I got your Daikatana right here, bitch. - Review By BenT
Let's be honest here. If you have any sort of background in PC-based first person shooters, you probably scoff at the possibility of a good console FPS. "Goldeneye? Silly trash for people who've never played Quake. Dreamcast Half-Life? How will you access the console, or play CounterStrike? Turok? I heard there were dinosaurs in that, but I couldn't see them through the fog.." etc. etc. And I assure you I thought of the same things when it came time to play Maken X. Sure, the buzz from the import was good, but could a grizzled Quaker like myself actually accept the lack of mouselook, configurability, and expandability that comes with a console FPS? Yes, actually - for what it is, a single player adventure, Maken X works just fine. Let's check our preconceived notions at the door, because Maken X is nothing if not unique, and really deserves a chance.
Atlus created the game, and this might be apparent to anyone who's had experience with their Megami Tensei (aka Megaten) series. If you've never heard of it before, the Megaten games are a loose collection of titles spread across many consoles that have one thing in common: they have demons, and lots of them. The only Megaten game to make it to the States thus far is Persona on the Playstation, and the similarities between it and Maken X are apparent. To the best of my knowledge Maken X is not considered part of the Megaten series, but it might as well be. It's easy to see that its character designs, art style, moody theme, and occasionally brooding music are descendants of that earlier game, even if there's no officially sanctioned link.
As you might expect of a game with this lineage, the story is rather unique. Kei Sagami is the daughter of noted researcher Dr. Sagami, who is creating a creature called Maken. The lab technicians helping him believe Maken is to be a new tool for advanced psychological treatment, but in reality it's another thing entirely - a self-aware weapon with the power to absorb human PSI, which basically amounts to a soul. Maken can only be wielded by people with a certain gene, and it turns out Kei has the DNA in question. Shortly after Maken is activated, an assassin breaks into the lab and kidnaps Dr. Sagami. Kei barely escapes with her life, but does the only thing any self-respecting video game heroine would do - she grabs the Maken sword and rushes off to rescue her father. Unfortunately, in doing so she becomes permanently bonded with the sword, as it absorbs her PSI. From this point on Maken is in control of her body, and she's just along for the ride as it rushes after the assailant. As soon as it catches and defeats him, a startling thing happens: Maken absorbs the PSI of the assassin, and takes over his body. This is known as brainjacking, and is Maken's most useful ability. But what is its motivation? That's up to you, the player, as various points in the game let you decide what to do in response to moral dilemmas or enemy ultimatims. Maken could respect Kei's wishes and try to save Dr. Sagami, try to find a way to extract and save Kei's slowly decaying PSI, prevent World War III, or even join with the enemy to dominate the world. It's up to you.
The first thing you'll notice about the game is that the framerate is outstanding, maintaining a solid 60 frames per second (fps) throughout. There are occasional moments of slowdown, but this is only when certain combinations of enemies appear, and is quite infrequent. The world geometry by itself never causes a single bit of slowdown, which is commendable. This is in contrast to something like the Quake engine, which tends to drop frames when showing complex architecture and wide-open areas. The designers at Atlus clearly knew the limits of both their engine and the Dreamcast, and designed the maps accordingly. While this results in a number of areas that could clearly use more polys, the consistant framerate is well worth that relatively small niggle.
Maken X's targetting and combat systems rock. Here I'm locked on to the big guy with the butcher knife - his health is represented by the red circle.
Almost everything else concerning the graphics is fine as well. In-game character models have a decent number of polys, and their skins are wonderfully detailed. This is fortunate, because many of the character designs they're based on are just awesome. It's not often one sees such a streak of bizarre originality in a video game's characters, much less in a first person shooter of all things. They're here, though, and you'll have to see them to believe 'em. Thankfully the game engine does the characters justice, as they translate surprisingly well to 3D, animate fluidly,
and just tend to look good all around. Special effects are used sparsely but effectively. Enemies have gleaming metal blades, colored fog gives scenes ambience, and the lights and signs of Hong Kong are reflected in puddles on its murky, wet streets. In short, Maken X is a fine graphical package, excepting a few minor points which we'll touch on later.
The character designs exude originality and style in equal parts.
The aural component compliments the visuals with fitting tunes and appropriate sound effects. The in-game music tends to be fast-paced electric guitar and techno variations, and does a fine job of maintaining the atmosphere. In the story scenes the music tends to be more mellow, minimalist, and even dreary, focusing on a mournful piano and ethereal voices. This instantly reminded me of Persona, as mentioned above, and definitely serves to set the dark tone of the game's storyline. Sound effects are similarly on the mark, with various sword slashes, blade clangs, and the usual character-specific grunts and groans. They're supposedly taking advantage of some 3D audio scheme, but to my ears it sounded no different than other Dreamcast games.
Finally, the interesting part - gameplay. This is where Maken X shines. While I previously referred to the game as a first person shooter, first person slasher would definitely be a more fitting classification. Almost all of your fighting in Maken X will be done up-close, and that's not nearly as bad as it may sound. Thanks to a clever fighting system and good controls, Atlus has done the impossible: they've made melee combat fun. This is done through an amazingly useful targetting system, similar to the "Z-Targetting" featured in Zelda 64. While you can tweak the specific mechanics in the options screen, I found the
easiest method to involve the R-Trigger. Simply point at the enemy, hold R, and you're suddenly circle strafing around them and dancing in and out, just as you would in any "real" FPS on the PC. You are, in effect, orbiting the enemy, and this is the main way you attack. While targetted, pressing a direction with B causes a swift dodge. Forward plus B makes you leap over the enemy, presenting their back to you for some deadly critical hits. This is instrumental to defeating certain enemies, who have impervious defenses up front. Finally, holding down on the stick puts you in block mode, so you'll parry most attacks the enemy can dish out. Pressing the attack button right after a block brings out a lunging strike, which also tends to do high damage. Finally, holding down the attack button charges your character's special attack, which is most often a projectile of some sort. Releasing the button fires the attack, and saps a certain amount of life in the process.
