XBLA – Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death

Quietly released while the whole world was watching GTA 5 sell millions of units in a couple of days, Marlow Briggs hit XBLA and Steam without too many people noticing.  That’s a shame though, because it definitely deserves some attention.

The story is decent enough, our hero dies in the first minute or so and is resurrected and accompanied by the spirit of a great king in the form of a floating mask.  From there it’s all about stopping the bad guy and rescuing the girl – so we’re probably going to have to read lots of ‘saving the princess is bad’ style moaning from the press again.  Along the way there’s plenty of dialogue between Marlow and the mask, some of it very funny – it was well worth investing the voice actors there.  Cut scenes are mostly rendered with the camera panning around static 3d images, and as objects cover the view, the image changes behind them.  It’s effective enough if an obvious nod to budget constraints.

As for the gameplay, we’re in fixed (and on rails) camera third person action territory – with an awful lot of fighting along the way.  Between the bouts of fighting there’s also a decent amount of platforming, some light puzzles, a number of boss battles and some minigame style set pieces which usually involve blowing up a lot of helicopters, or sliding through obstacles.  The obstacle ones can get a bit frustrating, same as they did in the latest Tomb Raider game.  You have no idea how many times Lara got impaled on the river section.  The turret gunning and scrolling shooter ones are a lot more fun though. You can replay most of these after the game as challenges from the main menu.

As you progress through the game, you collect four weapons, four types of magic, and the ability to glide.  You can also grab, throw and possess enemies. To some extent the initial couple of weapons (a double bladed staff and a pair of daggers) get eclipsed by the usefulness of the later pair (a whip and a hammer), but there were still a few places I found myself needing to switch around near the end.  The hammer is a real game changer, around mid-way you’ll be feeling a little underpowered against the scorpions and have to start playing a dodge and jab game with them.  The fighting itself isn’t bad overall, it’s at its best when you’re surrounded and also having to repel projectiles (a timed block).  The boss battles are a mixed bag, some are epic and hint at what might have been but it certainly ends with a bang and one of the more memorable monster designs I’ve seen for a while.

Graphics and music are uniformly good throughout, we’re in 30fps mostly territory, everything looks really nice and some of the outdoor sections really are vibrant and colourful which makes a welcome change these days.  The designs of the temples and so on are all well done, the look of the mountaintop section is really effective (and again reminded me of the recent Tomb Raider).  Some of the enemy animation is particularly good – I liked how the scorpions moved around.

As for what could be improved, one of the puzzles is particularly good and suggests that they could have introduced a few more, some of the transitions between normal gameplay and minigame are a bit rough, a couple of the later jumps are hard for the wrong reasons.  Some of the cut scenes look like things that should have actually been gameplay and that’s really about it.  For the price point it’s very hard to argue and I had a lot of fun playing through it – trying the demo out is highly recommended!