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Max: Curse of Brotherhood Preview: Marker of success

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Posted by: Joe Donato

The recipe for a successful indie platformer is simple: start with an innocent boy, throw him into a dark, alien world full of danger, and tie it all together with some kind of puzzle mechanic. Max: Curse of Brotherhood doesn’t stray far from that formula, making it easy to lose this game in the crowd. Based on some hands-on time with the game, though, I’d say passing on Max might be a mistake.

Developed by Press Play in Denmark, the game is a reimagining of one of their previous titles, Max and the Magic Marker. In that game, players controlled Max through a straightforward platformer adventure where they could create platforms and other objects by drawing them with a magic marker. Max: Curse of Brotherhood continues the magic marker concept, but frames it in a more ambitious adventure.

The game opens with Max wishing for his brother Felix to disappear. He quickly gets his wish, as Felix is sucked into another world through a strange portal. Max has no choice but to follow, and your adventure begins.

Max: Curse of Brotherhood

This strange place, which Lead Designer Mikkel Martin Pederson told me took inspiration from Another World and Heart of Darkness, looks great on Xbox One. The game uses a 2.5D perspective with sharp, colorful graphics reminiscent of a CG animated film. On the Xbox One, the game hits all the markers you’d hope for -- 1080p, 60fps -- and while that version will be arriving before the 360 version, Press Play hopes to bring as many of the improvements they made developing on Xbox One over to the 360 version as possible.

As Max, you can move left, right, and jump. He’ll grab onto edges or climb ropes in a way reminiscent of Limbo, with a bit of momentum to it. Shortly after some intro platforming, Max gets his marker powers. These powers allow him to create and erase elements in the environment at specific points. At the outset this means raising platforms out of the ground to reach higher points in the environment. To get past an enemy, I had to let them walk onto a platform and then erase it out from under them.

The marker controls are simple and intuitive, allowing you to bring up the marker with the right trigger and then draw with the A button or erase with the X button. Part of the beauty of Max is how straightforward the controls are and how that allows you to focus on the puzzles at hand.

Max: Curse of Brotherhood

In a later area of the game, Max gains the ability to create vines, branches, and water geysers. All of these objects respond using a physics engine rather than scripted behavior. The result is a lot of subtle freedom with each player’s approach to a puzzle. One player may draw a branch differently and get a different result, or solve a puzzle in a different way entirely. That freedom provides a satisfying sense of agency over the problem-solving, even if a puzzle is designed with a specific solution in mind.

Combining powers allows for some really interesting behavior. In one instance I had to create a branch. attach a vine to it, and then snap the branch so that it would swing across a gap. Later puzzles take this even further, with a satisfying degree of challenge and complexity as the game goes on.

Studio director Mikkel Thorsted told me they expect players to get 6-8 hours out of the full adventure, with even more time if they aim for collectibles and achievements. From my time with the game, it seemed that collectibles rewarded players who take each puzzle solution one layer further, which made it feel like more than a filler fetch quest. Even if the final game is closer to the typical 3-5 hours that these sort of indie adventures tend to clock in at, it looks like there will be some solid brain teasing puzzles toward the latter half of the game.

Max: Curse of Brotherhood

If Max has a secret sauce to it beyond the marker mechanic, it’s the momentum of the puzzle design. Everything has a sense of urgency, whether it’s because platforms are collapsing, you’re drifting down a river, or you’re pushing a giant ball through the environment. That doesn’t mean you’ll be forced to think on your toes -- you usually have a free moment to prep an area and then jump into danger. The physics, combined with the Rube Goldberg puzzle design, and the high quality 2.5D graphics reminded me of a more adventure-y Trials Evolution. It’s an odd comparison, but it’s surprisingly accurate in practice.

If Max: Curse of Brotherhood came along during the last couple years and launched on Xbox 360 as originally planned, I’d be more worried about it getting lost in the crowd. As a game coming to Xbox One, where players are starved for games to play, Max should find an audience. It might be a bit generic-looking on paper, but it’s shaping up to be a polished, smart puzzle-platformer worth looking out for.

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