Well, here we are again. I’m relaxing in front of the hearth, enjoying a glass of brandy with my ever faithful manservant, Theodore Skeffingtonson, and my only temporarily faithful canine, Santos.
And if I’m drinking brandy with my dog and butler/chauffeur/housekeeper/dog-walker/tailor/cobbler in front of a roaring fire, then that can only mean one thing: it’s time for another For the Love of the Games, the monthly column in which I BEG you ON MY HANDS AND KNEES to play a certain obscure, mediocre-but-full-of-great-ideas, or just plain bad game.
Literacy, my dear Skeffingtonson!
This week we’re not talking bad games. We’re not even talking kinda, sorta bad games. We’re not even talking old games — in fact, you may remember hearing of this game in the last couple years. This week we’re talking a game that I love, a game that didn’t get much play, a game that was marked down from $60 to $40 on the day it released, a game that was sent to die amid the bigger, beefier Q4 releases of 2010. This week we’re talkin’…
Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom!
Released in 2010 to mixed reviews, Majin is a delightful action-adventure, almost Zelda-esque in its way, that drew many comparisons to Team ICO’s beloved catalogue.
The premise sounds familiar: Majin is a single-player adventure centered around a boy and his lovable companion as they work together to solve the mysteries of a magical fantasy land. The symbiotic relationship between the two defines the core of the game’s three main mechanics: exploration, puzzle-solving and combat.
So what makes Majin so special?
No Friends? No Problem!
Ico and Yorda, Wander and Aggro — two sets of companions whose relationships were central to their respective games. Ico was Yorda’s brave protector; without the player to aid her, she was doomed to be dragged back to the evil Queen by the forces of shadow. There wasn’t really much to the relationship in terms of play mechanics — you were Yorda’s guardian.
Aggro was Wander’s mighty steed. Without Aggro, Wander wouldn’t have been able to traverse the expansive landscape of the Forbidden Lands. And without Aggro’s noble sacrifice, Wander wouldn’t have been able to slay the final Colossus (though as we find out, that might have been a good thing). In terms of mechanics, though, Aggro only really served one purpose: getting around.
Tepeu, the protagonist of Majin, and Teotl, the Majin himself, have a much more mutually dependent relationship. Tepeu can’t move the heavy obstacles that block his path; he can’t extinguish flames or charge generators with electricity; he can’t really even hold his own in a fight against the black-gloop monsters that infest the ruined kingdom. Even if he could defeat them all single-handedly, their souls would return to their bodies and they’d just pop right back up again.
But Teotl can do all of those things. The catch is that he still needs Tepeu as much as Tepeu needs him. If Teotl is Tepeu’s protector, then Tepeu is Teotl’s guardian. Teotl is slow, lumbering, clumsy and not terribly bright; he has a fist the size of a Smart Car, but he can’t do much if he’s overwhelmed by a horde of faster foes. Despite his size and strength, he’s actually quite childlike.
That’s why Teotle needs Tepeu to distract enemies, to traverse small or narrow areas and even to find him food. A typical combat scenario goes something like this: Tepeu commands Teotl to push a crumbling wall down on some unsuspecting baddies, alerting their nearby friends. While Teotl wrestles with the behemoth shadow monster, you swat the smaller foes away from him so he can focus on the main threat. When your enemies are at their breaking point, you deliver a devastating team attack to fell the horde.When it’s all over, Teotl sucks up and purifies their dark souls so they can’t respawn.
Like The Lost Vikings or, to a lesser extent, Trine, Majin is a full co-op experience boiled down into a single-player adventure.
Look at all the Pretties!
Games like Metroid, Castlevania or the Legend of Zelda, games that emphasize exploration, do so in a somewhat materialistic way. Back before the Metroidvania and Zelda models were a staple, they rewarded curious-minded exploration with items and secrets. Now in such games, reward for exploration is not only expected, but sometimes our only motivator. How long has it been since a Metroid, Castlevania or Zelda environment really invited exploration simply through its aesthetic appeal, through capturing your imagination?
The Forsaken Kingdom begs to be explored, not because of its treasures, but because of its beauty and mysterious and certainly tragic history. Strictly speaking, Majin’s graphics aren’t going to blow you away; geometry is basic and textures range from OK to muddy. But like just about any Blizzard game or any number of indie hits, Majin knows how to lean on its artistic advantages.
Incredibly competent level design is backed by evocative use of light and color. The game is full of stunning environments; the Spartan design of the old engineering district, the dull earth tones of the castle ruins, the vibrant foliage that’s overtaken the ruined kingdom… often I found myself just stopping to admire the twilit glow of a Tree of Life at dusk. Despite being ruined and infested with dark spirits, the Forsaken Kingdom manages to be altogether warm, inviting and full of wonder waiting to be discovered.
And did I mention that the whole thing is one, big, continuous environment? ‘Cause it’s kind of awesome that way, too.
It’s a Freaking Delight!
The final reason why you should play Majin?
Why wouldn’t you, is why!
Have you seen the screenshots littered throughout this article? Go watch some clips on YouTube. It’s OK, I’ll wait.
As you can see, the game is a freaking delight. For starters, developer Game Republic animated the bejesus out of the thing, especially Teotl, whose clumsy stumbles, puzzled head scratching, and big, dopey grins make him increasingly more endearing over the course of the adventure.
There’s also a ton of stuff packed into a relatively small package. The game is maybe 10-15 hours long, which means it never overstays its welcome. In film, literature, television, theater — take your pick of any entertainment delivery system – it’s generally a good rule-of-thumb to leave your audience wanting more.
Most games try for the exact opposite, to stretch an experience well beyond it logical conclusion, to fill it with grinding, sewer levels, Triforce-hunting and a lackluster Mexican civil war that sends you riding back and forth across an entire county about a dozen times over.
I can’t blame all those developers. One of the many ways in which gamers suck is that we’re all obsessed with an imaginary hours-to-cost ratio that we’ve invented. If a game isn’t 30 hours long, the vocal minority of message board jerk-asses throw a tantrum.
But Majin knows exactly when to bow out gracefully. Like that brilliant, life-changing record you force yourself to put away after just one or two listens, it never loses its magic. Once the credits roll, you miss being in that world. And if you’re smart, you’ll take that as a part of the fun, a part of the magic, and stay away for a long, long time, if not forever.
Originally written for Digital Hippos