Platform: Xbox 360 (also on PS3)
Developer: Game Republic
Publisher: Namco Bandai
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
Proof that decent single player game experiences aren't quite dead just yet, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is a nice surprise in this insanely busy holiday games avalanche. In this console cycle of endless AAA shooters, non-stop action games packed with multiplayer modes or games where some sort of mandatory online presence have become mainstays, Game Republic's lengthy and quietly beautiful little fantasy wants you to put down the caffeine, turn off the testosterone, pull up a comfortable chair and set a spell with the well-worn tale it wants to tell. Like Namco Bandai's other excellent single-player focused sleeper, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (and Game Republic's PS3 launch window title, Folklore), there's a lot of love that went into putting this one together and you can see it as you play. While the overall experience isn't flawless, the game is a guaranteed near-total joy for those who fully surrender to its charms.
Majin tells the story of a young thief named Tepeu who gets trapped by shadowy creatures and taken to a strange land. He needs to escape, but finds it's impossible without a little assistance. The initial part of the adventure has you learning the basics, exploring and avoiding most combat until you run into Majin, a huge living totem with a childlike demeanor (and a voice that kind of grows on you, provided you can get over the initial ear shock) who wants to help out. Soon, he's pretty much Tepeu's new best friend and very powerful bodyguard. The pair team up and the game puts you through a series of challenges that involve stealth, combat, puzzle solving and the occasional boss battle. There's a bit more to the plot, but I'll let those of you who want to dive into the game find out for yourselves what's what. While you won't see a ton of "innovation" on display here, what makes the game work so well is the sense of wonder it activates, mostly solid controls and some well-designed maps to journey through.
The ICO similarities are definitely here, but the game doesn't make the fatal mistake of simply trying to clone the entire experience found in the PS2 classic while thinking no one would be the wiser. The hulking but lovable Majin, makes for a more physically useful (albeit, not as pretty) traveling companion than Yorda did, but trying to make too many 1:1 comparisons between both games will just keep you from enjoying the ride that's in front of you. Basically, you and Majin need to get from point A to point B in each area, defeating by assorted means a variety of enemies while figuring out how to open an increasingly challenging set of sealed gates. Controls are intuitive and responsive for both Tepeu and Majin, but you'll need to be really cautious in areas where sneaking comes into play.
In a few locations, Tepeu needs to separate from Majin in order to stealthily creep up to enemies and take them out quietly in order to access a lever or other device that will allow the much bigger Majin to reach the same area. If you're more used to other games where sneaking has been shortcut to one or two button taps, the slower and more deliberate controller work required here might fluster the easily flustered. Still, it works fine when you do it right and some of the takedowns are pretty cool indeed. Granted the AI sometimes has the same problems found in similar stealth games in that you can take out one patrolling goon that's perhaps a dozen paces from another that's just turned around away from you, but the still conscious guard won't bat an eye unless you're in his direct line of sight. It's not that huge of a deal unless you prowl around your own town's rooftops and alleyways wearing tabi and carrying caltrops in your back pocket and take note of stuff like this as some sort of insult to ninja everywhere.
As for Majin, while you can command the big lug to help out in a number of ways, he'll sometimes attack enemies automatically, which works when it needs to but can be a problem when you're trying to draw less attention to your movements. Boss battles are generally great and tricky fun, however. You'll need to team up with Majin and pull off attacks while trying not to take much (or any) damage, as powerful hits from some bosses can incapacitate Majin or kill Tepeu in nothing flat. Exploration and combat is also rewarding as it gives you shards that beef up your team combo skills as well as special fruit that helps Majin regain some life or enhance his own powers.
The game isn't a RPG by any means, but it's definitely longer than many action games that rely more on multiplayer modes to boost their longevity that a compelling plot where you care about the principals. Granted, some will still want to compare this to Team ICO's upcoming PS3 exclusive, The Last Guardian for any number of reasons. However, given that Majin exists NOW and is fully playable, you can only stack both games against each other once TLG finally ships sometime next year. I say there's room enough for both games in your library as we NEED more IP's that target every market, not just the most popular, adrenaline-soaked ones.
