Max: Curse of the Brotherhood
- Street Date:
- December 20th, 2013
- Reviewed by:
- Trevor Ruben
- Review Date:1
- December 27th, 2013
- Game Release Year:
- Xbox One
- Microsoft Game Studios
- Press Play
Xbox One version reviewed though a Xbox 360 version is expected in the future.
Developer Press Play, having recently been acquired by Microsoft, is revitalizing the base mechanic of 'Max and the Magic Marker' for a new, Xbox-exclusive release, 'Max: The Curse of Brotherhood.' Imbued with a new narrative, tighter puzzling design and, of course, a parent company with a sizeable budget, Press Play's latest may be the first step in the Xbox One's reflection of the Xbox 360's arcade success.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
For fans of the first game, it's important to point out a big gamplay distinction for the new game. Whereas in the first title, which was released for a bevy of platforms, the player could openly draw any shape into the platforming-based stage design, this latest title simultaneously expands what the pen can do while limiting those powers to set points along the path.
'Curse of the Brotherhood' maintains a traditional progression model, starting you off barren of ability, save jumping and running, and piling on one new power after another until the game is intricately weaving puzzles as you intricately unweave them. When you start on your quest to save your little brother, Felix, it might feel a bit like a cross between 'Limbo' and 'Trine,' meshing the horror of instantaneous death with a lush, organic environment and floaty, forgiving platforming mechanics. And while those influences never go away, for the better, as you earn your marker powers and Max is revealed to be the unique little hero he is, this Xbox One exclusive plants itself firmly in the ground as its own game, lush in itself with an increasingly complex realization of a simple, unique mechanic.
Max manipulates the environment with his magic marker. At first, with the pull of the right trigger and an emergence of your marker, you're pulling stone pillars out of the ground, creating stepping stones to cross dangerous gaps and block enemies as you escape. Then you're pulling giant tree branches out of the wall, cutting them down as makeshift weights or platforms. As you progress and the game introduces more abilities, like drawn vines that you can use as ropes, connected to ceilings and even drawn tree branches, it becomes harder and harder for me to describe the puzzles on display in typical platform-puzzler nomenclature. That's a good thing, as the developers behind this game have done a great job digging into the depths of each ability, combining them in intriguing ways, all without stretching any one idea too thin. You're awarded new abilities at fairly quick intervals, the player edified appropriately in their potential use through a minor section just prior to receipt.
It's all done with a very organic, very fluid physics engine that, for better or for worse, tasks players with adjusting for natural-feeling momentum, gravity and player movement amidst the platforming challenges. Max grabs ledges within a fairly forgiving radius, though if, for example, you mistime a leap from a swinging vine, you'll easily find yourself back at your previous checkpoint. Again, those checkpoints are just as forgiving, lending an eased sense while you're playing. Only a few times did I feel the mounting pressure of a checkpoint repeated over and over again, only to find out I had burdened myself with the improper solution to a puzzle. Generally, each area has a set way of progressing, even though the naturalistic elements make it seem like you're the first person to have ever made it past any point in the game. It does feel like Max is on his own personal adventure in the game's unique world, taking on Anotherland as a toddler might approach a playground; a welcome change to the serious, darker tone of past arcade hits like 'Limbo' or 'Braid.'
Much like that toddler stumbling upon a slide, some of the best moments in this little but impactful title find Max, at the end of a level, forced forward by gravity or a pursuing beast in a final showdown of the skills you'd previously learned. The game provides just enough time to draw a vine or branch before Max stumbles to his death. The game will even slow down time, catching Max in midair so he can grab a newly drawn vine to triumphantly fell the fatal gap below. Again, as the game goes on, these moments too become more intricate and, as a result, more rewarding once you finally string it all together after a couple tries.
It's important to note that, despite failing plenty, I never felt like the controls or my drawing abilities were too imprecise. It was always a matter of making the right jump or drawing an object in just the right way, and my lacking in doing so as the cause of my demise. 'The Curse of Brotherhood' is a fair game, as long as you understand the challenge doesn't come from platforming. It comes from completing these puzzles with a precision you might not get right the first time, as getting it right is pretty much the entire point. That and saving your little brother.
Unfortunately for Press Play, another, more narratively-minded title called 'Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons' came out in the past year. While that game goes to great depths to explore the relationship between two brothers, 'Max' strives for much less with its story, only it wouldn't seem that way without context. Press Play, like many developers, used its story as a jumping point for its game and not much more, but the few cutscenes on offer are quite charming and touch on the fundamental 'Curse of Brotherhood,' just as the title suggests. I know the curse well, so maybe it means more to me, but I'm just happy there's a game out there that understands that the duty and burden of having and protecting a little brother are a part of loving him, despite coinciding frustrations. I do wish Press Play made more of an effort, however, to uncover this relationship, rather than just point it out. It doesn't necessarily need to be, but it's no 'Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.'
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Embracing a tenet of open-ended creation through its characters, creatures and landcaspes, Max's Anotherland delights while lacking a true focal theme. Mustacho, Felix's kidnapper, sends a mighty, spherical, half-bald beast to do his dirty work, and watching it carry Felix in the background as I progressed through the opening levels was both wonderfully fantastical and motivating. In comparison, Mustacho, the old villain scheming to use Felix to become young again, has a visual presence that is all-too lacking. Similarly, a desert environment feels uninspired while Mustacho's territory melds its dastardly atmosphere with just as dastardly puzzles. It's a mixed bag, but it's fun.
On the downside, the game is not a stunner in the fidelity department. As an early Xbox One title you'd hope it looks like it belongs in the new generation. It doesn't, perhaps because it's also releasing on the Xbox 360 at some point in the future. Worse, however, is that sometimes the backgrounds blend pretty convincingly into the interactive elements of a given level, causing some missteps that could have been avoided with a more confident, more contrasted art style. Instead, it took my about 10 tries during one section to notice a stone pillar I could draw out of the ground as its orange signifier was hard to pick out against the background lava.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
Though the game draws a bit of its personality from the visual style, Max's most expressive feature is his voice. Stumble upon a particularly perplexing puzzle and Max will say something like, "Err, now what?" He'll yelp "no, no, no!" as the ground gives way beneath him and taunt at recently felled enemies.
He'll even mutter an encouraging "Felix, I'm coming to save you" during a transitional moment. These are the moments you feel closest to Max over the course of his adventure, and it sort of makes you wish the entire story was told in this manner.
While Max's voice actor nails the tone of an emerging youngster hero imbued with confidence, Felix could have done with something a little less overtly annoying, and Mustacho's nefarious yet cowardly temperament is downright clichéd. The music signals moments of excitement in the gameplay, but doesn't do much beyond that.
Collectibles encourage a second playthrough of any given level. On the other hand, puzzles tend not to change.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Nothing to see here. For a game where you're drawing objects directly on the screen, you'd think either the Kinect or Smartglass might have shown up as at least optional, but no. Nevertheless, the controls are just fine.
Press Play squeezed more than its fair share out of the simple yet powerful drawing mechanic originating from 'Max and the Magic Marker.' Expanding that idea in 'The Curse of Brotherhood,' with narrative focus and tighter puzzle creation, a wonderful Xbox One title emerged, fresh and new. For anyone with the new console and desperate for something that doesn't involve pointing a gun or a car, Press Play's latest is absolutely worth the time. Without more surrounding polish, however, and leaning on traditional dressings in most areas other than strict puzzle design, this is no classic. Here's hoping Press Play keeps on going with this apparently endlessly fruitful idea and finds something more to say with it in further iteration; there's still fertile ground here.
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