Usually you know if you “get” a game rather quickly. In fact, I daresay that if a game doesn’t present you with a reason to keep playing it inside the first half hour you’re probably not going to enjoy it at all. The reasons lay iin the arcade roots of the gaming industry-- It used to be that a videogame only had a compelling intro sequence and an attract screen to convince passersby to feed it quarters. Modern games have kept that same philosophy, and in may ways have even improved upon the concept. Games rarely even force you to crack open the instruction manual nowadays, and you can usually comprehend and master most gameplay elements within minutes of watching the cinematic introduction.
But there are those few games that you have to work at to “get”; games that don’t readily present the reasons why you should invest in reaping their enjoyment. These games are rare but the rewarding, as if admitting the player to a secret club hidden from the casual gaming masses. I had this experience with Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls and Odin Sphere, games that I was initially turned off from but could discern a faint glimmer of brilliance amid layers of incomprehensible and incomplete game mechanics, and was rewarded with a phenomenal, if somewhat hard to explain, gameplay experience.
Then there’s games like Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom. Games that start off unenjoyable and are intent on staying that way.
IN THE SHADOWS OF A COLOSSUS
Which is strange, because MatFK desperately wants you to like it. It tries so very hard to be charming and sweet and a profound gaming statement along the lines of Shadow of the Colossus. It is unfair to SotC to be compared to something as fundamentally flawed as MatFK, but the comparison is there because Majin very much wants that comparison to be made. The art style is largely the same, sharing the same Japanese dark fantasy elements as SotC, Neir, and Demon’s Souls, and the game shares Team Ico’s familiar “hero and a companion” mechanic seen in Ico and SotC. It also tries to incorporate the same sort of forlorn sense of loss as you try to piece together MatFK’s fractured story.
Majin and the Forskaken Kingdom has a lot of heart, if that makes any sense. You want the twin protagonists to succeed, and much like Shadow of the Collsosus it’s this essential charming nature that encourages the player in emotionally investing in the game’s progress. But game’s fundamental mechanics -- the most important aspect of a videogame-- fail Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom on almost every level.
At it’s core Majin is a stunted version of Zelda, albeit with a twist in that you have a portable jumping platform at your disposal. You play as Tepeu, this game’s version of the unnamed hero of Shadow of the Colossus, whereas your horse from SotC is instead the titular Majin. Majin serves as jumping platform, hired muscle, damage sponge, door opener, magic dealer, and a host of other functions. Any power up that the player would normally receive in a Zelda-type game instead goes to Majin, who is largely computer-controlled. The player’s character, Tepeu, is tasked with the grunt work of platforming, puzzle-solving and item-gathering.
It is a disconnected experience, as you’re constantly left waiting for Majin to get into position. You can give Majin simple orders such as “open this door” or “attack that mook” or “set this puzzle piece in motion”, but it’s a clumsy process and all too often you’ll wind up telling Majin to crouch and let you jump on his back when you really need him to set fire to the unknowable dark entities trying to murder you both. Combat-- and there’s a lot of it-- is flavorless and disconnected, largely consisting of the player getting into position around Majin and mashing the attack button until the unexplained set of circumstances come about that allow you to unleash a team attack, usually disabling your current foe.
NOT NIER-LY GOOD PLATFORMING
Platforming is a huge element to any Zelda game and Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom screws that up too. Jumping is at best an imprecise art; the game doesn’t really have a firm grasp of the idea of “momentum” or “sticky ledges”.
Compare it to the criminally overlooked (and similarly priced) Nier. Now Nier isn’t a Zelda game, but is is an action RPG, and platforming is a critical element to it’s gameplay. Nier will not let you jump off a platform you’re attempting to jump upon. If you leap from one platform to the next-- or double jump, roll in mid-air, then spear-dash onto that platform-- Nier won’t allow you to slide off that target platform. You stick there until you initiate a new movement. This element makes traversal in Nier a joyous experience, and goes a long way toward making it a truly great videogame.
