It’s my opinion, and I’m sure I am not alone in this, that Atlus has quietly become one of the more revolutionary game development companies on the planet. Their library of RPGs, from Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, to the wildly popular Persona series have injected some much-needed life into a genre that was stale, due to SquareEnix watering down the medium with each lacking Final Fantasy title/spinoff/rehash after another, feeling they were the standard of what RPGs should be. Whereas Atlus games won’t blow you away with fantastic visuals that push the powers of the console’s processor, their deep, complex stories, unique gameplay, and well-written characters will captivate you. There is a madness to Atlus’ method, as with most games they have produced are branded with a certain degree of lunacy. Some of their games dabble in areas that other developing companies stray away from (revisionist history involving Nazis, twisted tales of the occult). They even have a Pokemon-style monster hunter game where the kids are legitimately twisted!! This time around, I decided to track down one of their older titles, Maken X, to see just how far back the insanity goes. Lesson learned; I’ve got to stop underestimating the balls of this company.
Well, right off the bat, the game wastes no time in throwing you into its bizarre atmosphere. This is Maken, a sentient, artificial life form created by (who else?) scientists to use as a weapon. Maken is the main character you control and through the use of a technique called Brainjacking, you can possess a warrior or person of your choosing, and take command of that person’s body. Kay Sagami, the central character whom Maken’s mind is joined with, acts as a vessel, and is the sword’s only insight into humanity. Kay’s father, the lead scientist responsible for the creation of Maken, has been taken by sinister monsters known as Hakke and it is up to you to bring rescue his soul from certain doom, as well as stopping a psycho cult from world domination.
VISUALS & ANIMATION 7/10: The game’s fluid animation is probably the strongest plus from a presentation point of view. It moves pretty smoothly, but every so often when the screen gets cluttered with action, it experiences some slowdown. The enemies all look like incredibly bizarre humanoids and they move around like such, which another tip of the hat I give to Atlus. Their creature designs are the stuff of nightmares. Most of them with obscure faces and mangled appendages, completely void of any kind of reason or understanding. Atlus’ bestiary is like what would happen if Silent Hill and H.P. Lovecraft co-designed a Monster Manual!!
The layouts are remarkably polished for the most part, utilizing a real-time 3D environment. There is a degree of detail missing, as some of the textures in stages can be kind of muddy and disorienting, which really hurts for some stages that have branching paths to access certain forks in the story, depending on which path you choose. You are never really sure the first time playing through a stage that you missed a secret door because they are never particularly indicated that they can open, so I often found myself butting into walls, seeing which doors opened or not.
The character models are not really that impressive and don’t push the power of the Dreamcast to any real limits. Lip synching is pretty bad as entire lines of dialogue will be spoken before a character’s mouth will move during cut scenes. Most games were still getting the grasp of this at the time, but Shenmue was out around the same time as this game and did a much better job at both model animation and synching.
SOUND 3.5: The voice acting is brutal. This was the dark ages of VA in video games, where they either got the ADR’s son and his friends who all took a non-credit course in stage acting at a community college to do the voices in Brave Fencer Musashi or Ocean Group’s C list of talent to do the job, I guess the only way Dick Smallberries could get work. Maken X boasts some pretty forgettable tunes that sound like a Casio is having a seizure. The soundtrack throughout the gameplay sounds like it’s composed of mostly bridges and wavering keytones, it’s that hard to tell when the music loops.
GAMEPLAY 7.5/10: Maken X’s overall strength. It does feel weird playing a first person action title without a second analog stick, and it took quite a while for me to get used to it. Thankfully, the game can be a bit merciful in this regard, since Maken isn’t really all about high-octane action and precision is not particularly as important as in most FPAs today. Once you get pass the intial awkwardness of the controller’s scheme, the simplicity of the controls are basic, yet they give you the prime tools needed. So as long as you find the easiest way to close the gap between you and the enemy, you’ll fare fine. You defend by pressing back, and you can immediately attack with a devastating counterstrike that does massive damage. With a locked on enemy, you can move in close and leap over your opponent and attack them from the back for critical damage. Learning and mastering these two skills along with hopping around your target like an angry hornet are keys to survival and even the toughest bosses will fall quickly. You have a charge attack that unleashes the character’s special skill, but I don’t know why in a game where you are gonna get hit a lot would use an attack that drains your own health. Target lock-on gets interrupted easily if the camera or your POV sways too fast as a result of an enemy closing the gap too fast. This kind of sucks, as the baddie you were working on can flee briefly and you wind up playing cat and mouse.
Brainjacking, as previously mentioned, allows you to take control of a different person, sometimes for storyline reasons, to aid you in your quest. Early on, you hijack the mind of a pilot to land a plane to your next destination, but since he’s not a warrior, he’s slow, weak and takes lots of damage. Strengths and weakness vary, as the number of people you brainjack increases. Tougher missions require stronger fighters if you follow the Blademasters storyline. Throughout the stages are Yinyang icons that level up your rank, allowing you to brainjack higher leveled characters. I am a little disappointed that you can’t customize the attributes of a particular character that you may fancy, which is what I was expecting at first. As the game progresses, depending on which arc you follow, you will mostly wind up with a roster of lower level characters that will become useless in later stages, since they will be too weak to contribute, that is, unless you get really good at it. From a control standpoint, it’s a pretty effective play. Nowadays, when every button does something in a FPA, like using subweapons, sidearms, a melee button, a crouch button, a pick your nose button, and an Add Bacon button (I’m sure they are working on that), less can be more.
DIFFICULTY 7.5/10: Depending on which direction you want to go with the story, Maken X can be a respectable challenge. That goes without saying that there not some issues in regards with some cheesy kills in this game. Most enemies will surround you with projectile launchers and can have a blast picking you apart while nimble, close-range foot soldiers keep you occupied. I think you can swat them away with a well-time strike, but I have never mastered this and have not practiced it consistently. Stages aren’t too long and can be straightforward, but there are no checkpoints of any kind. You die once, and it is back to the beginning. The game can be pretty stingy with health power ups and most of the ones you find barely replenish what you lose in a skirmish.
Surprisingly, I found most of the bosses to be pretty easy, with the exception of the Blademasters. Some of those fights can get pretty nasty. Getting the hang of making your way around some of the tougher opponents, like these terrifying iron maidens that can only be hit from behind, will aid greatly. Most fights in locked rooms will have you endure a battle with up to several waves of enemies and the damage can be taxing. Try to fend yourself with speed and guile, because brute strength will only hurt in the long run.
IN CLOSING: What Maken X lacks in customizability and dated mechanics, it makes up for in solid controls and high replay value to unlock various story branches and options. Certain bridges and paths are a bit ambiguous and it’s up to you to remember clues in dialogue to find out where to go, which can get annoying with constant backtracking. As a complete package, this game is a very bold, yet slightly flawed, effort to make a very unique gameplay experience. FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
PROS: Solid controls, flexible story format, wicked creature designs, High replay value
CONS: Constant backtracking, spotty target-locking, no checkpoints, goofy voice acting