Combat. The freak in rollerblades is about to get sliced.
Got all that? It may make for a wordy paragraph, but in practice the controls are like butter - yellow and delicious. Wait, I'm sorry. I meant they work really well. I can honestly say that this game is made for a control pad. Using a mouse would be helpful in basic navigation and looking about, but in combat? I'll take the pad. The bottom line is that the control setup rocks, and offers an interesting sort of wake-up call to PC veterans like myself. You won't find me playing UT with a MS Sidewinder anytime soon, but it shows that it is quite possible for a specially-designed FPS to play better with a pad than with a mouse. Interesting little tidbit for all you game design freaks out there.
After the controls are sorted out, gameplay falls into more standard FPS patterns. The levels in Maken X, while rather well-designed, are really very linear, so it's not so much a matter of finding keys as it is surviving the guantlet that is each level. Along the way there's the normal switches and doors and such, but the most common gameplay device used in Maken X is "defeat all enemies". Periodically you'll enter an area where the door closes behind you, enemies appear from nowhere, and the game says "You must defeat all enemies to proceed". Do so, and everything opens up again. Now there's videogame logic for ya.
That ugly little thing is Maken. Watch out, it bites.
As mentioned earlier, the outcome of the storyline of Maken X is up to you. You're presented with choices every so often - do you help this NPC's cause, or continue Kei's quest? Do you brainjack this defeated boss, or remain in your current body? Your choices in these situations affect what levels become accessible on the world map, so each game can be a different experience to a degree. There are a total of seven endings, of which I've seen four thus far. My first game I decided to be evil Maken, so I was a complete bastard to everyone (kind of like in real life, really..) and let Kei die, causing me to end up joining the bad guys. That took four hours to complete, but was actually much shorter in terms of levels than the "good" paths. (The extra time was spent learning the game and dying a lot.) I've completed three "good" paths since then, which the game thinks took me four hours each. In actuality, it took much less, since the decisions that affect those endings happen late in the quest. I merely kept a saved game at the branch point so I could explore each possibility, instead of starting a new quest each time from scratch.
The absolute worst part of Maken X is the voice acting. We're talking C grade voice talent here, at best. It's almost laughable when they try to add emotion to their lines - I especially liked the supposedly sarcastic scientist. Heh. It doesn't help that there are often short pauses between different people speaking, which throws off any flow the conversation might have had, and just sounds odd. As the game went on, I became accustomed to the voices, and even came to enjoy them in a cheesy sort of way. But writing this review, there's no question in my mind that they belong under The Bad, because they are bad.
Athens is pleasant in the summertime.
The game's main graphical shortcoming is the lack of detail in the textures. They're alright, but Maken X's textures aren't as realistic or vivid as those seen in the best Dreamcast titles. (Character skins are great, though.) I found this kind of surprising, because designers will generally use detailed textures to make up for a lack of detail in low poly environments, of which this game has plenty. Perhaps this decision was to help keep the framerate stable? I couldn't say. There's one more annoyance in the area of graphics - texture flashing. When you get really close to certain textures, they flash quite visibly. I've noticed this in several
other Dreamcast games (most recently, Rayman 2), so I'm guessing this is a trait of the Dreamcast's PowerVR2 chipset. A minor annoyance. Finally, the rain effect is rather uninspired, expecially at the point when a drop hits the ground. The little sprite that pops up looks lame. Yeah, I'm really nitpicking, but that's my job, right?
The engine handles indoor and outdoor scenes equally well. Oh, and the character I'm playing here is a patriotic robot. Really.
I feel I should mention that the American version of this game has been somewhat censored, in that a number of swastikas have been removed from enemies and the environments. The replacement? An Asian (Japanese? Chinese?) character. Lame. Look, it's not like I want to see the terrible deeds of the Nazis glorified in a game, but the fact remains that Sega has altered the original artistic vision of the game's creators. I would have felt the story somewhat somewhat more compelling if I had known I was fighting Nazis, instead of some formless, faceless organization called "Geist". This is a small matter, but worth pointing out.
Finally, the game is rather short. As I mentioned above, it doesn't even take me four hours to play a fairly complete quest, visiting most of the game's locations and collecting most of the characters. Sure, there are seven endings to go for, but even then it would only take 15 hours (at most) to figure them all out. While it can be fun to just mess around in a level, the shortness of the main storyline is something that should be considered. While I had fun along the way, in the end I was left wanting a good bit more. Another annoyance along these lines is that after beating the game, you can't save and start a fresh quest using the same file. It would be nice if you could "collect" all seven endings in one savegame, sort of like you could in the Saturn's Dark Savior. Having a cool secret unlock after all seven endings were collected would have been a great incentive for further replay.
The Final Word
Maken X is a real treat for Dreamcast owners looking for something different. The unique combat system is executed flawlessly, and makes for some surprisingly entertaining gameplay. The title does feel a bit too short, but in the end Maken X is an innovative title that all fans of first person shooters and action should check out.
Developer: Atlus R&D1
Genre: Action (FPS)
Highs: Good graphics, great control system, superb character designs, smooth framerate, good music.
Lows: Terrible voice acting, minor graphic flaws, generally short in length.
Other: 1 player, VMU Compatible (10 blocks), VGA Box Compatible, Jump Pack Compatible.
(out of a possible 10)
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