As for length, you can probably make it through the game in about 20 hours (more or less), depending on your stealth, combat and puzzle-solving skills. There are a bunch of secrets to track (or backtrack) down that extend the game's life a bit longer (if you want every single Achievement or Trophy), but like a well-read story book, all things come to an close once you're done. While that spells "play it and trade it!" to some of the short attention span crowd out there, anyone knows that a good game, like a good book is worth a fresh read once in a while. Majin is a game you'll play, finish and put on the shelf, coming back to it when you want to take a new, wistful trip down that well-trod path (or pass it along as a loaner to a friend who wants to see what he or she missed out on).
Visually, the game is tight, offering up a rich fantasy world that, while not as wide open as it should be, makes for a fine setting for Tepeu and Majin to play in. Yes, you're pretty much guided along from area to area as the game progresses, but the level design and environments are generally lovely to look at and varied. Wonderfully designed storybook sequences spell out the plot as you go (too bad there's no graphic novel to go with the game) although the overall story isn't exactly the deepest thing out there when all is said and done. I liked the sharp contrast in the lighting in some areas (no gauzy filters here!), but on some HD sets, this might be a little eye-searing during some transitions. I also noticed that like many HD games, Majin might look a little bit better on a good SD set, if you've one handy. Sure, you lose that "shine" HD games have, but some background textures are a lot less fuzzy and distracting in SD (at last I think so).
As for the sound, the music score is excellent and as to the issue Majin's voice, well... read on. Yes, it is a tad off-putting initially and will be if you let it get on your nerves. However, I have one question for ANYONE that's complaining about NOT picking up the game after after playing the demo: Er, have YOU ever heard what a giant walking stone idol sounds like in REAL life? (Now loading.... Hmm, hmm, hmmm... la la lalalalalalaaaa, nin, nin, nin...) Uh huh... I thought not. EXPECTING a fictional character to sound like Sir Lawrence Olivier, Orson Welles, Wilfred Brimley or whatever voice you had in mind and being disappointed when they don't only shuts your gamer side off from experiencing what the localization team thought was a suitable voice. As with anime-based games you may not like the choice for the voice actor, the performance or the game NOT having a separate Japanese dub.
Of course, your prejudices are indeed, YOUR prerogative, but it would be nice to see a paradigm shift in general toward people who aren't so freakishly obsessed with things such as this (or Sun Chips bags or Mary Hart's voice giving them seizures and so forth and so on). Anyway, none of these aural biases should stop you from enjoying any game out there if it's a good one - think of it that way and move on. As noted above, once you settle into the vibe the game provides, Majin's voice becomes a lot less annoying to the point that you won't bat an ear when he speaks. Remind me to tell you guys the story of my Siren review being affected by being stopped on the street by a lost Chinese guy from London with a heavy accent who sounded exactly like the first character you play in the game. Proper perspective helps one enjoy more stuff, that's for sure.
While the game is very well-made and shows off Game Republic's talents a lot more than Clash of the Titans did, I really hope it's not completely buried under the crush of this season's holiday sales monsters. This is a game that DESERVES some actual time to find an audience and deserves to be played by that small niche of gamers that don't fall head over heels just for the latest FPS or other flashy high-dollar midnight launch title. If you go in expecting to be blown out of your socks, Majin and the Forbidden Kingdom isn't the most "spectacular" game you'll play this year. Thankfully, it doesn't need to be a cosmic game-changer at all. If you just want a solid and engaging single player experience with a lovable lug as your virtual partner, warts and all, it's got more heart and soul than some blockbusters you'll see advertised every few seconds on nearly any conceivable moving and non-moving object.
Fans of sleepers such as ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, this year's underrated Alice In Wonderland on the DS and the upcoming Lost In Shadow should snap this one up right away. Anyone else should at least give it a rental just to take a break from all that camping and sniping - coming up for some rarefied air might just put a smile on your face...