Can you smurfing believe it? The Smurfs – Mission Vileleaf is better than it has any right to be. Microids have dished up a Smurfs tie-in that steals from plenty of successful platformers – Yooka-Laylee, Luigi’s Mansion and Super Mario Sunshine being the biggies – and comes up with something that’s colourful, fun, dense with stuff to do and fiendish in places. It’s a smurfing turn up for the books.
The biggest disclaimer for parents is the difficulty. The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf has three difficulties (with the Easy setting patronisingly annotated with a smurf in a nappy and pacifier), but none of them are easy. The settings largely tweak the health and aggression of the enemies, of which there are many, but The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf is still a challenge. There is precise platforming, lots of buttons to remember (some confusingly similar), complicated open world sections, and enemies which relentlessly attack you and can leave you panicked. Our six-year old enjoyed the first couple of levels, but there were plenty of calls of ‘Daddy, can you help me?’.
But even if your children just want a believable Smurfs world to wander around in, The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf does the business. It looks like a toy set, with everything solid, plasticky and colourful. You want to pick up the characters and play with them, like you were a Gargamel yourself. Almost everything is voice-acted, and they feel suitable for the characters. Although, don’t get us started with the overuse of ‘smurf’ or ‘smurfing’ in the script. It was like smurfing nails down a smurfboard. And the weird, sexist approach to Smurfette is just as prevalent here as it was in the cartoons. She can’t go anywhere without a smurf fawning over her or wanting to protect her. Shudder.
The premise is as old as time. Your serene, idyllic world has been disturbed by corruption. The vileaf, a series of purple and green plants, has tangled its way across Smurfville, and captured some smurfs along the way in Little Shop of Horrors-style monstrosities. That’s it, really. There’s the threat of Gargamel in the background, and an implication that he’s involved. But all you have to do is move through the world, clear out these carnivorous plants, and return everything to normalcy.
To do so, you’re given the Smurfizer, which is the game’s trump card. It’s a backpack that sits on your smurf and gets continuously upgraded with new features. The Luigi’s Mansion and Super Mario Sunshine references are rife here. You can use it to hoover up corruption, which – once a full patch of corruption has gone – will transform an area. Eventually, it can be used to hover, so you can reach distant platforms; it can boost you in a direction so you can attack at speed; and it can suck and then fire spiky seeds at enemies.
There’s a satisfaction that comes from stripping corruption from an area and making it ‘clean’. It’s a cool visual reward, and is a means of keeping track of whether an area has been completed or not. It also gift-wraps rewards, as a tangle of vines might have hidden a secret area or path to follow. You’re rubbing your hands to see what comes next. There’s an early-years Metroidvania going on here too, as there are paths you just can’t reach with the Smurfizer’s current powers, but by smurfing golly, you will be able to access them in the near-future.
The Smurfizer does introduce its own problems, though, which pushes The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf into the older age brackets. For reasons we’re not too clear about, the Smurfizer is on a cooldown and can overheat. Overuse it, and you’re open to attacks or have few opportunities to escape. This caused headache after headache with our kids, as The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf keeps pushing you to do stuff at speed: corruption returns if you don’t hoover it all up in a sequence; secret areas need you to hit certain mushrooms at speed; platform sequences require you to float to them precisely. It’s way too exacting. For example, the Smurfizer’s abilities are all on a shared overheat, so if you overuse one, you’ve overused them all. We’re genuinely bemused about why it’s so overbearing. It’s probably to make the unlocks and Smurfizer improvements worthwhile, but they don’t happen early or often enough.
There are five levels to play here, introduced one-by-one but eventually knitted together to form a large open-ish world. You can also teleport to each one via a noticeboard. The level design is uniformly at a pretty high level: they’re generally linear but with large open spaces that hide secrets, corruption to uncorrupt, and the occasional digression. It could have done with a map, but there’s a neat percentage progression tracker that keeps you up-to-date with all the collectibles in a specific area. The levels change up a fair amount too, with a fiendish swamp level that’s got plenty of moving and disappearing platforms, and a castle level that is precarious, with a wrong move making smurf splats on the floor.
The difficulty keeps ramping up until the last level, which is plain horrible. This last sequence is a misguided series of stealth sections, and it makes the cardinal stealth sin: it’s not clear what the rules of getting caught are. Sometimes, stopping still is fine, other times you have to be hidden behind or within something. Other times, and this one boiled our blood, the area was presented as a stealth section but was actually a run-as-fast-as-you-can section, with no real differentiation either way. It’s an extremely long and painful note to end on.
Parents have some soul-searching to do around whether The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf will suit their budding smurfs: this is a difficult game that will need a lot of guidance, pad-swapping or – thanks to the game’s two-player co-op mode – taking on the hard stuff yourself (a note that, on platforming sections, they have to do it themselves). We’d estimate that the sweet spot is around the eight-year-old area, but we’re also skeptical if many eight-year-olds still like The Smurfs. There’s no denying that The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf is oddly positioned.
But if there’s a will, and your child is a little Xbox prodigy, then The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf is a worthy purchase. It looks and feels like a Smurfs cartoon. It’s confident enough to drop you into mazey worlds, full of collectibles. And in the Smurfizer, it’s got a versatile, Luigi’s Mansion-like tool that is incredibly fun to use (when it’s not overheating).
We were a little caught out by how smurfing playable The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf is. So, get out the blue make-up and white gloves and play this one cooperatively. You won’t smurfing regret it.
You can buy The Smurfs – Mission Vileaf from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S