How long can a game's wily charms carry an experience before its cracks begin to show? In the case of The Maw, the answer is for the entirety of the few hours that the game lasts. However, that doesn't mean that you should dismiss this amusing extraterrestrial adventure as overly saccharine fluff. It will keep you giggling for the few hours that it lasts, but like most sweet morsels, the pleasant feeling dissipates when the sugar leaves your system, and you’ll find your palate struggling to remember the taste.
The titular Maw is a voracious, globular alien, and you are Frank, his antlike companion. As captives on a giant spacecraft, you make an instant friendly connection, only to get stranded when the ship crashes on an unfamiliar planet. Nevertheless, your relationship with Maw isn't really a friendship; he's more of a bulbous pit bull, and you lead him around on a leash to help him scarf up his next meal. He starts at a nicely manageable size, but eventually Maw will tower over you, though he remains a loyal companion throughout. That's a good thing, too, because his razor-sharp teeth slice through any number of bizarre beasts, and he'll chomp them with glee, emitting eager grunts while scanning the environment with his giant, bulging eye. Though you can summon Maw to your side by calling out his name (and Frank's vocal pleas are one of many delightful sonic touches), there is no spoken dialogue. But Maw is so physically expressive, with his lively green tongue and keen enthusiasm, that he'll immediately win you over.
Thus Maw is your trusty pet, and the game is essentially an alien-care simulator. Your companion is a hungry devil, and he'll chomp down various creatures on his endless quest to grow larger and larger. But though you can lead a Maw to a gloober, you can't make him eat, so you'll need to attach your electric leash to him and direct him to the local grub, or pick up the edible creatures and throw them directly into his impatient mouth. Some of these extraterrestrials are more than just exotic eats, though, and will transfer some of their attributes to Maw when digested. Downing a temperamental alien peacock turns Maw into a laser-spewing monstrosity; gnawing on a floating puff-tor lets you grab on to Maw and leap wide distances.
Your goal is always to reach the end of the level by fattening up Maw and using his stolen skills to solve a few light environmental puzzles. This may mean using the puff-tor power to float upward on wind streams, fooling a giant horned beetle into charging toward a pulsing force field, or breathing fire into clumps of flora to reveal the hidden fauna within. As Frank, you also have a few skills of your own. For example, you can use the leash to grab and fling some creatures and rocks, and you can dodge turret fire with a well-timed button press. These disparate abilities are brimming with possibilities, yet though some of the puzzles are clever, most are incredibly simple, and you'll deal with just a single Maw transformation on every level.
The ensuing gameplay is mildly amusing but rarely compelling, showcasing plenty of hilarious Maw behavior at the expense of rewarding interaction. In one level, you hop onto Maw and shoot down turrets and space invaders with his laser-spouting eyes, but you can't die and you can't aim with any precision, so you simply wander around and blast away, scarfing up the alien cadavers that you leave behind. In another, you hold on to Maw as he stampedes toward barriers, but imprecise controls and too many moments without player interaction let the wind out of the game's sails. A few blah levels could be easier to overlook if The Maw were a longer experience, but it will take most players around three hours or so to complete. Some rewards and hidden areas may tempt you to return to the levels, and online leaderboards might inspire you to gun for faster completion times and such, but when you complete the game, chances are that you'll be done for good.
The gameplay may be forgettable, but Maw certainly isn't, and developer Twisted Pixel deserves kudos for its colorful and hysterical character designs. Frank looks like a refugee from Pixar's A Bug's Life, but his faithful purple friend is hysterically distinctive. In one uproarious scene, Maw flees in terror from a deceptively beautiful loofer, and the fear on his toothy face is absolutely priceless. He's simultaneously adorable and menacing, a charismatic companion who just happens to eat adorable creatures for sustenance. Kids in particular will get a kick out of him, and the simple puzzles and straightforward controls ensure younger players an adventure free of frustration.
It sounds like a lot to ask 800 points ($10) for a game that won't take up much of your time, but here is a case in which a journey is worth taking purely on the basis of its burgeoning wit and personality. The gameplay doesn't have much bite, but the strong-jawed Maw is a great new character who deserves his starring role.