After more than three and a half years in development, Malice is finally available to the gaming public. And what a long, strange trip it has been for Argonaut's oft-delayed platformer. Not long after its initial 2001 announcement, Malice essentially disappeared. A few news tidbits would pop up here and there regarding shifted release schedules, but no real news or concrete word on the game's status surfaced--not until May of last year, when VU Games, Malice's publisher, announced that it was dropping support for the game. Flash forward to this January, when budget-title publisher Mud Duck announced that it would be bringing the game out in the US. Of course, by this point, Malice had practically been deemed vaporware, and when the game quietly found its way onto shelves earlier this month, those keeping score were simply amazed that it actually existed. Well, it certainly does exist, though after playing through Malice's dull and disjointed six-hour quest, you can't help but wonder why.
Malice begins with an exceptionally exposition-free introduction that features the game's title heroine, Malice--a doll-eyed, candy raver-looking goddess--being beheaded by Dog God, a fiery, oversized canine who looks sort of like a cross between the devil and a schnauzer. Malice was apparently working to stop Dog God and his evil armada from taking over the world (obviously, that didn't quite work out). After being sent away from the afterlife by a rather cross grim reaper (who explains that goddesses aren't permitted in the afterlife), Malice hooks up with a big talking clock called the Metal Guardian, who sends her off to collect a bunch of keys from various minions of Dog God for no particularly well-explained reason. This is about as much plot as you'll ever get out of Malice. Random side characters and plot points are occasionally brought into the fold, but what exactly is going on, and why any of it is going on, pretty much takes a backseat to a lot of hammy one-liners. Whether or not there was ever supposed to be more to Malice's saga is unclear, but the end result isn't interesting in the slightest.
This is basically because Malice never finds a way to make you care about any of what you're doing. The plot is so shoddily set up that the story becomes meaningless very quickly, and none of the game's characters have any personality to speak of. Malice is essentially just a valley girl with "attitude," and though she's chock-full of one-liners to deliver during cutscenes, she is never a character you grow to like in the slightest, visually or through her dialogue. The side characters you encounter, such as the Metal Guardian, aren't any better. Here and there they'll spout off a marginally amusing joke about one vague pop culture reference or another (MC Hammer jokes anyone?), but beyond these few moments of humor, there's nothing to latch onto with these characters. This problem isn't just relegated to Malice's plot, though; it plagues much of the gameplay as well.
Malice's gameplay essentially consists of the simplest and most rudimentary of platforming mechanics, with absolutely no unique spin of any kind. This is bare-bones platforming at its most mediocre. Basically, Malice can jump, double jump, and wield one of three different types of hammers. With the hammer, she can do a basic sideswipe or a more powerful slam move. Malice also can use a few different magic abilities, which you acquire throughout the game, such as the ability to speed up, to slow down everything around you, to glide through the air, to create an antidamage shield, or to just nuke everything around you. While the various magic types aren't bad by themselves, they are ultimately too useful. Magic is gauged by a small meter near your health bar, and you deplete it as you use magic. However, throughout every world is a veritable treasure trove of magical crystals that power your magic meter back up. You never really have to worry about running out of magic, and in the instances where magic comes in handy, it makes whatever task you're performing almost stupidly easy.
Not that Malice is in any way challenging to begin with. Aside from some occasionally annoying control problems, Malice is basically a breeze to play through. Enemies are completely worthless as far as putting up a fight goes, and in most cases, you can just hammer them to death before they even finish their initial reaction animation to your presence. The few, repetitive jump puzzles the game presents you with should be absolute child's play to anybody who has played a platformer before, and every single boss fight in the game is a complete and utter bore. The last boss fight against Dog God in particular is quite possibly the most repetitious and dull 15 minutes of banality you're ever going to find in a game of this type. Six hours is pretty much all you'll need to waltz your way through Malice.
Because Malice was initially brought to the table as an Xbox launch title, it's not too surprising to discover that Malice in 2004 still looks like an Xbox launch title. On the Xbox, Malice is absolutely rife with bump-mapping. Clearly this was the technology that Argonaut really wanted to showcase back in the day, but at this point bump-mapping is fairly commonplace in Xbox games and doesn't really make much of an impact. The PS2 version obviously lacks the bump-mapping, but it still looks like a fairly competent port of the Xbox game and performs like one as well. The biggest visual issue Malice suffers from isn't technical, however; it's stylistic. Whether it is Malice's character designs, world designs, or, really, anything from a design standpoint, it all just looks supremely uninspired. Malice herself is about as halfhearted a main character as you can get, with just a pair of baggy pants, sneakers, and a baby-doll T-shirt that has a circle with a line through it on the front. Did the ghost on her Ghostbusters T-shirt escape or something? Every world map in Malice seems like it could have easily been lifted out of any number of modern platformers. All in all, the game's look is fair at best.
Soundwise, Malice is pretty underwhelming. Long ago, Argonaut announced that it would have No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani provide the voice of Malice and that No Doubt would be doing the soundtrack. Well...apparently that whole deal must have fallen through. Instead, Malice is voiced by a marginally competent voice actress who really isn't anything to write home about, and the soundtrack is made up of fairly archetypal platformer music, which actually isn't bad, but it isn't especially memorable either. The remaining voice acting is all pretty uninteresting, and none of the remaining audio components stand out in any way, which is par for the course for the whole game.
In some ways, it almost seems like Argonaut never had a firm grasp on what it wanted to do with Malice, and when it came time to bring it out, whatever looked close to finished was thrown together to try to make a coherent game. Whatever the case, Malice simply doesn't cut it, and it provides absolutely nothing that hasn't been seen and done countless times before and done better at that. Unless you're absolutely rapt with morbid curiosity about how Malice ultimately turned out, your time and money are definitely best spent elsewhere.