Not so Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom! This game has no problem letting you jump to a platform, land upon that platform, and then slide off that platform and onto whatever waits below, either your murder at a host of sword-wielding mooks or forcing you to pick your way back up to that platform again. Usually both.
What’s worse, if you precisely time your jump to the very edge of a platform, Tepeu will instead go into a Sonic-inspired, momentum-breaking “holy shit I'm about to fall off the ledge” animation that completely stops gameplay, forcing you to reattempt you jump, or worse trip unceremoniously from the platform. Combine these elements with moving platforms, unreasonably narrow platforms, unreasonably narrow moving platforms and distracting edge-off-field visual effects, and platforming in MatFK becomes a frustrating, teeth-grinding experience that betrays it’s platforming roots. It’s Tomb Raider, but if Lara Croft was struck by glaucoma and an inner-ear disorder. And was a bishi.
It’s a clumsy experience, sometimes almost literally so. Take for instance the character Majin. He falls down. A lot. This is supposed to be charming and endearing, but it winds up just creating a delay for the player as you await the lumbering oaf to catch up to you. Majin, despite his enormous size and strength, often needs your trivial, scrawny muscle to help in opening doors. This is simply accomplished by interacting with a door Majin is currently struggling with-- again this is supposed to be an endearing element to Majin’s personality and his lack of self-confidence, but it just adds another layer of frustration when you’d rather just get on with the next puzzle element.
For most of the game Majin can simply be left behind while you inspect the current puzzle, but you can’t progress without his presence in interacting with many of these puzzle elements, so a large portion of the game consists of the player trying to figure out how to convince Majin that he can reach the player. Again, it’s a lot of waiting, as Majin a lumbering brute, and quite timid. He often won’t tell the player that he can’t reach a spot until he gets into position to attempt to reach that area.
The game is largely comprised of puzzle rooms that you complete in order as you’re presented with them-- there’s a bit of backtracking and exploration involved, but most puzzle rooms need to be completed as you stumble upon them, and the game is good about informing the player when they need to return to an area when they have the necessary ability. The puzzles are sometimes quite good, but there’s too many instances where the solution doesn’t make any logical sense until it’s solved, and all too often break down to a process of selecting stuff for Majin to interact with until something interesting happens.
Combat, platforming, and puzzles. These are the elements of any successful Zelda clone, and Majin and the Forskaken Kingdom manages to fail at all three in unique and infuriating ways.
THE WORST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
There’s a litany of smaller complaints that I don’t have the patience or inclination to go into depth about-- voice acting so bad it’s nearly insulting, graphics that resemble a PS2 game run through a sparkle filter, respawning enemies, the fact that you have to be standing in an exact, undefined spot before Majin before he will attempt to heal you-- that by themselves would have been easily overlooked had any of the three other elements to MatFK not been horribly botched. I want to forgive these elements by saying that Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom is a methodical, deliberate game and not an action game at all, but it’s hard to say that when MatFK wants to be both a puzzle platformer and an action RPG while combining the worst elements of both genres.
I tried to love Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom. God help me, but I tried, I spent 12 hours getting 3/4ths of the way through the game proper. But there was a point where I realized I was spending more effort justifying my efforts in completing MatFK than I was actually enjoying it. I wanted to be able to contrast this game favorably with Namco’s other 2010 Holiday release, Enslaved. But in the end MatFK is just as broken as Enslaved, albeit for different reasons. If Enslaved had half as much as Majin’s heart, its undefinable soul, then Enslaved would have been a legitimate Game of the Year contender. Meanwhile, if Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom had Enslaved’s levels of polish (and let’s be honest here-- half of Enslaved’s budget) then MatFK could have been an all-time classic, spoken in the same hushed tones as its idol, Shadow of the Colossus.
But for twelve bucks-- well, for twelve bucks, you can own Nier, an unquestionably great videogame. Buy that instead. If you already own Nier well, by all means try Majin out. It could be that I’m wrong. I hope that I am.