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Max: Curse of the Brotherhood – Review

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Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Press Play
Publisher: Microsoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

If you’ve ever had to share your life with a sibling then Max: Curse of Brotherhood will likely click with you, because mere moments into the game our titular hero comes home to find his little brother Felix playing in his room. Like any sensible older brother Max immediately heads on to the Internet in search of ways to get rid of his pest problem,  managing to stumble upon a magical incantation which once read aloud opens up a portal to another realm from which emerges the hand of a massive monster that snatches Felix away. Mere seconds later Max leaps through the portal in an attempt to rescue his brother, perhaps driven by guilt and the overwhelming need to help a loved one in peril, or far more likely by the realisation that his mum is going to be really, really pissed.

For all of its many fine qualities Max: Curse of  Brotherhood will never be accused of being driven by a strong narrative. The big moral of the story – which most people will see as being don’t wish misfortune on others and appreciate family, but that I shall forever see as be careful about what you aloud on the Internet – is delivered within the opening minutes, after which the plot and your ultimate goal never deviates from simply finding Felix. And that’s fine because Curse of the Brotherhood does perfectly well without feeling the need to shoehorn in a plot.

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However, though I’m perfectly accepting of Brotherhood’s lack of story because it manages to fare well enough without one I can’t help but still feel that there’s solid potential there. Brotherhood could have gone down a Disney style route with its initial premise of sibling rivalry and a strange new world, and it’s sort of a shame that it chooses not to, especially when it has a villain named Mustacho. I mean, come on, that stuff writes itself! An opportunity for a simple yet heart-warming tale has sailed by, and that leaves me a little sad.

As a young lad stuck in a magical realm Max has no traditional weapons like a sword or bow with which to directly confront any of the monsters he’ll encounter on the way, but he’s not entirely without help as he soon acquires a magical marker pen which fittingly allows him to draw helpful things directly into the world, essentially granting him magical powers. At first the pen’s power is limited, only enabling Max to raise pillars of earth from the ground to act as platforms to leap on,  but as the game progresses  new abilities are unlocked at a satisfying pace, allowing Max to create branches, vines and even surging torrents of water which can be ridden along before finally gaining the power to lob fireballs like some sort of mildly miffed Godling.

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On the surface Max would appear to be little more than standard side-scrolling platforming fare, and indeed leaping from crumbling platform to swinging vine does make up a good chunk of the game, but this works in conjunction with the various abilities bestowed by the pen to craft numerous environmental puzzles. Things start out simple enough, like creating a pillar of earth for an enemy to stand on before removing it or stretching out a branch from the other side of a gap so that you can make the leap. Unlike Max’s predecessor, Max and the Magic Marker, on the Wii U, though, there’s no real “drawing” of objects here as such, instead your limited to bringing forth branches and vines from predetermined glowing areas in the level, free to control the shape or direction they take within a certain radius, explained away in the game by Max having a small supply of ink. Limited in this manner and with the small range of abilities the pen initially  offers the opening 30-minutes to hour of Max: Curse of Brotherhood are actually a little dull as both the design of and solutions to puzzles are simple. It’s easy to progress when the method needed is so clearly sign-posted by the placement of, for lack of a better word, portals and what you can bring forth from them.

Indeed for a short while I had some serious doubts as to whether Curse of Brotherhood would be able to do enough with its gimmick to keep player’s interested for the five or six hours it takes to complete the game, but happily those doubts proved to be unfounded. After the initial run of basic puzzles the developers quickly began to find interesting and fun ways to use and combine the marker’s abilities, and just as all possibilities seemed to be exhausted a new power was added. Examples include dragging a boulder across the ground to a point where you can raise it on a pillar of earth, attaching a vine to it and then destroying the pillar so that the boulder swings into a door that was blocking your way. Other times I crafted rafts by drawing s branch and then breaking it off or spent a few seconds carefully judging where to draw a torrent of water so I could swing in to it. Electric bugs have to be carefully herded and kept at bay, and enemies had to be trapped and tricked. There was even a fun little section in which I had to carefully guide a spiky animal into the face of a monster that had cornered me in a cave. Inevitably ideas are reused and so a certain degree of fatigue can set in by time the credits role, but generally speaking each puzzle managed to feel fresh and fun.

