Maize is a weird little game that blends a bunch of genres together while defying their individual norms. It’s an adventure game, but it either hints at or blatantly tells you what items will later be used for. It’s a walking simulator, but you actually do stuff other than walking (including a bizarre dancing minigame at one point). It’s a comedy game, but there’s also an underlying sense of mystery in the early parts of the game. It’s character-driven, but you never actually meet several of the more important characters beyond reading their passive-aggressive post-it exchanges littered throughout levels. Really, it’s all of these things and none of them, and yet explaining exactly what makes Maize such an entertaining game would require getting into details about specific scenes so as to potentially spoil/ruin them for those sensitive to that sort of thing. Maize is one of those consistently surprising types of games, and while I originally missed its PC release, I’m glad the console release finally brought it to my attention.
Clashing egos, secret project mismanagement, and sentient corn stalks
This is one of those games where the story doesn’t matter nearly as much as the characters. Maize doesn’t ever bother taking itself seriously, occasionally giving you text on the screen to poke at (and sometimes explicitly address) the ridiculousness of what’s happening and lampshade the absurdity of the events pushing the plot along. That having been said, there is a story here. A story about a secret governmental program with too much money and two idiots in charge, the bitter scientist who actually made the breakthroughs, and the resulting sentient corn stalks who would strive to be free if they weren’t so forgetful and focused on naps. A lot of the story and miscellaneous information highlighting the absurdity of Maize’s world can be found in “folio” items, which are basically collectibles picked up over the course of the game that have entertaining descriptions. There are novels by a terrible writer whose books keep selling regardless of their quality, invoices for ridiculous things highlighting the program founders’ overspending, and numerous rocks that the playable character insists on naming for some reason. There are 75 of these things left lying around, 69 of which I actually managed to find (no idea where I could have possibly missed the other 6), so you’re constantly finding these little punch lines while playing.
Then there are the post-its. Oh, the post-its. The two idiot cofounders can’t stand each other, so their communications seem to have moved entirely to post-its left passive-aggressively attached to various objects in the game world. I’d consider these a highlight of the game, with pink post-its from self-absorbed buffoon “Bob” always offering up insane ideas (like a guided tour of their secret governmental facility) and the blue post-its from high-strung straight man “Ted” pointing out how ridiculous they are.
Sometimes there are entire conversations left as strings of post-its where Bob goes ahead with his stupid ideas anyway, and that’s where we get into the game’s environmental storytelling. Environmental joke-telling might be a more fitting term, though, because a lot of the time you’ll read the post-its and only then look around to realize why things are the way they are. In one example of this, Ted gets tired of Bob putting statues of himself around the entire building and retaliates with a statue of his own, only for the more upbeat Bob to approve and add one of himself next to it. Then you look up and see one of many testaments to their ridiculous one-upmanship.
That’s not even mentioning the mercurial corn stalks who you encounter at various points throughout the game. There’s a group of three in particular who show up several times to offer up hints, make random jokes, and provide levity when you least expect it. There’s also their queen, who seems to be the only member of their race blessed with clear thought, and a vaguely villain-ish character called “The Cornacabra” whose manner of speech and general ineptitude is reminiscent of Vizzini from The Princess Bride. Then there’s your inexplicably Russian robot teddy bear companion Vladdy, who follows you around for most of the game and manages to find a dark cloud in every silver lining. Endlessly antagonistic toward the main character (at least until you’re nearing the end of the game), Vladdy is bound to be divisive. His robotic walking sound effect quickly gets to be grating, and those not accustomed to his kind of constant negativity aren’t likely to appreciate his incessant needling, but as someone who also hates basically everything—seriously, just go through my reviews—I ended up weirdly attached to him over the course of the game. Your mileage may obviously vary.
First-person adventure gaming
One of the things that Maize has in common with traditional adventure games is its focus on picking up everything you can get your hands on. Sometimes those things end up being folio items that can’t actually be used for anything, but you’ll also come across inventory items that can be used to progress. The item descriptions will usually make it obvious what that item is used for, alleviating the hassle of needing to figure out that, say, the etch-a-sketch is used on a painting to draw a crude face that’s then used to fool a facial scan. Since the game doesn’t try to be tricky about what to use and when, the puzzle solutions can be insane and out of left field like that without ever becoming a hassle. The lack of traditional item combinations also simplifies things a bit; while silhouettes will occasionally show you where an item can be placed (oftentimes so that you can use another item to change it), you never have to rub every item you have on every other item hoping that progress magically happens as a result.
