STAFF REVIEW of Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death (Xbox 360 Arcade)

Thursday, October 10, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death Box art (It saddens me that for the first time in nearly five years of writing online game reviews that I must actually begin one with a Public Service Announcement. Approximately 80% into completing Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death, the in-game camera stopped following the player-character during a vertical action-climbing sequence and became permanently fixed, resulting in objects obstructing my view and making it impossible for me to progress further without dying. Neither restarting at the checkpoint nor quitting and reloading the game resulted in fixing the problem, which made it impossible to proceed. Apparently not by coincidence, there are several points in this game where an autosave takes place in the middle of an action sequence, resulting in insta-deaths and multiple situations where the above can happen. As of this writing, Marlow Briggs has been available for purchase for five days on the Xbox Store, and no apparent patches have been pushed down from Xbox Live in order to fix this issue, so the following review is based on the product in its current state, bugs and all. If you are still interested in finding out the OTHER reasons why you probably should not buy this game, keep reading.)

From the moment that Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death's garishly static title screen abruptly follows the 505 Games developer logo (yes, more money was likely spent on the logo sequence than the title), the player is immediately informed that what lies ahead is a budget-priced experience that will probably be a bit rough around the edges. Unfortunately, that's just the beginning. The gameplay in Marlow Briggs can best be described as a poor-man's God of War/Darksiders meets Uncharted with a heavy sprinkling of the popular endless runner mobile game Temple Run throughout. Like protagonists Kratos (God of War) and War (Darksiders), the titular Marlow begins his quest for vengeance with one weapon (a dual-bladed halberd called Kukulkan's Fangs), but throughout the course of his journey he will find three other variations of the weapon as well as upgrades and magic aspects that will allow him to do more damage to enemies, traverse obstacles and solve puzzles. And naturally, each weapon has its own advantages, disadvantages and specific combos that players are encouraged to get accustomed to and memorize. Every enemy that Marlow kills, be it human, supernatural or insectoid (we're talking acid-spitting, Peter Jackson’s King Kong-sized-variety insects here) releases spirit energy upon death in the form of Mana (magic), health and XP, which just like in God of War is sucked towards Marlow like a vacuum and goes towards filling his respective power meters. And of course, the occasional boss fight usually involves a requisite QTE in order to conclude and allow Marlow to move on to the next chapter. Surprised?

Connecting the game's many battle arenas are a variety of platform areas and environmental puzzles clearly inspired by the Uncharted games (if you've never played or seen Uncharted, think Ninja Theory's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West), a connection that's almost impossible not to make given the game's Central American, Mayan Ruins setting. Finally, in an apparent effort made by the developers to keep mixing up the action, players will often be forced into temporary endless runner sequences, such as quickly sliding down a hill and dodging obstacles and collecting power orbs, or jumping from one fast-moving log cart to another while doing the same, once again concluding with a QTE sequence or jump that must be cleared to trigger an explosive escape cinematic.

The problem is not that Marlow Briggs falls back on these familiar mechanics from other game franchises, as it wouldn't be the first. It's more that the developer chose to take the most basic, most uncreative examples of each and made them the bread-and-butter of this game. The combat for example, is extremely one-note. Despite each of Marlow's four weapons having over 10 different combo strings and the ability to string many of them together, players will quickly find that they all ultimately do the same things: each has a simple launcher move; each has a death-from-above combo that is executed with essentially the same button sequence; there's a move with the default weapon that can be used to bust riot shields, and so on. In other words, players can essentially rely on just one or two weapons to get through the entire game and to defeat almost any foe, and aside from a rope-blade weapon that Marlow unlocks later in the game, none of the weapons serve any other functions aside from killing enemies, so players aren't encouraged to use the other weapons or become proficient with them. The platforming is super-basic, as players can only jump off ledges at certain spots, so other than the occasional sequences where players must doge falling objects while moving along a ledge or scaling across the face of a cliff, players rarely ever feel as though they are in danger of falling to their death (though at other points players are bound to unexpectedly fall and die often for different reasons, which I'll get to shortly). The QTEs are infrequent, but when they do happen they usually occur without warning (no slow-down), the button indicators are too small and they are incredibly easy to miss completely the first time round, so players will almost always fail immediately because they didn't see that B-button symbol in the bottom right corner and have to restart at the checkpoint. And then there are the endless runner sequences. There are far too many of them, period. They're not too difficult to pass, and as they double as orb-collecting challenges there is a little OCD-style fun to be had, but they wear out their welcome very quickly, long before the game reaches the halfway mark. Players who truly enjoy this sort of game can purchase a wealth of endless runners for their smartphone for only a fraction of the $10 that Marlow Briggs costs, so the heavy emphasis on these sequences seems wasted here.

