Genre: First-Person Shooter
Release Date: 10/31/99
The Japanese seem to have a drastically different idea of the purpose of FPS titles than Americans do. With the odd exceptions of something like Condemned 2, most American developers look at the FPS genre and try to come up with ways of making their game the best FPS available. The Japanese, by comparison, look at the FPS genre and try (or so it seems) to come up with ways of making their game the WEIRDEST FPS available. This is not to say that “weird” can’t go hand-in-hand with “good”, as products like Metroid Prime and Pathways Into Darkness have shown, but for Japanese developers, the desire to make the product good almost seems a secondary goal; the primary goal seems to be to turn the concept of the FPS on its head in some way or another, and if the end result is tolerable or better, hey, bonus!
Which neatly brings us to Maken X. Released on the Dreamcast in 2000, Maken X was an odd hybrid of action and FPS gameplay that was wrapped up in a weird, Shin Megami Tensei-esque plot and framed with character designs drawn up, oddly enough, by Kazuma Kaneko, and if designs and concepts were enough to make a product an instant-classic, Maken X would be just that five times over. Unfortunately, Maken X had the misfortune of being a niche title on a console not known for its FPS games, and some at-times unfriendly gameplay quirks kept it from being all it could have been, to the point that a PS2 re-release was converted into a straight 3rd person action title that never saw a US release. Time can heal all wounds, however, so let’s take a look and see if Maken X has aged like a fine wine… or like Thunderbird.
The story of Maken X sounds pretty basic on paper: a scientist develops a secret super-weapon that is expected to be of significant benefit to mankind, but a shadowy organization comes to try and steal said super-weapon AND said scientist, and his daughter, Maya, rushes to the defense of her father with said super-weapon in tow. Simple enough, right? The twist, though, is that YOU’RE said super-weapon, a living sword dubbed Maken by his creator, and YOU’RE the one running the show. When Maya first grabs onto you, you fuse with her both physically and spiritually, and the two of you embark on a quest to save her father… if you feel like it. Maken is given several choices throughout the game, and depending on how you feel about a situation, you can choose to be a hero, a villain, amoral or completely chaotic, and as you progress forward the story changes to reflect your decisions, allowing you to reach one of several different endings depending on your choices. You’ll also periodically meet up with several representatives on both sides of this conflict, either as allies or enemies, and the decisions you make while speaking with them shape the way the conflict will resolve, one way or the other.
I’m just going to say this straight out: the story in Maken X is outstanding, period. There’s some solid characterization and world-building involved in making the story as awesome as it is, certainly, but a huge part of what makes the story so good is that the various choices you can make actually make a difference, in ways that are both interesting and unexpected. See, here’s the thing: the “good” guys, though they are doing their best to save the world, are often morally ambiguous and jaded, and they often behave like tyrants. The bad guys, by comparison, aren’t particularly pleasant and nice EITHER, but their ideology isn’t hideous and it’s entirely possible to be sympathetic to their ends, if not their means. If you follow the plans of the good guys and work with them, you’ll end up saving the world and being a hero and whatnot. If you spend your time complaining about having to help the good guys and objecting to their demands, you can eventually join up with the bad guys instead. If you don’t really like anyone, you can instead turn down the offers from everyone and go about ripping EVERYONE asunder, just for your own amusement. No, I’m not kidding. Maken X allows you to be as big of a hero/jerk as you want, and while there are repercussions, both morally and physically, it’s nice to see a story not only allow you to make your own choices, but to also present you the effects of those choices.
Visually, Maken X is still fairly pretty after all these years, and while it’s technologically not particularly impressive, the art style and designs make up for this. The character and enemy models are generally interesting, and the contrast between normal folks and the super-powered beings that make up the opposing sides of the conflict is interesting and well conceived. The texture modeling is a bit dated, but the game still looks pleasant and interesting enough to be acceptable in this day and age, so you won’t be trying to claw your eyes out just for looking at it, even if it isn’t as impressive as it used to be. The in-game music is quite solid and fits the product well, as it’s mostly a mix of upbeat, combat-ready techno with some inspired haunting melodies when the plot calls for them. The voice acting is okay, IE it’s not as bad as that of The House of the Dead but not as good as Persona 4, and the sound effects are mostly quite solid and work with the game well. There are a few complaints to be made about the localization here and there, between the occasionally spotty translation and the not terribly exciting voice work, but by and large, there’s nothing here that’s particularly BAD, just not impressive, so overall, the audio is solid.
