Let me lay down a scenario before diving into this… examination of what I consider to be one of the most amazingly unnoticed non-indie titles in the past few years. You have ZootFly, a team of about fifty Slovenians who, after making a series of under the radar titles in the mid to late 2000s. 505 games, a publisher who has one of the oddest track records for titles I’ve seen when you consider their European releases. And a dream to create a character action game that is best described as if you mixed that Tomb Raider XBLA game with God of War. It is Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death and… I am super excited to be talking about it!
Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), XBLA
Developer: ZootFly and Microsoft Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Marlow Briggs is a smokejumper who is for some reason off in Central America with his girlfriend, where he encounters her boss, is killed by her boss’s assistant because… I forget. Oh, but he gets up in a different area due to a magical mask that brings Briggs immortality and a lot of wackadoo glowing symbols on his chest and the ability to use the scythe that he was murdered with to stop an elderly Asian from, you guessed it, take over the world. It is the most rock stupid, common as dirt origin story with no frills over how quickly it is done and how quickly the game escalates into one of the more openly insane quests that I’ve seen in a good while. If only because the game is one of the few that are self aware, which cements it onto my wall of fondness pretty well.
The main antagonist is almost cartoonishly insane as his one dimensional lust for power has driven him to invest billions in what amount to set pieces as he carelessly fires employees and no fewer than two hundred helicopters in order to allow him to awaken a vaguely defined power. With the lore being almost intentionally brushed aside along with any form of emotional complexity, aside from notes from Marlow’s girlfriend, which mostly involves her begging for him to stop sending a mad man deeper down the path of insanity and just get away safe. It is a balance that makes it far more difficult to write the game off as something of a soulless rip-off, as it is very clearly trying to become a frantic and lively openly unoriginal adventure that includes Mayan-based possession of giant scorpions because why the hell not. Yet, what cinches it in my mind is the fact that Marlow’s buddy who is stapled onto the title is an enthusiastic floating mask that acts as a muse for Marlow as he asks why the hell are there pistons made of fire in front of him.
At the same time though, the amount of humor tossed around makes it seem like the script went through many a rewrite into becoming a gratuitous action game, as it doesn’t seem to have anywhere close to the amount of parody possible, with some opportunities of the absurdity being left uncommented on. However, part of me wants to believe that is due to how either they ran out of money to pay the voice actors, which would explain why certain comments are repeated a bit too regularly by the Mask of Death. Or some audio tracks just didn’t properly play as there are many sections almost devoid of dialog in this character action game.
More or less taking the combat system, and from what I heard possibly even some of the combos from the God of War series, though I never played any of them, the core of Marlow Briggs’ gameplay is surprisingly solid. Chaining heavy and light attacks between a total of four weapons with magical super moves and building up ultimately useless combos, it also boasts a certain degree of visual clarity, which I attribute to a fixed camera. A potential annoyance that I actually found to be far more useful than any instance of that genre that opted to have free camera control.
That aside, there are a couple nagging factors that popped up as the game stretched itself into a longer than expected six hours. Enemies are repeated to the point where nearly every one of them has some form of variant. Victory can be achieved through hammering you way through the enemies with health being generously scattered about. While there is also a mechanic where you can grab and possess enemies in the midst of combat, turning them into your allies as they hobble around, even though such an act is cancelled if you are hit while mashing B. Still, the game has a good base that only feels repetitious in theory, potentially due to a couple other throw away side actions.
From large scale time-based ancient puzzles, rail shooter sequences where you shoot down , runner sections that are used to transport you across what has to be a good sized country, and even a pair 2D shoot ‘em up sections, the game certainly has more surprisingly solid variety than one would expect. A phrase I use not because the developer is in any way faulty, but due to the sheer scope the game dons while also having a well made core. I casually mentioned countries, and the quantity of land that is plowed through without ever going back and the graphical fidelity of it is something remarkable considering this is an XBLA title.
It is fairly easy to criticize the environments for being fairly generic in terms of overall themes, factory zone, jungle zone, ice zone, monty jungle zone, cave zone, cavernous jungle zone, yes there are lots of jungles because it is Central and probably South America. But the sheer size and what had to be detail placed into them, even considering how they probably reused as many assets as possible, the game looks nice, enemies are animated well enough for their attacks to be perceivable, and the flare doesn’t get in the way as often as it did for me in my less than stellar experiences with the genre. It even manages to throw in a nice effect here and there, namely when the finale rolls around, but I found one in particular to be a bit repetitive in its use.
It is no question that animating an action scene, especially when using 3D models, is expensive and difficult, so for most instances where Marlow is executing rather impressive feats of acrobatics and, well, murder, there is no animation. Instead, you see the models arranged and panned over, changed as the camera moves around, and depicting the actions done by Marlow as a result of the money running out. It is a good idea in theory, but it grew rather repetitive to sit through the sixth or seventh time this form of cutscene rolled around due to how the panning in question feels a bit on the slow side.
Though, that is a minor detail to get hung up on, like how the game’s experience system is a bit too generous, but is far from detrimental to the game in any major way, as the game is something of an anomaly in terms of its quality. It has its funny moments, is decent at worst in its gameplay on all fronts, looks far better than it has any right to be, and was probably made for so little it is surprising the final product is not a load of subpar wank. At the same time, it is far from an out of nowhere hit as has been the case from developers with even less backing behind their projects, but what is here is quality, and something I’d thoughtlessly and viciously recommend the instant it is on sale.
The game is good at its core, that much is very true, but the hiccups start to get more than a bit too present to be pushed aside, or the title might just be lacking in a textbook full of different manners.