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A few of the puzzles even manage to clamber into the realms of being truly great due to the solutions feeling so completely natural that you find yourself believing you somehow solved the puzzle in an entirely different way than what was intended, only realising a few minutes later that in truth you’d simply stumbled across the developer’s planned solution.  I realise that my description of this strange phenomenon was rather haphazard, but this sort of stellar puzzle design isn’t really something that can be talked about easily or even deliberately done by the developers – it’s simply there or it isn’t. In these rare instances Max: Curse of Brotherhood really is fantastic.

There are certainly some flaws worth talking about, though. Curse of Brotherhood attempts to sell itself as a platformer, but frankly when viewed as such it’s found lacking thanks to some floaty and imprecise physics. The simple act of clambering around the environment isn’t very fun. Had this been purely a platformer that alone would have been enough justification for me to condemn the game to a far lower score, but thankfully that’s not the case and Brotherhood doesn’t demand precision often enough for the floaty physics become anything more than an annoyance.

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Another small grievance comes in the form of the controls and marker itself. In order to draw anything into the world you have to hold down the RT to equip the pen and then use the analogue stick to direct the marker while holding A releases the ink, but doing this brings Max to a grinding halt and feels a bit slow and fiddly to actually use.  Most of the time this is hardly a problem as you’ve got leeway to take as long  as you want with puzzles, but in sections where you’ve got enemies coming at you or need to be fast the lack of smooth, accurate marker controls can be a mite irritating, although by no means do I feel it’s as big a problem as some other reviews are claiming. Perhaps if the left stick could have been used to control the cursor and the right trigger held down to drawn an object the system could have felt just a little smoother, allowing you to control both Max and the marker at the same time and thus keep the momentum going. That’s just an idea, though. Drawing anything other than a straight line with precision also proves to be a bit finicky, although this only tends to become a complaint later in the game when you need to carefully judge the angle of a water chute or the like.

Created using the often underrated Unity engine Max: Curse of Brotherhood is a surprisingly pretty looking game boasting a vibrant color palette and beautiful backgrounds which succeed in making you feel like there is a wider world beyond what you see from your limited perspective. There’s also a nice variety of environments that while not exactly original provide some damn good eye candy and cool vistas to admire.  Of course Brotherhood is hardly pushing the technical capabilities of the Xbox One, and there’s some examples of poor texturing, but overall the art style wins out on this one.

The game’s pace is broken up by infrequent chase sequences where Max has to leg it from a monster, running, swinging, leaping and sliding as fast as his little limbs can carry him to hopeful safety. When they work absolutely right these are exhilarating sections that make great use of occasional slow motion jumps where you have to quickly take out your magic marker and draw in a vine to grab or craft a water flume to ride to safety, creating an awesome punch-the-air moment of triumph to arguably rival any other thus far created on the Xbox One. Again, those slightly floaty physics can sometimes mar these otherwise fun sections, as can flashes of awkward game design that showed themselves to me, like falling to my death because I was actually supposed to stop on a falling platform a few feet back and ride it down, but on the whole these are easily the strongest sections of the entire game, making me wish there was more of them, though in all likelihood an increased count would probably detract from their impact.

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Given that Max: Curse of Brotherhood is aimed squarely at fairly young gamers it actually has a decent degree of challenge. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence won’t find themselves stuck on any given puzzle for more than a few minutes at the very most, but they’re inventive enough to leave you feeling satisfied when you do progress. Still, you’ll likely find yourself dying a fair bit, largely through your own fault but sometimes it did feel like oblivion came because of the game and a poor design choice, but a generous checkpoint system ensures you’ll never be stuck replaying chunks of the game.

In its mixture of platforming and environmental, often physics-based puzzling Curse of Brotherhood actually closely resembles Trine 2, albeit with a lesser sense of freedom when creating solutions due to the tighter restrictions in place.  Therefore if you’ve played and enjoyed the Trine games then I automatically recommend that you fire up your Xbox and give Max: Curse of Brotherhood a whirl.

While it’s still not that truly amazing, mind-blowing next-gen experience that Xbox One owners are waiting for Max: Curse of Brotherhood is nonetheless a charming, fairly straight-forward platformer with an interesting gimmick that will doubtless benefit greatly from the console’s currently tiny library of titles, and deservedly so.

The Good:
+ Looks pretty.
+ Well designed puzzles.
+ Interesting idea in the form of the marker.

The Bad:
– Platforming mechanics are floaty.
– Occasional design hiccups.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 – Good, bordering on great.
It’s very easy to like Max: Curse of Brotherhood, and considering the fairly cheap price it’s certainly worth your time and money.

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