Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death Review

To be perfectly honest, I can’t help but feel a little bit guilty about not liking Marlow Briggs more. It started out so great and is full of so much enjoyable dialogue between Marlow and floating mask Tep (short for Tepechalic Ix, the Mayan God-King whose spirit inhabits it) that I thought for sure that I’d walk away with nothing but positive impressions. The fixed camera angles took some getting used to, but the combat was solid and the action so consistently over-the-top that playing felt like being in the middle of an intense action movie. Then the platforming combined with the fixed angles and some less-than-wonderful hit detection to create some truly horrible sections. My eyes began to twitch ever so slightly. By the time the lame puzzle-type elements showed up and damage-sponge recolors of earlier enemies began popping up, that had snowballed into full-blown annoyance. As an action game, Marlow Briggs is a bit too fond of insta-deaths, damage sponges, and minigames to be worth recommending. That said, those with less gaming experience will almost undoubtedly be able to find a great deal of enjoyment in the game despite its problems, and even I can’t help but think that I’ll come to remember the game fondly despite the many problems I had with it.

An action movie in game form

Marlow Briggs is a game about explosions. Sure, there’s a plot where smokejumper Marlow is killed by a goon working for the stereotypically villainous boss character, only to be resurrected by Tep as the “sacred warrior” tasked with opposing his villainy, but that’s really just a pretext for sending Marlow flying through work areas and dilapidated temples, blowing up countless helicopters and buildings in the process and leaving a body count that even 80s action heroes would blush at. It’s gratuitous in every sense of the word and prone to overloading your senses whenever possible, and I mean that in the best of ways.

This is the best and worst of the game, with the dialogue being great, but a bullet randomly going through the mountain and hitting Marlow, cutting it off.

Sensory overload is a double-edged sword

It’s no exaggeration to say that the first fifteen minutes of Marlow Briggs is the most intense opening fifteen minutes of any game I’ve ever played, and it only lets up a little bit from there on out. That also made it a bit difficult to get into, however, with the constant flashing of the explosions and everything moving starting to strain my eyes before too long, forcing me to break up my playing time into smaller chunks rather than marathoning my way through significant portions of it on free days (which is how I usually get through most of the games I review here). I could see this game causing motion sickness or headaches in some players, the latter of which I personally experienced a few times.

The intense opening also forced the characters to begin at a strange place of familiarity that doesn’t really make any sense. When you’re first given control of Marlow, he’s just been resurrected from the dead by a talking mask and informed that he’s now some kind of powerful sacred warrior. His response? Just going along with it like Tep and him have been best friends for years. I’d like to think that a normal person (or even a moderately stupid fictional character) would have the common sense to question an evil-looking talking mask’s motives, but the two of them just click in a weird way from the get-go. Again, the story is really just window dressing here, but it’s something that struck me as odd.

It’s safe to say that platforming isn’t the game’s strong suit.

The platforming is awkward

The camera being fixed means that you can’t pan around and get a feel for how far away things are before leaping, so platforming is already quite a bit more difficult than it should be. On top of that, there are some issues with hit detection and certain objects having a lack of collision, meaning you can jump to something expecting to grab on, only to fall through it. This can even happen in spots where you have to grab on to a vine wall to progress; at one point I managed to clip through such a wall instead of grabbing it, falling to an instant death because the game apparently doesn’t have collision in the exact spot where I landed. I eventually got past this section by doing the exact same thing again, with the obvious difference being that things suddenly worked. Moments like this can be frustrating, and while the game rarely sends you back long enough to be overly punishing, having to redo small sections because of the game’s weirdness really started to get under my skin after the third or fourth time.

Even when things are working perfectly, platforming isn’t anywhere near as enjoyable as it probably should be. Marlow is weirdly heavy compared to the characters in most games, the physics have a tendency to act in bizarre ways, and the game is littered with random invisible walls that you can hit out of nowhere. If Marlow Briggs didn’t have so much of a reliance on platforming, none of this would be a problem. Sadly, a significant portion of the game relies on platforming, with it being second only to combat. That’s just too much given how wonky it is.

Hit detection is also a problem at certain points.

Hit detection problems and insta-death

There any any number of things that can instantly kill you in this game, from falling rocks to moving machinery to one of the million conveniently-placed chasms littered throughout each area. Falling into a pit at least makes sense, but getting tapped by a piece of machinery that isn’t even moving all that fast? Things start to get a bit ridiculous when you realize that the hit detection on some of these things—as in the video above, especially toward the end—doesn’t actually correlate with what you see. If you go frame-by-frame around the 32-second point in the video, you’ll notice that the crane doesn’t contact any part of Marlow when the game insta-kills him. This lack of fair hit detection only further added to my frustration.

That’s less of a problem in combat

Weirdly enough, I didn’t find hit detection to be much of an issue inside of combat, likely because of how frantic it is. I suppose the fighting style is best described as “God of War-ish,” and your weapon is periodically upgraded to new versions that you can switch between, each of which possessing its own unique fighting style. One is a whip that doesn’t do much damage, but that has a long reach. Another is a hammer that does big damage, but that attacks slowly. I generally found whatever unlocked last to be the best for each area, with the exception of the whip, which shows up just as the most annoying enemies in the game begin to appear.

