Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death is a God of War clone, but while it wears its influences on its sleeve, it has a lot of surprises in store. The first of which is that it is a competent spectacle fighter and packs a lot of character despite its budget origins.
You take control of the titular character, Marlow Briggs, who is visiting his girlfriend at a dig site in South America. Marlow is killed by his girlfriend’s boss, Mr Long, to intimidate her when she tries to quit, but said boss made the classic mistake of using a giant magical scythe to do so. After a little while, a possessed and talking Mayan mask brings Marlow back to life and they set off to stop Mr Long and save the girl.
This Mayan mask is one of the highlights of the game. Marlow and the mask’s dynamic is a constant delight; it is well written, well voice acted, and consistently funny. Whether it’s making fun of you for falling from a platform or explaining elements of its mythology to Marlow, who is often exasperated by the mask’s history, it is genuinely excellent and had me grinning and sometimes even laughing aloud. It sometimes repeats, particularly with its comments when you die, but not as much as you might expect so it doesn’t wear thin.
Marlow himself seems to be very aware of the ridiculous situation he is in and often comments on it, sometimes mentioning how convenient a turret’s placement is, or how ridiculous certain platforming sections are in a fairly effective way of lampooning parts of the game that are particularly eccentric. It does a nice job of enhancing the overall 90s action film feel that the game has, by turning it into an almost parody-by-excess affair – even Mr Long is taken directly out of an action film. He is almost cartoonishly evil and his well-acted lines are worth a chuckle due to the pure unbridled malice.
While the dialogue is often inspired, the actual storyline isn’t as impressive. Defeat the bad guy and save the girl is the crux of it, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for with its style and set pieces. The gameplay of Marlow Briggs is epic in scale and absolutely explosive in nature, it is a constant barrage of combat that is surprisingly proficient. Marlow moves quickly and fluidly and, while it is derivative of its inspirations, it is a hell of a lot of fun. Your enemies are mostly cut and paste mercenaries with machetes but tearing through them doesn’t get old, thanks to the responsive combat.
Add to this the game’s frankly ridiculous set pieces and you have a thoroughly enjoyable action experience. You will find yourself fighting on falling chunks of scenery, making your way through immense industrial settings as they collapse and explode around you, and every big moment is a joy to behold. Between the action and ridiculousness is where the game suffers, however. The platforming is, in stark contrast to the combat, sometimes clunky, sometimes a bit awkward, and never really tight or fluid. It isn’t necessarily bad, but after an hour or two it becomes tiresome.
Every once in a while you spend an significant amount of time without any the big action set pieces and what’s left behind is a proficient but otherwise by the numbers game, just with a few bugs and often awkwardly placed fixed cameras. Sooner or later it does begin to grate a little bit and the big action sequences can’t carry it.
If you are particularly unlucky, there are a few nasty bugs to be found that completely halt progress. The auto-save can save with you directly over a drop that kills you, so when you reload the checkpoint you just fall to your death again and again. I encountered one of these and I was able to easily double jump to escape the drop, but not everyone has been so lucky.
The game tries to keep you interested with challenges that pop up every once in a while, usually based on how quickly you complete a specific optional task. An early challenge was a turret segment in which you are rushed by an obscene amount of helicopters, with the challenge being to destroy all of the incoming choppers. Most of the other challenges are collecting glowing orbs during a platforming segment or an on-rails section that has you dodging incoming obstacles. They add a little more to do when you first encounter them, but while they are then unlocked to replay I can’t imagine why you would want to.
As is typical for the genre, there is a selection of weaponry and magic to unlock as you work your way through the game. There are four weapons, ranging from the scythe to a chain weapon that is remarkably similar to Kratos’ blades of chaos. There are also four magic attacks you earn that are also a bit uninspired, area of effect fire attacks and spikes that burst out of the ground in a line. Each weapon and spell can be upgraded using XP that you earn in the usual way.
The game’s weapons are a lot of fun to use but they don’t really differ in terms of play style despite the chain having a little more range and the dual swords having a little less. They do have different combos and you can access a combo list that lets you practice them from the upgrade menu, though the upgrades are usually small so they don’t inspire too much excitement.
Marlow Briggs is a surprising game. From a low budget point, it brings over the top action, pretty environments, good writing and voice acting, and a genuinely enjoyable combat system. It never really innovates and it isn’t the best at anything it does, but the self awareness of its writing and the tight combat controls manage to pull it up to an enjoyable, if flawed game that is well worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre.