Sometimes being pretty matters when you're a video game, and Max: The Curse of Brotherhood demonstrates that point perfectly. It's a typical platformer, competent but largely unremarkable. Basic running and jumping sequences are supplemented by interesting puzzles and an unsurprising slew of collectibles, but none of it ever comes together in a way that makes a truly favorable impression. Until, that is, you stop to admire the gorgeous visuals. Suddenly, everything disappointing starts to feel a little better, and the good moments are that much more uplifting.
The basic premise, as revealed in attractive cutscenes featuring voice work that thankfully manages to avoid ever feeling obnoxious, is as follows: you are Max, an irritable boy who comes home to his annoying younger brother, Felix. Annoyed by the lad's rambunctious behavior, you read aloud the words of a spell designed to make such nuisances disappear. As in the film Labyrinth, those words take almost immediate effect. Your sibling disappears through a void, and you jump in after him as regret over your irresponsible actions takes hold. Just like that, you've embarked on a journey across a treacherous wilderness. Your destination is the wizard Mustachio's castle, and your only weapon is a magic marker.
The story is no Excalibur, even if at several points you do pull items from various stones with Arthurian flair, and his inadequate means of self-defense makes the humble Max easy to root for as you help him navigate a world that seems to view him as either a snack or a pincushion. Cutscenes also prod you forward with the unspoken reminder that Felix's only real crime was being a normal boy, one who now is in grave peril thanks to you and you alone. It’s a time-tested story and the expressive characters are animated every bit as beautifully in the story sequences as they are elsewhere.
Max can crawl, run, walk, jump, and drag things, but that's the extent of his repertoire. He'd never get far without his precious writing utensil, which you must use liberally. Pressing and holding the right trigger suspends direct control of Max and brings up an image of the tool, which interacts with colorful pieces of the architecture at your direction. For instance, a dark-green node can extend to form a ledge, which you can then use as a foothold or sever from its base to produce a movable platform. An orange node betrays the presence of a stone column. The interactive pieces of nature have variable limits, signified by steadily draining supplies of ink. You must figure out how to make the most of each resource.
Cutscenes also prod you forward with the unspoken reminder that Felix’s only real crime was being a normal boy.
As the game progresses, the marker gains additional abilities, and the solutions to puzzles gradually require additional steps. In later scenes, it sometimes feels as if you're playing a scribble simulator rather than a platformer. Levels typically consist of a series of open spaces wherein you must chain together a few environmental effects (for example, you might have to draw a vine and then direct a current of water so that Max launches at the proper angle to grab the plant life and swing across a chasm), and then you hop along a few more ledges or run along an unremarkable corridor to reach the next such challenge. The difficulty lies in figuring out what you're supposed to accomplish in those more interactive areas.
Max doesn't encounter a lot of enemies on his adventure, which is just as well. It's a pleasure to descend along a series of ledges protruding from the face of a roaring waterfall, admiring the lush foliage and figuring out how to reach the far side of each hazard. Checkpoint placement is typically generous, so that even a fall to your doom means short-lived frustration at worst. However, you come across numerous other situations that prove frustrating because they require quicker reflexes and more precise movement than the game readily facilitates. The worst such moments are chase sequences, which usually find Max fleeing from a giant troll or sliding along a series of crumbling ruins. If Max suddenly needs you to produce a ledge lest he tumble into an abyss, the marker often materializes in a location that is less than ideal for the task at hand. Hurriedly swinging it into position and then drawing a line in the desired pattern is not always a simple task, and sometimes the precise stroke that means the difference between sweet success and disappointing failure is difficult to discern.
The interactive pieces of nature have variable limits, signified by steadily draining supplies of ink.
No matter how beautiful Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is--and typically, it's very beautiful, with detailed plant life and pleasing light and shadow effects--the moments when you're forced to play through a particular scene several times because you didn't anticipate a surprise shift in the landscape are always unwelcome. Even when you know exactly what to do, you may come across instances where you have to make several attempts before Max jumps far enough and grabs a vine that he has barely a chance of reaching. It's all very doable in the end, especially with practice and patience, but sometimes the developers make you work harder for that elusive victory than is warranted.
Another concern is that the puzzles eventually wear thin because most of them become predictable. There's sporadic creativity in design for the campaign's full five to seven hours, such as when you have to figure your way around some nasty lightning bugs or some bomb-tossing goblins, but mostly you perform the same few rote activities with only slight variations. Aside from the aggravating chase scenes, a scavenger hunt for collectibles is your only respite. Max yanks hideous eyeballs from walls and ceilings that lie off the beaten path, and he gathers pieces of a cracked amulet. Each new stage offers a tally to let you know how many objects lurk within, and you can revisit areas if you miss something. However, doing so requires a repeat journey through a bunch of puzzles that lose much of their appeal once you know their solution.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood benefits immensely from attractive art design, and that is supplemented by a variety of puzzles that are initially quite satisfying before finally wearing out their welcome near the end. Consider taking the plunge if you're itching to dive into another pretty platformer, but otherwise you're probably better off waiting for a different curse to come along.