Marlow Briggs revels in its action-movie excess.

Late-game enemies are a huge hassle

Midway through the game, I found myself facing large numbers of damage sponge recolors of earlier enemies and wishing that the game introduced something new. Then it did, and I couldn’t help but wish that I could just go back to fighting the recolors. Late-game enemies are also damage sponges, but they all tend to have characteristics that make them that much more annoying than the recolors, from the giant-types who charge at you to quick sword-users who shoot things at you from a distance. That’s nothing compared to the spirit things that can “swim through the earth,” though, who are single-handedly the most annoying enemy type in the entire game. These pop up, swing at you a couple times, let you hit them once or twice, then disappear back into the ground. You’re never facing a single one of these at a time, instead having to contend with groups of three or more, meaning combat suddenly takes on a languid pace as it turns into an annoying game of whack-a-mole. Each of these enemies has to be hit several times to kill, so every time they showed up I had to steel myself for combat to reach a screeching halt. They’re just not fun in any way, shape, or form. Contrasting that would be the giants, which, while not wonderful enemy types, are sometimes amusing since they can be tricked (through clever footwork) into attacking other enemy units.

Halfhearted puzzles are bad puzzles

Marlow Briggs’ puzzles basically come down to moving blocks onto switches, though there are occasionally more annoying ones, like one with several large water wheels that require you to break one of them. I still don’t know how I managed to do it (you have to break it by spinning it a certain way that makes absolutely zero sense), but breaking it was the only way to remove an absurd invisible wall barring me from progressing. Of course, in the spirit of making this all as annoying as possible, even starting this puzzle required moving a block onto a switch while a bunch of the spirit enemies attacked me, and doing so was necessary to get to higher ground (which is where the guy who kept creating the spirits was, making the whole thing wonderfully catch-22-ish). The puzzles are rare, but the puzzles are awful. They should have never been included.

Having the popup eat my “jump” input was a less than fun experience.

Minigames, minigames, minigames

One of the weirder things about Marlow Briggs is its tendency to include random minigames. In one, you try to survive a mine cart ride that forces you to leap between three different carts to avoid obstacles. Another plays out like a top-down scrolling shooter segment (think Raiden Legacy, but in 3D and simplified a bit). One of the most frequent ones that repeats throughout the game is the “sliding” minigame shown in the video above that sees you sliding down a slope, picking up glowing orbs while trying to dodge obstacles and jump over pits. Even the credits are a minigame where you have to fly Tep’s mask as high as you can while avoiding crashing into people’s names. A lot of this stuff was a welcome break and something I appreciated, but they’re a bizarre enough departure from the rest of the game that they could conceivably be a barrier to your enjoyment if you have trouble with one of those gameplay modes.

Lots and lots of QTEs

Finishing off bosses and cinematically jumping onto chains require pressing a series of keys/buttons that pop up on the screen. Failing these often results in death, of course, because that’s just how Marlow Briggs rolls. Thankfully, such QTEs are rare, but there’s also a far more prevalent version that plays out almost every time you encounter a door. In it, you have to mash the right key/button to force open the door, and there must be 20-30 of these spread throughout the game. Developers really need to learn that QTEs aren’t fun.

The save system is pretty good

For the longest time, I thought that this game used checkpoint saves. The very first thing that pops up when you start the game is a notice that it automatically saves as you play, which is usually a clear-cut indicator of there being no manual saves, but it turns out that Marlow Briggs includes both. In fact, the save system is so good that you can save in combat, or at the peak of a jump, and when you reload that save you’ll be in exactly the same place, even if it means you’re in midair when the game loads. That’s pretty cool, and it gives a lot of control to the player.

Jumping off of a rope shouldn’t be as difficult as it is in this game.

Some minor control issues

This is a seriously minor issue, but it’s worth noting anyway that ropes are sometimes a hassle thanks to the button/key for jumping off of them being the same as that used to climb faster. Basically, a lot of the time you’ll try to jump off a rope only to have the game decide that you’re trying to climb higher, and you end up stuck on that rope until you smash the keyboard or controller. If there’s a consistent way of getting the game to understand which one you want to do, I didn’t figure it out. Thankfully, there aren’t any occasions where you have to get off of a rope quickly, but it’s still something that I found unnecessarily difficult.

Forgettable music, overkill graphics

I don’t remember any of the music in the game. That means it’s probably something orchestral, though the only thing I know for sure is that it was the last thing on my mind while playing. The graphics, on the other hand, are often stunning. I was honestly surprised by how detailed many of the areas and characters are, though the game tends to overuse bloom and sharpening in certain areas, leading to occasional moments where the screen is so washed out and filled with random details that you can’t even tell where Marlow is. Those distracting moments aside, however, the game is beautiful and makes for some great screenshots.

Marlow Briggs

Marlow Briggs Screenshots: Page 1

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