There are some games whose averageness you can actually taste.
Majin and the Forsaken KingdomPublisher: Namco Bandai
Platforms: Playstation 3 (reviewed), XBox 360
Developer: Game Republic
Release date: 2010-11-23
There are some games whose averageness you can actually taste. You want to roll it around on your tongue, feel its nooks and crannies to be sure that there isn't some hidden pocket of flavor that you might have missed, but, nope, this is all there is. Playing a game like this, you can really start to understand how the judges on competitive cooking shows seem to just want to strangle the contestants at times. The more that you play Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom the more that you can feel its earnestness, its artistry, how charming it really is . . . but instead of a gourmet meal, you've wound up with something from Denny's.
Where do I start? Majin is a third-person adventure/platforming game with RPG elements, or maybe it's just an action-RPG, I can hardly tell the difference anymore. It even stuck the outer layer of a stealth game in here, like some sort of very low rent Metal Gear Solid. The puzzles are often frustrating, but from of a platformer, that isn't really a bad thing. And the story, while middling in almost every way, unfolds so deftly that I have to assume someone with actual talent was behind the game's script at some point.
The premise of the game is that centuries before our story's start, a powerful creature known as the guardian aided a king in uniting his kingdom, leading to generations of prosperity before corruption from within led to legions of darkness overtaking the land. The guardian, also called the Majin, vanished until a century later when a young thief arrives at the darkness infested castle and frees him. From that point on, the two are companions, relying upon each other to restore the Majin's strength and retake the kingdom.
Where the game shines despite this mundane "been there, played that" narrative is in its strong visual style and memorable titular character. As should become apparent quite early on, the Majin is more central to the story than your human avatar Tepeu, but that's all right in a way. There are only so many ways to make a generically handsome, American-accented teenage rogue raised by woodland creatures interesting. Even Tepeu's character modeling seems like an artifact from a previous console generation. But Majin -- massive, trundling, childlike, lovable oaf Majin -- is as graphically detailed as he is intricate in personality. The way that he silently follows you, often invisible save for a faint outline and the glow of his eyes, puts one in mind of some benign imaginary companion from childhood, possibly something out of Where the Wild Things Are. In battle, he's invaluable. His companionship with your protagonist in both story and combat is heartfelt, even if his much adored human partner may as well be a cardboard cut-out for how much he adds to the experience.
Nevertheless, there is a real symbiosis between player and Majin and that is exactly how it should be. The developers want you to care powerfully for this character, and it's almost impossible not to. Most critically, it should be noted that it isn't your death that triggers a Game Over, but his. He can revive you, but once you lose the Majin, that's it. You've failed.
The character of the Majin, combined with the classical mythic storyline, South American-inspired visuals, and charming background music are enough to make Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom into an endearing and memorable playing experience. Nothing jawdropping or revolutionary but still something nostalgic in a way that nevertheless manages to come off feeling quite modern. If LostWinds were a full 3D action-RPG, it would possibly look something like Majin.
But it can't end there, of course. And that is what makes Majin such a bitter meal full of missed gourmet promises.
First are the balance issues of the world design. Although credit should be given for the size and general fluidity of the game space, you can see that the designers at some point began struggling with two things: how to integrate their set pieces and ideas for special mechanics into a logically flowing space and how to cue the player without beating her over the head. In both respects, the game just fails miserably. Not only is it despairingly easy to get lost and spend a great deal of time mucking about and backtracking, the puzzles alternate between needlessly simplistic and borderline impossible. When you factor in time constraints with bosses (such as one in which your Majin is left mostly defenseless against attack while you run around moving conductors), things can reach the controller-hurling stage rather quickly.
Furthermore, with respect to puzzle hints, the game has a bad habit early on of basically feeding you the solutions via talking animals. Which might by itself be tolerable -- I mean, the dialogue is only serviceable in most cases anyway -- if the voice acting did not so acutely resemble a strained children's storybook. I have seldom heard so many puzzled voice actors struggling to communicate just how much their voice director's instructions confused them. We are merely guessing at word stresses here.
The Majin's voice is for the most part spared this embarrassment but only because he speaks like a golem and in broken English anyway. There are ways to do that wrong, for sure, but arguably this one passes muster. Nothing extraordinary, but at least it's not Dave Wittenberg doing his Teddy/Gaspard voice again.
Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is a game you want to love. If you're a dedicated platformer player or know of a good strategy guide to ease some of the tedium of trial, error, and backtracking, you might end up having a good time of it. I would hesitate to call this a game for young players, just based on the spurts of blood that show up in places, but in terms of its storybook writing and idiosyncratically endearing look, the game definitely has teen appeal. Older players, on the other hand, may find it engaging for its old school qualities. If Dreamworks did an El Dorado video game, and it wasn't terrible, we can only hope that it would resemble some shade of Majin.
The game's shortcomings ultimately prove the greatest barrier to enjoying its strengths, namely the charm of its story and titular character. If you have the patience for it, though, you can end up savoring it. It's really more a matter of how much endurance that you believe a game is worth just to reach its sweet spot.