Then there are the REAL problems. There is no way to put it lightly; the camera in Marlow Briggs is ATROCIOUS. It moves along a set of scripted angles for the entirety of the game, much like many 3D platformers of the early PSOne era, and does not allow the player to alter it in any way. Rather than assigning the game's dodge mechanic to a button to be used in conjunction with the directional stick (R1), the developer instead chose to assign the move to the right analog stick (R2), flying in the face of logic employed by just about every other modern 3D-platformer, third-person hack-and-slasher and third-person shooter in existence, which generally use R2 to control camera perspective, even if it can only be controlled to a limited extent.

This makes combat and even simple platforming in Marlow Briggs incredibly frustrating, as the first instinct whenever an object or enemy obstructs the player's view is to use R2 to adjust the camera's perspective, which instead results in Marlow rolling in that direction, often becoming completely obscured in combat by an enemy or the environment, or causing Marlow to jump off a ledge at the wrong angle to his death or fail to jump at a key moment, also resulting in death.

As mentioned at the beginning of the review, problems with the game's camera combined with the equally inept checkpoint system resulted in a bug which made it impossible to proceed further into the game without completely starting over, but even on their own, autosaves and checkpoints in Marlow Briggs are some of the worst I've encountered in any game I've played, sometimes loading the game only a split second before Marlow has to dodge an object or die instantly, or even in the middle of combat. An earlier endless runner sequence in the game took me over five minutes just to clear the opening seconds because Marlow kept dying over and over behind a black loading screen that would not lift to let me see the obstacle I needed to dodge. In the end I had to fumble around blindly until I managed to avoid the invisible obstacle, after which I was finally allowed to see where I was going.

Graphics-wise, Marlow Briggs as a game is below standard, and it certainly doesn't do itself any favors with the numerous Matrix-style bullet-time cutscenes inserted between chapters that highlight just how bland the visuals are (not to mention raising the question as to why players are forced to watch these non-interactive sequences, complete with sound effects, INSTEAD OF ACTUALLY PLAYING THEM). Sadly, the character designs and the voices that bring them to life are also a disappointment. As a Canadian of West Indian and ultimately African descent, I want to be excited whenever a game starring a black protagonist is made but it's difficult when the character is this generic. Big, brawny and without a single discerning feature, Briggs is cursed with an personality and accent right out of a made-for-TV special (he even says things like "Damn Straight") almost makes one beg for Cole Train from Gears of War to come in and teach Marlow how the stereotype is really done...if you're going to go down that road, leave it all on the floor and OWN it, or don't do it at all.

Similarly, the villain Heng Long, is voiced by an actor who suspiciously like the famous Chinese character actor, James Hong (Kung Fu Panda, Big Trouble in Little China), but there's no way to know since the developers neglected to credit ANY of the voice actors in their 14-minute long (!) credit roll (perhaps these actors saw the finished product and didn't want to be associated with it). In any case, Heng Long fills the predictable 80's Asian villain stereotype slot, complete with lame jokes playing on his name ("My reach is long") and constant references to unsafe workplace accidents, but not even a minute after each of his appearances will players even remember what he looks like.

The only character who truly stands out and keeps the game from being a total bore is the Mask of Death himself, King Tep, who after having been deprived of conversation with another person for over 2000 years reveals himself to be the king of the party, cracking jokes, giving Marlow emasculating nicknames in his Mayan tongue and never seeming to run out of witty criticisms when poor Marlow falls down a hole or stands around doing absolutely nothing when the player goes off to make a sandwich. Sometimes, Marlow and Tep will even have exchanges that might evoke an unexpected chuckle out of the player, raising Marlow's comic game a bit. But make no mistake, it's all about Tep, and conveniently he’s an omniscient character that the player almost never sees. Another irony is that aside from the three or four soldier-types that players will find themselves cutting down over and over throughout the course of the game, Marlow Briggs features an entirely ethnic, non-white cast. How often can you say that about a videogame? It's just a shame that it happened in a game that's so unremarkable.

In the final analysis, even when putting aside the game-destroying bug that I encountered late in the game and the terrible checkpoint system, Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death feels like a game that would have been better received exclusively in the mobile space, where the poor impressions left by its camera limitations and low production values may have been mitigated, or perhaps even enhanced by the smaller screen and weaker competition in its particular genre. As an Xbox Live Arcade title appearing this late in the Xbox 360's life-cycle however (and in the same week that Grand Theft Auto V was released no less), a game like Marlow Briggs faces an extremely difficult challenge standing out in the crowded field of similar but far superior titles already available on the Xbox Store, even if it is top of its class. But when factoring in all the aforementioned problems, and no sign of 505 Games administering a patch to address these issues, it appears as though Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death was given the "Kiss of Death" before it even left the developer's studio. It's simply impossible to recommend this game to anyone.

1. Patch this game immediately and make sure your next title goes through rigorous QA testing before release.
2. Allow the player to adjust the camera! It's 2013, people!
3. Autosaves and checkpoints should NEVER occur during combat or in the middle of a platforming sequence.
4. The cast of your game should always be credited, regardless of performance quality, just like in Hollywood. Shame on you!

Overall: 4.6 / 10
Gameplay: 3.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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