The whole thing is streamlined and loses a bit of its challenge for that reason, but in its defense, Maize isn’t a game that’s trying to be challenging. The gameplay here mostly consists of walking around, picking up things, reading post-its, and using the items you’ve picked up on the environment to progress. This gives the game a relaxed vibe, though its early parts have a vaguely eerie feeling of mystery to them. I know it seems like every game that releases these days is trying (slash-expected) to be the next Dark Souls, but sometimes it’s fun to just wander around a world that’s the lovechild of Portal 2 and Monty Python and laugh at some stupid jokes.
There are a few arguably challenging parts, though. The first was when I was looking for Bob’s “secret spot” and couldn’t find it anywhere. Given his personality, I expected to find it in the daycare or bathroom. It turned out it was in the hallway, which is unexpected since hallways (and corridors in general) rarely have anything important in them. Not needing to check the hallways that connected Maize’s rooms struck me as one of those unspoken game rules, so having the spot be there was incredibly counterintuitive. As for the second, there’s a timed section where a countdown to a nuclear explosion is triggered. You have to run through a maze to drop off an item, then go back through it the other way to hit a button and stop the countdown before time runs out. The time isn’t displayed anywhere, and the “steam breaking through pipes” visual effect that you can find yourself caught in causes slowdown on the Playstation 4 version (which is what I was playing), making things even more disorienting. There’s no penalty for failing since it sends you back to before you triggered the countdown to try again, but it’s still a weird decision for a game that’s otherwise fairly relaxed.
Bugs, miscellaneous problems, and another puzzle I didn’t care for
Finally, there’s the puzzle in the video below (which I didn’t solve until after I stopped recording). Basically, you stack a bunch of items to get past another scan, something done twice before this point, and everything seems to go normally. The door doesn’t open, though. You can’t initiate the scan again, either. It looks like a bug, but it’s actually a case of the door getting stuck (intentionally) and this being poorly communicated to the player. Also poorly communicated, an area that was blocked off before is suddenly able to be wandered around to find an item needed for progression, and this eventually nets you something you can use on the coffee trolley forming the base of your fake person to knock down the door. The door being stuck intentionally is something that needs to be shown in an obvious way, because right now it can be easily confused with a bug.
Of course, the reason it’s so easy to draw that conclusion is that there are all kinds of weird quirks throughout the game. Vladdy gets stuck in walls (frequently), and while moving away will cause him to teleport, it still speaks to the game’s proclivity for these kinds of issues. Then you reach a stuck door and go, “oh, it’s just another one of these weird game things.” Vladdy’s talent for getting stuck in things is just the start of it, too. There are random invisible walls, flickering textures (one, two, and three), and audio weirdness where sound comes from weird places and pans left and right unexpectedly as you move. There’s even a part where you control a crane, and up and down are the opposite of what you’d expect them to be (so it’s easy to try to move it up along the track, only for nothing to happen until you try pressing down instead).
In fact, my very first experience with the game was getting up on top of a fence near the starting point—there’s no jump button, but the physics sometimes allow you to take a step on top of things—only to fall off the other side and get stuck. This required exiting and reloading my save. I was expecting something like that to happen again at some point, so when the door didn’t open despite the scan accepting my comically inept simulacrum of a person, it was one of those “here we go again” moments.
Screenshot fodder, but inconsistent screenshot fodder
Maize is capable of being an incredibly pretty game, and I have several screenshots of the sun peeking through a field of corn stalks that I’m sure will end up as my desktop wallpaper at some point. It can also occasionally be a not-so-pretty game, with low quality textures occasionally marring the beautiful scenery. The overall graphical quality seems to have been downgraded ever so slightly from the PC version to make the console version possible, but I’m not entirely certain that this is to blame for some of the game’s blurry textures. Take orange boxes; whenever an area needs to be blocked off for later, the game does so with a large stack of orange boxes, but there are a few groups of orange boxes that are significantly blurrier for some reason. So blurry, in fact, that you can’t even read the text to see that they’re orange boxes. They stay that way, too, so it doesn’t seem to be a case of texture pop-in. I’m not sure whether this is intentional or not, but there were a few usable items that appeared similarly blurry.
I’m also a bit mixed as far as Maize’s music is concerned. The early tracks are atmospheric, but also incredibly repetitive, overused, and sparse. Toward the end, though, there are all kinds of quirky tracks with lots of personality. That’s not enough to make up for all of the repetitive early stuff, and Vladdy’s walking sound effect is bound to have destroyed much of your audio goodwill by the point things start getting good, but the music (much like the overall game) definitely gets better and better the further you play.
*A review key for Maize was provided for the purpose of this review