Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Maw

The charm of The Maw's title character completely fails to compensate for the charmlessness of everything else in the game.

The Maw is a title by indie developer TwistedPixel, recently released for XBox Live Arcade. In it, you play a little blue alien who's been captured by some big blue aliens. There's no speech in The Maw, and in fact no dialogue or text of any kind, so we're left to deduce what's going on by the frenzied muggings of the participants. A quick trip to the internet informs that your character's name is "Frank", and that his captors are "Bounty Hunters", although what Bounty Hunters might want from Frank is a mystery.

In any case, the Bounty Hunters' ship crashes within moments of Frank's capture, and as Frank stumbles dazed from the crash site, he comes across Maw, a purple globby-thing who is apparently a fellow captive. Frank finds a kind of electro-leash with which he can lead Maw around, and from that point forward the game involves escorting Maw across the countryside while feeding everything that moves into Maw's steadily growing pie-hole.

There's a central dynamic of "Maw eats things, Maw grows bigger, Maw can eat bigger things" which at first seems like a cheap knock-off of Katamari Damacy. Further time with the game reveals that first impressions are correct. However, none of Katamari's charm is present here. The number of things that Maw can actually eat is quite small, and the environments don't really scale up to match Maw as he grows, which eventually leads to levels where much of the proceedings are completely obscured by Maw's giant head, leaving you to wander around aimlessly in the hope that there's something edible in front of the the big purple noggin that's blocking your vision.

The problems involved in seeing past Maw are compounded by horrid camera controls, which refuse to allow you to look upwards. The levels are three dimensional, so looking up is often fairly important, but the only directional options offered by the camera are "look at Frank's feet" and "look at the grass ten feet in front of Frank".

Speaking of the grass, it's pretty horrible. Ground, mountainsides and sky are rendered throughout the game using only a single low-resolution texture each; it's strongly reminiscent of Nintendo 64 platformers, but without the liveliness and artistic spirit that made the best of that brotherhood sparkle. While Maw and Frank are detailed and well-animated, the environments they traipse through are eye-burningly ugly.

Not only are they ugly, they're small. All but the last couple of levels are aggressively tiny. The game compensates for the small environments by requiring Frank and Maw to move at an infuriating crawl. Never has a game been more in need of a "run" button. When you're moving forward in the level it's not too bad, but if you need to suddenly backtrack to the beginning of the level to find an edible you missed earlier it's controller-hurlingly awful.

As a pseudo-platformer it's obligatory for The Maw to have collectibles. Each level features a finite number of edibles, plus a "hidden" flying bug-thing. Finding these collectibles is never harder than destroying ever object and following every path, but the edibles are often quite small and stand out poorly from the background, so it's easy to miss one just due to the art design. At best, missing one means a long slog back across terrain you've previously covered; at worst, it means replaying the level.

Maw can gain a variety of powers by eating unique animals. These range from a fire-breath to lasers to a ramming horn, and getting the powers is usually more fun than not getting them. In most cases there's only a single power per level; on the few occasions when you switch powers mid-level it's more of a curse than a blessing as if you've missed any edibles only collectible by the first power, it'll take a replay to get them once you've moved to the new power.

It is impossible to die in The Maw. The very few things that actively attack only bump you backwards. Typically, this kind of design decision would be in order to allow you to enjoy sandbox-style play or exploration without the threat of failure hanging over your head, but in The Maw there's nowhere to explore and nothing to do, so it really just feels like you're wandering around a small padded room while wearing a straightjacket. In later levels, the game will literally play itself, with The Maw charging forwards and blowing things up while you as player find your controls suddenly non-responsive.

The nerf-bat level of danger, combined with tiny levels, few activities to engage in, and a miniscule amount of content overall, make The Maw tough to recommend. It's just non-intutive enough to frustrate the children who are (apparently) its target audience, and for mature gamers, even casual ones, there's simply not enough on offer to entertain for more than an hour or so.

Maw itself is a very likeable character, but one character is just not enough to lift this game out of the doldrums. Take your money elsewhere on Live Arcade. It's not as though the rest of the marketplace doesn't spoil you for choice.


Morgan said...

I recently tried the PC demo (available on Steam, maybe elsewhere) and share your sentiments for the game.

It is a "glorified" 3D-adaption of Feeding Frenzy - also available on the XBLA (and much more fun), but removes the challenge.

Maw was cool, but from what I saw, Frank is rather mundane.

Greg Tannahill said...

Feeding Frenzy, for whatever reason, does not work with my XBox setup - something about the screen display - so I've never experienced this game of which people speak.

I feel good about the Maw. It shows that just because a game happens to be an offbeat experiment from an indie developer, I don't automatically fall at its feet in worship.

mysty said...

Despite its many drawbacks, I had fun with the Maw and saw that it had potential. It was a cute way to waste a couple of hours. If TwistedPixel fixed the various flaws, a sequel could be very entertaining.

Greg Tannahill said...

It definitely felt like it could use another six months in development. The "deleted scenes" that they've released through DLC are, for example, significantly better designed than what's in the base game, although still not very wonderful.