Much like the parade of creatures feasted upon by the eponymous hero of this game, The Maw managed to sneak up on me from out of nowhere and won me over with its charm and simplistic but entertaining gameplay. With presentation and style to match most full-priced retail Xbox 360 games, the title really stands out on the Xbox Live Arcade catalog, but is it simply style over substance?
This brightly colored platformer tells the story of Frank and The Maw. Frank is a generic blue human-like alien imprisoned against his will by some equally generic alien overlords, and The Maw is a gelatinous purple blob with one bulbous eye sitting precariously on top. When the prison ship crashes on a planet, Frank gets to lead around The Maw on his hunt to escape. At first, a gelatinous purple blob is about as useful as you'd expect a gelatinous purple blob to be — which is to say, not very … until The Maw eats his first cute and cuddly alien.
It takes all of 10 seconds for Frank to get over his initial horror and begin to use The Maw's gluttonous tendencies to his advantage. With every creature The Maw eats, he gets bigger, allowing him to complete puzzles and move on to the next section. In addition to this, some of the creatures grant The Maw special powers — the ability to flame everything in the vicinity, to shoot lasers or to fire electric pulses — which help with certain puzzles and give him a charming new skin tone for the remainder of the level.
These levels all take on a similar theme, too. You will need to solve a puzzle or two to get to where you need to be (some places can leave you confused for a surprisingly long time, given the game's natural limitations on interaction), and will need to feed your pet up to be a certain size to progress. In addition to getting an achievement for eating every creature on the level (a tally of which can be toggled by pressing in the right bumper), there is a bonus hidden snuffle (a slug-like creature) to eat, which gives the game a little more longevity. Aside from this brief stint at attempted collecting and being a puzzle title, the main meat of the game is as a platformer, seeing you hop around the map with The Maw eating everything in sight. This process would probably get mightily repetitive, were it not for the shortness of the levels. For the most part, it seems impossible for either The Maw or Frank to meet their alien maker, except oddly on the last level. In some respects, it's refreshing to play a game that isn't artificially lengthened by the need to reload and try again, even if Fable 2 got there first.
What keeps you going, though, is less the gameplay and more the adorable presentation. The cartoon visuals are bright and fun, with all of the aliens being beautifully detailed and delightful to look at. They're also bursting with personality, and it's a credit to the graphic artists involved that so many emotions can be put onto something that is essentially a purple blob. Throughout the game, The Maw will look embarrassed, proud and terrified and each of these emotions is accompanied by suitably monster-like sound effects. Frank, while less memorable, also offers a certain charm. When The Maw is out of reach, he will be left calling for his friend in a sound bite that will be etched on your memory to the end. The backdrops are considerably less detailed and textures are often repeated, but it doesn't seem to matter somehow because all eyes are drawn toward the protagonists and a whole zoo's worth of snacks eaten as the game progresses. The music takes the right approach of being pleasant enough, but not distracting; most people would be hard-pressed to be able to hum any of the tunes after shutting down the game.
Despite the unreserved praise gushing from the prose thus far, The Maw is still a tricky beast to recommend in one key respect — the final shutting down happens a little quickly by modern gaming standards. With no multiplayer and little replayability value, once all of the collectables have been found and Achievements unlocked, you can easily be finished with The Maw within a few hours. To give you an idea of just how short the game is, the current demo on Live is about one-eighth of the game, and that can be ploughed through in about 20 minutes for most gamers. Therefore, 800 Microsoft points begins to feel a little steep when you consider other lengthier games that have been released at that price point. The news is that the developers are planning on releasing three "deleted scenes" (a fancy term for additional levels left out of the full game) for 100 points each. That should make the game length a little easier to swallow, but it also pushes up the price to 1,100 points, which is 100 points short of lengthy arcade originals like Puzzle Quest and Castle Crashers.
In a gaming age where titles like Fallout 3, Far Cry 2 and GTA IV are doing their level best to push the average length of games to well above the 30-hour mark, it's refreshing to have an original, charming and memorable game that can be polished off in a relaxing few hours, without the fear of redoing huge sections or having to perform gamepad miracles. Around the length of a longish feature film, The Maw never outstays its welcome and leaves the audience wanting more, and isn't that what every entertainment medium should strive for, especially with lucrative DLC on the way?
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