Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom review: The buddy system

If the phrase "escort mission" tickles your gag reflex, then you'd be forgiven for overlooking Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom. After all, this is a game that promises nothing but hours and hours of adventures with a largely computer-controlled sidekick. You wouldn't even be swayed if somebody told you that your partner obeys your commands. You've been down this road before, and you know it ends in a ditch.

But this Majin fella, he's not so useless, in fact, you wouldn't last an hour in the dangerous ruins of this ancient civilization without his help. He's a bodyguard, a medic, and a handyman. He even carries out your orders as you intended them! You may start to wonder: who is escorting whom, exactly?
Certainly, the Majin depends on the player for almost everything. His brutish exterior belies a gentle heart and a childlike personality. One minute, he'll level a horde of foes with one swipe of his redwood-like arms; the next, he'll trip over his own feet. With a goofy, Muppet-like voice, he no talk in complete sentences or use right grammar, but he's always quick to praise the player, and himself. ("We did great!" is a common refrain.) Driven by primal impulses like hunger and fear, the Majin is incapable of independent thought, but great at following orders -- especially if a treat is involved.

And so, much of the game centers on the question: How can you use the Majin's considerable physical gifts to navigate a treacherous environment? A sprawling map screen is broken into dozens of arenas, each laid out as a spatial puzzle. Finding the exit, not to mention oodles of hidden goodies, requires a two-pronged approach. The hero can scout each area by sneaking through tight spaces and climbing to high places. From there, it's a matter of ordering the Majin to manipulate the game world.

All this is accomplished by an intuitive and dependable interface. To direct the Majin, you pull the right trigger to bring up a command menu. Three of the commands -- follow, wait and feed -- work the same way every time. The fourth is context-sensitive. If the camera is facing an enemy, the Majin will attack. If it's facing an interactive object, he will use the appropriate power, whether that means lifting a heavy door or jumpstarting a generator with a blast of lightning.

Controlling the hero's movements is dicier. The environment looks like the sort of free-running sandbox you find in Assassin's Creed or Prince of Persia, but the Prince of Persia this guy ain't. Moving him around is clunky in the best of circumstances; his parkour skills begin and end with grabbing onto the occasional ledge. (And get this: pressing the jump button when he's hanging on a ledge causes him to drop, not climb up. Good luck not making that mistake a hundred million times.) The hero's lack of dexterity can be frustrating, but it's intentional: he needs the Majin just as much as the Majin needs him.

The puzzles stay fresh, while the fighting feels stale from the start.

This is especially true in combat. The hero's moveset is limited, with a three-button hit combo, a thrust attack that can knock some enemies off their feet, and an unreliable dodge move. Worse, the camera wobbles around the action like a drunk freshman at the homecoming dance, often coming to rest behind a piece of the landscape. Even though you can lock onto enemies, it doesn't fix the camera problems, and it requires holding two trigger buttons, which never feels natural no matter how many times you do it.

Though it's the Majin's job to carry the load during fights, he's less reliable here than in the platforming sections. He'll attack enemies of his own volition, even if you're trying to call him away. You can command him to use specific powers against certain opponents, but the order will be canceled if he gets hit, which he almost always will be. Worst of all, he has a habit of preventing you from participating in the action by getting in between you and your target. It leaves you feeling like Bill Simmons' "third man in the porn scene" -- you just have to keep yourself occupied until you find an opening.

Frankly, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom might have been better off with no combat at all. In about 15 hours of playtime, the puzzles stay fresh, while the fighting feels stale from the start. The lackluster elements obscure the game's real achievement, which is to create a buddy system that really works. The Majin is a big goof, but he'll risk hellfire to save your bacon and ask only for a piece of fruit in return. Before it's over, darn it all, you just might find yourself caring for the big lunk. How many games can pull that off?

This review is based on the PS3 review copy of Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom provided by Namco Bandai.

Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston, MA. His work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Paste magazine,, and Kill Screen, as well as in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. He scribbles occasionally at his blog,
Insult Swordfighting.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.