As the eldest of three, there have been more than a few occasions in my life where I wished my siblings would just disappear. Whether it was from them breaking my things; disrupting my privacy; or as I grew older, the embarrassment they caused me in front of any girl I brought over to the house, it’s hard not to miss the days where I was, without question, my parents’ favorite kid.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood uses this simple desire to set up a grand little adventure through a magical world full of mystery and awe. A simple idea for sure, and one that was done over two decades ago in the cult-classic fantasy movie Labyrinth. Nonetheless, it’s a premise that easily strikes a chord with anyone who’s ever had the pleasure (or curse, depending how you look at it) of sharing a life with a sibling.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood (Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Press Play
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: December 20, 2013 (Xbox One) / 2014 (Xbox 360)
For Max, it’s quite clear that nothing annoys him more than his nerdy little brother. After coming home from school one day, our titular hero finds his sibling playing in his room and quickly getting on his nerves. Fed up, Max turns to the Internet and stumbles upon a spell that, after reading aloud, opens up a portal in his room where a giant monster’s hand reaches through and snatches away his little nuisance.
Though relieved for a moment, Max quickly comes to the realization that the impending ramification from his parents outweigh the benefits of being an only child again. So without hesitation, Max jumps into the portal in pursuit, which leads to a fantastical new world. As he comes to, Max sees his brother off in the horizon being taken away by the horrifically large creature that grabbed him, and thus Max’s journey begins.
This all takes place within the first few minutes of Max: The Curse of Brotherhood. A game that wastes no time throwing players into a world of wonder that’s full of puzzles to unravel and suspense to be had.
As the adventure begins, you traverse the whimsical landscape akin to any 2D platformer of yesteryear. Max moves at an adequate pace, and can jump and climb basic obstacles with ease. The first five minutes or so are designated as an introduction to Max’s control and the overall responsiveness to the physics behind his movements. But you won’t pay too much attention to all this as it is all cleverly hidden as you move through the game’s beautiful environments.
For the most part, Max’s controls are typical for the genre aside from using his nifty magic marker -- which is assigned to the right analog stick and each trigger depending on whether one is drawing or erasing. Typically, having to draw shapes in the midst of action with anything but a touch/stylus based interface would be considered cumbersome, but Max: The Curse of Brotherhood excellently balances its action and puzzle sequences. And when the two do collide, it is usually met with some Matrix-style slowdown that reduces the stress of having to make just the right shape in the nick of time.
The game takes a minimalistic approach towards showing players how to use each of Max’s skills, while also teaching how everything isn't as innocent as it seems at first glance. For example, as you make your way through the beginning area, you most likely will fall prey to a tumbling rock. It’s somewhat of an unfair death -- as only those familiar with the stage are going to know it’s coming -- but it teaches a valuable lesson without bogging down the gameplay with tedious tutorials. The game is full of these moments, but thanks to the way it nurtures throughout, you’ll often be prepared for them and always feel heavily rewarded when you make it through unscathed. But even if you fail, the game is more than generous with its checkpoints, reducing unnecessary retreading.
As you start to earn Max’s main skills -- which additionally serve as the game’s main draw -- each new ability is presented in a manner that slowly lets players become accustomed to their intricacies. Armed with a special magic marker, Max will eventually gain the ability to create pedestals from the earth, vines to swing from, conform roots as platforms, and create currents of water to propel himself to new heights.
As you learn to use each power, what starts off merely as tools to assist Max in his platforming escapade, eventually become useful aides in finding every hidden secret placed throughout the game. The ability to make branches into platforms eventually evolves into creating movable platforms, battering rams, and even weights in order to solve some fairly obtuse puzzles.
Eventually, each skill begins to accentuate other skills adding even more depth to the platforming and puzzle solving. While ultimately the puzzles may fall on the simple side of things, they never ruin the pace of the action, and more importantly, they make you feel accomplished upon completion.In the end I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised with Max: The Curse of Brotherhood. It’s a game full of wonder and magical moments, that while light on actual narrative, still delivers a world that is hard to forget. The visuals are Pixar-esque charming and the combination of cerebral puzzles with thrilling action offers up a bite-sized experience that is a welcome addition to the Xbox One’s library. If you’re looking for a change a pace, I couldn't think of a more fitting way to finish off this gaming year.