Max and the Magic Marker was a relatively overlooked title. It’s not that it wasn’t any good, it actually had some interesting mechanics, but it simply didn’t fill a gaping chasm in anyone’s heart. On top of that, the drawing physics didn’t flawlessly transfer to the other platforms it was ported to. However, Press Play’s second outing with Max tries to tailor the series to more “core” gamers, and while it does manage to reinvent the little hero, it also makes me wonder if Max was best left back on WiiWare.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is a continuation of Max’s story, but those who haven’t played the original needn’t feel compelled to go back, since it’s a standalone adventure. In The Curse of Brotherhood, Max returns home from school to find his younger brother, Felix, doing little brother things in his room (read: breaking shit). Annoyed with what is assumed to be a constant occurrence, Max “Giggles” a web search for how to make little brothers disappear. Soon after, a giant claw snatches Felix through a portal that appears in Max’s room. Despite originally wishing misfortune upon his little brother, Max realizes that brotherly bonds shouldn’t be severed and jumps in the portal to save the little pain in the ass.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood (Xbox One [Reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Press Play
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: December 20, 2013 (Xbox One) / 2014 (Xbox 360)
The story’s concept is straight out of a PBS kids show, but in a surprising move, the world presented in The Curse of Brotherhood feels about as hostile as Limbo’s. I don’t know how I feel about that. While there isn’t any blood and gore, the implication of death is clear whenever the player screws up. The most notable examples of this are when enemies smack Max with spiked clubs and giants have a satisfying crunch after catching our young hero. Anything that can kill Max, can do so in a single hit. This increases a level of stress that remains ever present as you progress, especially when having to use Max’s marker as enemies close in for the kill.
The Curse of Brotherhood uses the magic marker from the previous game and allows Max to draw on the environment to create solutions to puzzles. In theory, it’s a wonderful concept and worked decently enough in Max and the Magic Marker, but this time around, with the emphasis on being a serious action platformer, the mechanic becomes more of a hindrance, effectively rendering the focal point of the game counterintuitive. For example, during the beginning of the second world, Max will step on a block that triggers a trap of three swinging hammers of death. Instead of continuing on and leaping from ledge to ledge to get through the trap, you have to stop and draw the two pillars you’ll land on when jumping between the hammers. In this instance, drawing the pillars requires pulling up the marker and dragging it over the multiple glowing indicators on the ground. This is a prime example of how the core mechanics of The Curse of Brotherhood manages to take away from the gameplay aspect of the game. When they do work, they work. But in this instant, they felt shoehorned in for the sake of being there.
Shoehorning in mechanics is a recurring theme. Sure, each new elemental power deserves an interactive tutorial experience that introduces them to the player, but instead The Curse of Brotherhood opts to alienate the player. While each of the four powers are unique, the way they are brought forth and manipulated are relatively the same. As previously mentioned, the earth power, creates pillars from glowing spots on the ground. The tree branch power grows, you guessed it, branches out of trees. Guess what the vine power does? You got it! It grows vines. Water is my favorite mechanic, which created steams can move objects, but even that one can be figured out without half-assed attempts at hand holding that slows progression. Later in the game, some powers can work together to overcome obstacles, and that’s a mechanic that deserves being explored, but it’s all the little stuff between these set pieces that really takes you out of the experience.
Speaking of set pieces, let’s talk about the frequent Crash Bandicoot inspired chase scenes, which are something I shouldn’t have to address in 2014, as far as I’m concerned. Granted, when done right, they can work wonders and serve as a more active cut scene than the entirety of Heavy Rain, but The Curse of Brotherhood doesn’t know how to do a chase scene properly. When being chased by the giant brother-snatching monster, he’s constantly on your heels. Compile that with the sluggish drawing mechanics that require you to stop to doodle and this leads to countless, pointless deaths.
It’s infuriating when you don’t have enough time to figure out what you need to do to advance, let alone preform the act. For example, during a chase scene in the third world, the monster chases Max to an edge that requires the player to draw the vine. The monster is constantly moving toward you at a faster-than-Max pace and you’re required to draw a vine to swing across the environmental gap. After several attempts, I’m confident that the player isn’t given enough time to effectively line up the position the vine needs to be drawn in. When it’s drawn, the vine will only dangle out of reach unless it’s drawn at a 180 degree angle so it swings down to you. Given the drawing mechanic’s sluggishness, the simple act of sliding the marker curser into the appropriate position takes too much time and can, and will, result in Max being grabbed by the monster before he can grab hold of the vine. When I managed to finally get pass this, I don’t attribute it to figuring out what to do or my skill as a player, but instead attributed it to pure luck. Every time you’re engaged in a cinematic chase scene, you have no choice but to rely on Lady Luck. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll let you pass after six or so attempts, but I doubt anyone is that lucky.
I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but the cutscenes appear to almost have a stop motion aesthetic to them. Unfortunately, they come off as choppy and don’t match the actual game play at all, despite being rendered in-game. Maybe the decision to remove every other frame from cutscenes was to make the game’s file size smaller? Hell if I know. Especially when released on a current-gen console, little things like these start to take the spotlight. Other than that, The Curse of Brotherhood is actually a visually stunning game. The immersive 3D backgrounds and wonderfully animated character models really make the game’s visuals shine.
Despite the many issues I’ve had with it, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood isn’t that bad of a platformer when it tries to play like one. The puzzle mechanics are very much hit and miss, but there’s a certain charm that comes with watching Max overcome hardships to save his little brother that will keep you coming back. Of course, the concept isn’t anything new, and it’s certainly not expertly executed, but those looking for a lighthearted adventure will certainly get their moneys worth.