The name Atlus is often associated with all things freaky, from its unique RPG series, Megami Tensei (known in the US as Persona), to games like Torico and even strategy games like Kartia. What it is not known for is its first-person shooters. But that hasn't stopped the company from trying. While it hasn't exactly created a first-person shooter, it has put together a tidy little first-person hacker known as Maken X. Sharing the name of the evil sword on which this game is centered, Maken X thrusts you into a completely bizarre world through which you battle via a diverse cast of characters, whom you possess via a process called the "brain jack." Brain jacking is exactly what it sounds like. A hijack, a carjack, a brain jack. Between levels, you meet various characters in cinematics scripted with the game's graphics engine. You can opt to brain-jack these characters, and should you do so, you can use their specific abilities in the levels that follow. For example, one early character you can brain-jack is actually pretty weak, but he has a stun club that immobilizes your enemies for a moment, allowing you time to smack 'em around. Another brain-jackee has the ability to shoot knives from his tongue for a handy long-distance attack.
Control consists of strafing controls, lock-on functions, and a charge-up attack. You can also jump and duck, and while there are some platform elements, they are not too frustrating to complete. Your game experience, minus the cinemas, usually consists of navigating hallways and slashing whomever attacks you. It's pretty standard, except that the enemies all have fairly different attacks, meaning your approach to each one had better be different, or you'll be pushing up daisies in no time. Something you won't find in Quake III or Unreal Tournament any time soon is the "jump over your opponent and slash him in the back of his head" move. Once you get this little move down, you'll save yourself a lot of agony.While control is generally efficient, it can sometimes be troublesome when you find yourself surrounded by enemies. The problem is that people used to the usual mouse/keyboard combo will find the DC controller inappropriate for games like this. The biggest problem is when you want to back up and pivot at the same time, something that is impossible with the analog controller alone. Instead, you'll turn around and then back up, or vice versa. Either way, it's less intuitive than some would like, and that's a shame, because it keeps Maken X from being as exciting as it could have been. It's a significant point, but not one that ruins the game by any means. On the contrary, this game is a very unique and rich experience that gets more interesting every time you play it through with different characters, which results in different endings. While Koji Okada's first Dreamcast project has been in development for what seems like years, it is rare that a first-time genre attempted on first-time hardware so very nearly gets everything right.
The graphics in Maken X are, for lack of a better word, awesome. Running at a rock-steady 60fps, this Windows-free game engine is an absolute wonder. Developed by the same team that had developed the strictly 2D Persona, it is a technological beast that renders high-resolution environments with high-polygon-count characters, without a glitch in the action. Sword swinging is fast and furious, as Maken X assumes different forms, depending on the character who has been brain jacked. Each defeated enemy leaves behind an ampule, which, when you pick it up, enhances your stats in a light RPG sort of way. The enemies are all well designed by the character designer who worked on RPGs like Persona, Devil Summoner and Soul Hackers. Creatures beyond description stalk the hallways and make life generally difficult for you, while the light puzzle elements add a touch of thinking to the proceedings.
Maken X makes a great addition to an already strong library. It's not every day that a game as unique as this one comes along. A solid game in its own right, Maken X gives you the impression that great, great things could happen in a sequel, if its designers really put their minds to it. As it stands, the game is definitely worth checking out.