Not too terribly long ago, I reviewed a fairly high-profile cooperative game released by Namco Bandai: "Enslaved: Odyssey to the West," the story of two strangers forced to work together to survive in a post-apocalyptic America.
For the most part, I liked it, but I felt the developers never really developed the characters as a team. Too much of the game felt like the journey of one character, Monkey, with his companion playing only a peripheral role.
So I find it somewhat odd that another single-player game by the same publisher -- and a relatively unheralded game at that -- does a much better job in making its characters operate as a team. So even though it doesn't have quite the same level of production values as "Enslaved" -- no motion-captured Andy "Gollum" Serkis, for one thing -- I somehow find "Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom" more satisfying to play.
Part of it has to be that I find it easier to connect with my avatar in the game, a young thief eventually named Tepeu. He's not an unbeatable warrior. He's not incredibly agile. And he's only somewhat sneaky. Really, he'd be pretty unremarkable if not for his ability to speak with animals.
It's that ability that's gotten him into trouble here, as the animals have persuaded him to journey into the ruins of a kingdom destroyed by dark forces 100 years before. They hope he can find a legendary monster, the Majin, said to have the power to destroy the blight ruining the land.
Sure enough, Tepeu easily finds the creature -- a strange amalgamation of plant and animal named Teotl -- but 100 years of captivity have robbed it of much of its power, which is now trapped in plants strewn about the kingdom. I think you can guess what comes next: Tepeu and Teotl must wander the ruined land in order to rebuild Teotl's power, despite the undying darkness that stands in their way.
I suppose I should describe Teotl a little clearer. Imagine the lead monster from "Where the Wild Things Are," size and all, except he's almost wood-colored and has plants sprouting from parts of his body, especially his back. And when he speaks, he sounds a lot like the Easter Island head from the "Night at the Museum" movies.
He's also the real powerhouse on your team, able to throw most enemies around with dispatch or stun them with a roar, and he's the only being that can finish them off permanently. But he's also largely out of your control. You can give him some vague orders -- attack that guy, use that power, trigger that object in the environment -- but in a fight he's not always able to respond the way you want him to.
Meanwhile, as Tepeu, you're probably embroiled in battle too. Or at least you should be. Teotl isn't all powerful, and he really will need you to watch his back. But you're not really in his league as a fighter, and a few hits can take you out in a hurry. So even though you've got a sword-like rod to swing at enemies and a sweet dodge move, your real job in a fight is to deliver the coup de grace to foes your friend has softened up.
Combat, however, is only a part of the game-play in "Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom." Exploration and puzzle-solving also have big roles here. And the developers have down a good job forcing you to utilize both characters for this purpose.
Sometimes that's simple. For instance, you often will have Teotl crouch down somewhere to give Tepeu a literal lift. Other times, you'll run into a complex situation that will tax your brain as surely as a classic river-crossing puzzle can.
And from time to time, you'll be propelled into boss battles that will draw on both your combat and puzzle-solving skills. Each one you get into is pretty plainly designed around a power you'll have just obtained, yet what you have to do won't always be so immediately obvious, which is nice. And somehow, between the action involved and the character designs, they develop something of a "Zelda" feel for me, which can only be seen as a compliment.
Really, I don't have much to complain about with "Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom." OK, yes, the story is pretty generic heroic fodder, similar to that in a ton of other games, especially the recent "Prince of Persia" reboot. But while that disappoints me, it doesn't cancel out the fact that I enjoyed the game-play.
"Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Namco Bandai.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: I'd classify this as hidden little gem worth renting at the very least, and not at all a bad buy given the price.
Images courtesy of Namco Bandai
First image: The monster Teotl and his friend Tepeu take a break for some conversation.
Second image: Teotl give a dark warrior the boot.