Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death – PC
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: Sep 20, 2013
Reviewed by Mark Smith
Review Score: 4.5 of 5
Hack and slash action games are somewhat of an inexplicable rarity on the PC. Off the top of my head I can come up with Darksiders 2, DMC and the new ultimate edition of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow for action-brawlers released in 2013, so when Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death launched on Steam I was as intrigued as I was surprised, but once I started playing it I was totally hooked on the insane premise and even wilder game design. Kratos may have met his match when it comes to big bad asses with bad attitudes.
So how about that premise… Marlow Briggs is your everyday hulking black boyfriend visiting his archeologist girlfriend on some South American dig site. Her creepy Chinese boss has her deciphering these ancient runes for his own nefarious purposes and when she figures out what is going on her and Marlow decide to leave. The boss demands that she stays and kills Marlow to prove his resolve, but rather than simply shooting him in the head, he has one of his flunkies stab him with an ancient weapon that pretty much turns him into an immortal god-like warrior. Yes, the story is silly and totally irrelevant to all the killing that is about to take place. Even the designers don’t seem overly concerned if you appreciate the narrative, as there is an achievement for skipping ALL the cutscenes.
Marlow must now try to rescue his girlfriend and stop the evil boss from turning himself into a god and taking over the world. Prepare for a wild ride as you explore complex factories, lush jungles, ancient temples, and other-worldly locations in what is easily the best action-brawler I’ve played on the PC since DMC, and in some ways I actually enjoyed this a bit more.
Part of the appeal of Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death is the humor, both in the one-liners Marlow delivers but also the running commentary from his new buddy, the Mask of Death; an actually floating and talking voodoo mask that serves as both your guide and your wisecracking sidekick; the best disembodied buddy since Johnson from Shadows of the Damned. But aside from its comedic appeal, this game is brutally fun to play and even more fun to watch.
Marlow has an increasingly more impressive and violent arsenal of attacks at his disposal, at first with just his primary weapon, but throughout the game your ancient scythe can be morphed into twin wrist blades, a chain-whip sword, or even a giant hammer. As expected, each weapon comes with its own set of moves that can be upgraded by spending XP, and each weapon also has its unique balance of attack speed versus damage delivered. While some weapon forms work better on some enemies it often comes down to just using whatever offers the most exhilarating special effects and resulting gore.
Much like God of War the right stick is used to tumble and dodge incoming attacks, which means you are at the mercy of the virtual cameraman for your viewing angles, but the camera never let me down once, often providing me far superior cinematic angles on the action than I could have achieved on my own. There is a nice block and counterattack system in place that is especially useful in deflecting incoming rocket fire back at the sender or instigating melee counterattacks.
Level design offers a bit of exploration, smashing everything you can for the countless collectibles, but it always boils down to arena after arena of enemies in need of dispatching. The endless combat does get a few remarkable moments of respite during engaging on-rails segments like dangling upside down from a helicopter while trying to shoot enemies with inverted controls, or several silly, but fun turret shooting gallery levels. These parts of the game are actually sectioned out as independent Challenges that you can replay from the main menu and compete for leaderboard standings. But perhaps the most inspired moment of the game actually comes when the game is over when you find the fully interactive end credit sequence that has you flying the Mask of Death around the vertical scrolling credits like the space ship from Asteroids, avoiding falling blocks of text and trying to pick up various collectibles without hitting the walls.
The pacing is nonstop, and even in those perceivably slow periods of platform jumping or ledge shimmying there is almost always something shooting at you or at least some witty banter from the sage-like Mask to keep you distracted. The controls are smooth and precise, especially in combat where all the moves just flow together. The platforming parts seem artificially easy with Marlow snapping to ledges and such with almost no way to fail. Clocking in at just under 8 hours, the time flies while playing Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death, and even when the game was over I was revisiting the challenges and showing off my favorite levels to my friends.
I must make special note of the graphics, which, on the PC range from stunning to jaw-dropping depending on where you are at in the game. I was blown away by the first few levels, climbing around this towering factory, both indoors and out, but then I got into the jungle level with all the lush foliage, ancient stone temples, breathtaking vistas as I edged myself around a mountain peak, shimmering water, sparkling sunlight filtering through the trees; it was mesmerizing, all until that giant scorpion leaps out of the bushes and attacks.
The enemies and creatures in Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death do get a bit repetitive by the end of the game, but at least the ones that are present are unique and they do a good job of re-skinning them with different colors and designs. The special effects are beyond words, especially when you manage to pull off one of your special attacks that can summon a meteor swarm, or freeze everyone in the area just to name a few. One final word on the graphics – the cutscenes are something I have never seen in a game before but hope to see again. When the level ends there will be this static image – something like a freeze frame from the Matrix – and then the camera will start this spiraling fly-through of the image, twisting and turning, all the while the scene is slowly evolving, skipping seconds worth of animation frames so you see an entire encounter unfold through a dozen still images that seamlessly morph together in a 30-60 second animation. It’s as brilliant as it is impossible to describe in words.
Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death is one of the best action-brawlers I’ve played this year; every bit as good as DMC when it comes to gameplay, but certainly lacking in the narrative of games like Darksiders 2 and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. For those looking for fun mindless comic book action with a solid fight-combo mechanic, incredible graphics and witty banter then look no further than this hidden gem now available for PC-Steam and Xbox 360 for only $15.