plants, it does a less successful job of making you care about them, or telling a child anything that might stick. It could feasibly form an hour-long home-schooling lesson, but you’d struggle to make a curriculum out of it.
If you look at Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia as an Xbox game, it becomes an even tougher sell. Stripped of anything resembling a goal or challenge, it puts a lot on the player to create their own interest. Unfortunately, beyond the pretty visuals and animations, there’s not enough to hang that interest from. More story or an emphasis on collectibles might have made it a recommendation but, for the price of £10.74 for a few minutes of enjoyment, you’re probably better off with the tactile joys of a book.