“Action-adventure” is a term that gets thrown around a lot when developers aren’t quite sure what to market their game as. If you’re a stickler looking for an absolute definition, then go play the Uncharted series or God of War, because they are the definition of action-adventure. The latter title has left so many knockoffs in its wake that it’s nearly impossible to name them all. Some games get away with a small smack on the wrist for being an obvious clone (Dante’s Inferno), but others are just too bad to give a pass to.
So enters Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death, a mediocre hack-n-slash, God of War clone that strays towards bad much more than it does good. It’s not the game’s fault, as it’s competent and playable despite itself. It’s just a shame it was released about six years too late to be innovative or even unique.
The story follows the titular Marlow Briggs, an exceptionally ripped everyman visiting his girlfriend at a Central American dig site. About thirty seconds into the game, he’s ruthlessly murdered by his girlfriend’s cartoonishly evil boss, only to be resurrected by an ancient Mayan death mask. Given a lethal weapon and some new abilities, he sets out to rescue his love after she is kidnapped and forced to translate runes that will ultimately lead to a sinister force returning to Earth.
One thing that can be said about Marlow Briggs is that it never takes itself too seriously. As the title and plot suggest, this is hardly a dramatic affair, and the story plays out like a B-movie from the 70s. Recent games have had a tendency to make fun of themselves, whether to keep the tone light or harken back to the jokier days of yesteryear. While I applaud the decision to play everything lightly, it just doesn’t work here thanks to the lazy writing.
Video games have to work a bit harder than movies to be truly funny, but it is possible. Recently, Saints Row IV and even other XBLA titles like Foul Play have proven this. However, Marlow Briggs is painfully unfunny. It’s the equivalent of a joke book written by a deaf hermit, or an after school special on the hilarious side effects of AIDS. The mask itself is always off-screen, slinging insults, “jokes” and anecdotes at Marlow in a constant stream, and yet I never chuckled even once in the five or so hours it took to beat the game.
If the writing is a wash, is the gameplay at least good enough to warrant a recommendation? Well, look at it this way: if it looks like a game and feels like a game, then it must be a game. Combat consists of mashing two buttons to create combos, using a grab attack to throw enemies and discovering various new magic attacks based on the elements. Sound familiar enough? Oh, and there are four weapons to choose from, including a whip that can take on huge crowds of baddies.
The Central American setting is beautiful to look at, but much of the first half of the game takes place in a bland industrial facility, wasting the environment it was given. Even the levels in the jungles and temples are essentially lifeless. Cutscenes are presented as still frames in a way that, at first, was actually pretty striking and, dare I say it, cool. Around the tenth time it happened, though, it had lost any effect it had the first time I watched it. Checkpoints are extremely temperamental, either sending you back a matter of seconds or a few stages. This may have been a bug that affects the Xbox version, but at one point I lost over a half hour of gameplay from one death because the checkpoint took me so far back.
On that point, Marlow Briggs is one of the buggiest games I’ve ever had to play. Throughout the game, I constantly had to worry about the sound and/or dialogue disappearing, only to reappear completely out of sync with the scenes at hand or never reappear at all. Combat would lag at times, opening Marlow up to take hits that shouldn’t have happened. These are all issues that should be ironed out well before the game is released. Whether this is specific to the Xbox edition or not, these bugs can make or break a game, and in this case, they definitely break it.
A few challenges are shoehorned into the story, including collecting orbs, which never feel natural or unforced. Turrets are set up at random times for straightforward shooting sections, and some of the more prominent action scenes find you hopping across mine carts, sliding down tunnels and maneuvering through gondola cables. It’s all exciting and adventuresome, but it lacks heart. Every action scene is by the books, like the creators played through better games, making a checklist of requirements and then fulfilling the bare minimum amount of fun.
That’s my main issue with Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death: it’s just plain bland. The enemies are boring, the gameplay is functional but hardly fun, the action sequences are dazzling yet lifeless, and none of the characters are remotely interesting. It meets the bare minimum requirements of an action-adventure game, but it never takes the time to try and make itself stand out from the rest of the already large herd. That isn’t to say that every game has to be ground breaking or revolutionary, but it could at least be a little more creative.
For some reason, Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death is generating a bit of buzz online for being a scrappy budget action-adventurer with heart and style. In its defense, the gameplay is functional and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, the lack of humor, poor writing, unoriginality and massive collection of bugs make this a downloadable title to avoid. You’ve either already played a superior version of this game or can buy it for much cheaper than $14.99.
This review is based on a copy of the game for Xbox 360 that we were given for review purposes.