Max as a gaming character (I was about to use the word “icon” but let’s not get carried away) has had an interesting history – interesting enough that I’ve got nine tabs of research open and still don’t really understand it. The original title, Max and the Magic Marker, was one of the flagship games of Nintendo’s notoriously finicky and recently deceased Wiiware service, of original downloadable titles for the Wii. If that title sounds familiar, it’s probably not because of the Wii release, but because Microsoft, amongst others, got their grubby little paws on it and ported it to every gaming device under the sun. A couple years pass, then this title, The Curse of Brotherhood, is released exclusively on Xbox One in late 2013, then on Xbox 360 five months afterwards, and only in the last year-ish has it reached PS4 and Switch. And, not by its original developers, who were assimilated into the Microsoft Xborg in 2016 (and started a new studio Flashbulb Games, which doesn’t mention Max on its website at all), but by a porting studio called Stage Clear, who notably ported Runbow and Bridge Constructor but unhelpfully for me are based in Madrid and their website is entirely in Spanish. I’m pretty sure there are offshore bank accounts easier to trace than this, so I hope my researching abilities are never called into question, ¡tú pequeño Conejo tonto!
Right, the game, yes. Max: The Curse of Brotherhood stars Max (didn’t need quite as much research for that one) on an adventure to rescue this brother Felix, which is justified as all the peril is entirely Max’s fault. Having come home from, something, to a house Dr. Seuss would think is a bit much, Max finds Felix in his room messing with his stuff and generally being irritating.
This is evidently the final straw, as Max takes to Google (sorry, “Giggle”) and reads aloud a spell – which overtly uses the word evil at least twice which should probably set warning lights off – which summons the Vague Portal of Ominousness. Through this reaches a creature that looks like somebody choked the Gruffalo, that steals Felix, while Max realises what a muppet he is and gives chase. Oh, and he has a magic marker. Which isn’t mentioned until literally the point Granny from Looney Tunes haunts it, because it was “worn out” and having an octogenarian inside it alleviates that problem, apparently. And the villain is named “Mustacho,” because he has a mustache. I wasn’t expecting War and Peace but come on, guys.
Fortunately, significantly more effort and resources have gone into Max: the Calamity of Family’s visuals and sound. In my aforementioned research, I saw the term “Pixar-esque” crop up at least three times, which is close but slightly too high praise. It’s Illumination-esque; the characters look very good, their designs are clean and expressive and functional, but also kind of plasticky, and I wouldn’t buy merchandise of them. The music is also particularly solid, often surprisingly moody and nuanced, but I couldn’t pick out any stand-out tune, it’s more of a soundscape feel – though given how long Let It Go ruined the lives of the human race, perhaps a lack of Pixar-esque stand-out tunes is a good thing. That all sounds more negative than it is, so let me end with: the backgrounds are gorgeous. Deep knotted forests, sprawling deserts, all wonderfully detailed and enhanced by an exceptional lighting engine, you’re getting a lot of quality in the eyes-and-ears department for this game’s relatively low cost. All that said, the biggest con of “Illumination-esque” graphics is it means the graphics remind me of Minions. Which is possibly the worst thing a game can do to me. I’ll try and stay impartial but no promises.
On the whole, I like the gameplay but can see how it wouldn’t be for everyone. It reminds me somewhat of Abe’s Oddysee, which is a much better thing to remind me of – compared to Magic Marker, which let you draw anytime and was a fairly basic platformer otherwise, Max: the Vexations of Relations only lets your draw in specific spots, and takes a much more puzzle-oriented approach. You also have no combat options and have to outwit your enemies using said mechanics instead, hence the Oddysee similarity. The game keeps fresh ideas and new abilities coming at a pace of knots – despite essentially only having one core mechanic, every puzzle feels suitably unique and therefore maintains a satisfying level of challenge. Every new ability of the marker is introduced in isolation before being combined with the others and a range of physics objects to achieve your goals, and achieving those goals feels good.
But there was a sensation I couldn’t shake during my entire playthrough, and I didn’t realise what it was until the second time I booted the game. Max: Nasty Dynasty is a Unity game, and it kind of feels like a Unity game, if that makes sense. During the vast majority of the game, the puzzle-y bits, Max controls just fine, but sometimes the game decides it wants to be an action platformer, and at that point Max being slow, floaty, having a somewhat dysfunctional hitbox and, by virtue of being a Bart Simpson-wannabe, having stumpy little legs becomes a bit tiresome. It also necessitates a Unity physics engine, which again is mostly fine but mainly proves an issue when it comes to ropes, which jiggle like Mr. Blobby getting tased during an earthquake and the speed they’re travelling has very little relation to the speed Max will be travelling when he jumps from them – by far my most common utterance during my playtime was “these ropes don’t (expletive of choice) work!” It’s also, just like Max, a little short, clocking a runtime of about 6 hours, and finally, the game has voice-acting, which was a surprise given the price tag and on the whole is pretty good, but Max has a tendency to go “woah”, “oh no”, “best be careful”, and generally try and inject tension into low-stakes situations just slightly far too much.
On the Whole, Max: The Sin of Kin (can you tell I’m running out of these) is a mostly pleasant to play jaunt through a nameless fantasy land; gorgeous to look at, full of colour yet atmospheric and borderline-spooky at times, and full of genuinely smart ideas. Just takes its little problems with an optimistic attitude and a grain of salt, and try not to throw your own family into a portal to hell in a 20-second cutscene, given how easy it is to do that by accident apparently.