Majin and The Forsaken Kingdom Review (Xbox360)

Creating a meaningful relationship between two characters in a videogame must be one of the toughest challenges for developers, yet the most rewarding experience for players to have. Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom manages to do just that despite a lack of polish and irritating voice acting.

Starting the game as a thief, you find yourself exploring an abandoned castle in hopes of finding treasure only to come across a bound and shackled Majin - the ancient guardian of a lost kingdom. By helping to free this massive giant you soon discover that the whole world is in danger of being consumed by “The Darkness” and you begin your quest to restore the Majin's strength and rid the world of evil.

Don't be fooled by his goofy looks as the Majin is a combat powerhouse. With grass for hair

The plot is trite and the narrative, delivered by talking animals (in various American dialects) and the Majin himself in broken, toddler-like English can be irritating at times - no more so when your character, Tepeu and the Majin converse. In spite of these problems the relationship between you and the hulking beast develops into one of the most meaningful I've experienced in a videogame. There are parallels here between ICO and Enslaved, though in very different ways. Whereas Yorda was a vulnerable character that you needed to protect all throughout that game, the Majin is curiously both powerful and delicate.

You can direct this guardian to destroy enemies, open doors or act as a ladder to reach inaccessible places. Letting him wade into groups of enemies is an option but I always felt the tug of responsibility in these moments - Majin is not invulnerable and by working as a combat team you can dispatch enemies quicker and with more panache. These combo moves don't involve much technical know-how and simply beating on a fallen enemy and hitting the prompted button will initiate a devastating attack.

Even though this combat is simplistic it's still satisfying and challenging. The tactical deployment of the Majin is important in later battles and with enemies that can leap on his back and drain his power; you always have to pay attention to events on-screen.

This system is all the more interesting because of your limited abilities and power to defeat “The Darkness” - humans infected with the evil, oily goo. Your combat strength is so weak that you rarely kill an enemy at all, making the Majin the Big Daddy to your Little Sister. That relationship is part of what makes Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom a great game. By having dependency build both ways your affection for the giant becomes natural and meaningful.

As you progress through the kingdom there are occasional respites. Between the larger areas the game takes a moment to offer up some back-story or a reflective exchange between both characters. In spite of the voice acting and awkward dialogue you start to feel the relationship between Tepeu and Majin grow deeper.

This relationship becomes more apparent in gameplay terms as you work through the puzzle sections. As you explore the ruined kingdom various challenges block your path, usually rewarding you with experience points, upgrades for the Majin or new equipment for Tepeu. As you acquire new skills for the Majin, like fire or lightning, these challenges open up and there are many puzzles that you simply won't be able to solve until you've maxed out your companion.

You can use the Majin to get to higher platforms

These puzzles range from Tomb Raider style platforming to unlock lever-bound doors, to rotating platforms in order to reach vital fruit from the Majin, to using a catapult to fling yourself into far off platforms. None of these are particularly taxing but some will leave you mystified until you think about them logically. Where other games might give you hints and tips in the form of dialogue, Majin is much more subtle and the lack of hand-holding is refreshing in a modern world full of quest markers and breadcrumb trails.

The RPG aspects consist of clothing upgrades for Tepeu which add small bonuses to your stamina or strength. Skill upgrades for the Majin are acquired by finding the large fruit, usually well-guarded or hidden behind tough challenges, and both characters level up as you collect red and blue orbs in combat.

It's a simple system that fits into the nature of the game. None of the individual pieces are particularly deep but they come together to form a compelling whole. I was struck with how badly I wanted to max out both the characters and uncover every treasure in the game - helped mainly by the map screen showing all the secrets you've yet to retrieve.

This, along with other small touches like the amount of black sticky darkness that envelopes Tepeu as your life bar depletes, or how the amount of foliage on Majin's back increases as he gets stronger add to the experience. Unfortunately they also highlight the flaws and the graphical oddities Majin has - the rough pixelated foliage, grainy light effects - and the awkward platforming adversely affect the overall experience. Missing a jump and falling into a group of deadly enemies happens far too often and can easily set your progress back by half an hour or more.

The level design also doesn't help the backtracking aspect of the game. Even with a teleport system that allows you to warp to multiple locations on the map when in a special room, it still felt like a slog to walk to previous locations. There's no indication on the map to where the previous puzzles are and going back to those levels to complete your upgrades can lead to hours wandering around enemy-infested areas without success.

With all these issues it might seem that Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom isn't as compelling as the score might suggest. But as irritating as the platforming can be and as tedious as I found the backtracking, the game still managed to pull me into its world and tell a charming tale.

Only the Majin can defeat these skanky, oily beasts permanently

The relationship you build with the Majin, although awkward at first, becomes deeper as the trust level between the two characters grows. The verdant environments and the subtle and restrained use of the story-book scenes help to build this vision of a ruined and threatened world to the point where I could see similarities between Majin and ICO. Not only because the developers consist of former Team ICO members but also because the feel of this game, the melancholy atmosphere and forlorn story brought back those memories.

Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom may lack the polish required to elevate it to triple-A status but its sense of adventure and exploration remain strong. The journey of both characters and the relationship, in terms of gameplay and story, make this into a very compelling experience and one that shouldn't be overlooked.

Top Game Moment: The short picture book scenes after each boss battle - very charming.