As has been stated previously, Maken X is an FPS title, albeit a strange one, so as you might expect, everything is done from the first person perspective. The controls are pretty simplistic; the stick moves you around, and instead of having a second stick to look around with, holding the left trigger allows you to free look. Holding the right trigger allows you to lock on to enemies, A jumps, and X attacks enemies. Holding X allows you to charge up for a power attack, called an EX attack here, that can deal additional damage, but simply pressing it over and over attacks normally. Pressing A while moving left and right allows you to jump sideways to dodge enemies when you’re locked on, holding down on the D-pad allows you to block enemy attacks, allowing you to quickly follow up with an attack to strike down the attacking enemies, and you can also deflect enemy projectiles by attacking them at the right time. Anyone who’s played an FPS in the past few years should be able to grasp the mechanics, though they’re a little odd, as most FPS titles use the triggers to fire and buttons to lock on, while Maken X does the opposite, though this is in no way detrimental to the experience itself.
Now, at first glance Maken X looks to be little more than an odd, science fiction FPS with some Megaten elements and designs tossed in, but there’s a lot more to the product than it seems at first glance. The game’s major gimmick is the Brain Jack system, and it’s through this system that you will gain new and different abilities. Maken, being little more than a soul in a sword, can’t do a whole lot on his own, so it falls to him to take over prospective hosts by jacking into their brains and making them do his dirty work for him. What this means from a gameplay standpoint is that you’ll meet up with various beings, good and bad, who you can take possession of as needed, whether they offer you this option by choice or by force, and you’ll essentially just jack into them, effectively taking them over. At this point you “become” that character and can use all of the skills that character can use in battle. As you meet more and more characters, you’ll notice they all have different Brain Jack levels, which indicates how powerful Maken has to be to take control of them. Maken improves his Brain Jack levels by picking up PSI energy left behind by some defeated foes, which in turn allows him to Brain Jack more powerful characters, which allows you to upgrade your abilities as you progress. Each character you meet that can be Brain Jacked is rated in three categories: Life, or how much health they have, Power, or how much damage they do, and Speed, or how fast they move. Each character also has different abilities they can use as you play, so some characters will have multi-hit charge attacks, some will have ranged attacks, and so on, so you’ll have to make your choice as to which character to use based on the situation at hand.
The other interesting thing about Maken X is the diverging storyline. See, the choices you make determine the outcome of the story, for good or ill, and there are multiple endings to the game, depending on how you choose to do things. These multiple endings also, in most cases, mean that you’ll be able to see multiple different locations based on the choices you make and fight or Brain Jack different characters, depending on what choices you’ve made and who you ally with, if anyone. The core game can take anywhere from eight to twelve hours to plow through, depending on the choices you make and the foes you have to face, and with so many different endings to see, there’s plenty of replay value to be had with the game. I mean, holy crap man, there are SEVEN endings in the game! SEVEN! That’s a ton of replay value right there, and all of the endings are pretty interesting and worth seeing, as they’re all pretty different from one another. The game is also quite challenging, overall, but each path offers differing levels of challenge due to both the abilities of the characters you can Brain Jack and the foes you’ll have to face.
Unfortunately, Maken X’s biggest flaw is that no matter how imaginative it is and no matter how interesting the concept is, the execution leaves a bit to be desired. To call the gameplay “bad” would be something of a disservice to the game, but unfortunately, it’s not terribly intuitive or easy to work with. As the Dreamcast controller only has one analog stick, the free look has been assigned to a trigger, which is fine to a point, but becomes cumbersome when you’re trying to look at enemies in the midst of battle. The vast majority of the characters you’ll Brain Jack are melee fighters, meaning most of the game comes down to running up on enemies and smacking them, which is entertaining until you have to face down someone who uses projectiles from high places that you can’t readily hit. The controls also feel a little stiff at first, and the jumping/dodging/platforming elements don’t work as well in first-person as they should, meaning that there’s something of a steep learning curve in the first couple of stages as you adjust to the mechanics and how they work. The AI is also a bit spotty at times; while the bosses simply repeat various patterns of attacks in most cases, regular foes just kind of come after you and attack, employing little strategy or self-preservation, making them only problematic in groups, which unfortunately happens often.
The bottom line is that Maken X is conceptually sound but functionally flawed, so someone looking for a strong aesthetic or a strong story will enjoy the experience, but someone looking for good gameplay mechanics may find themselves let down a bit. The branching storyline is absolutely fantastic, the visuals are solid for the Dreamcast, and the audio is also nice, if not spectacular. There’s plenty to see and do in the game, and with a multitude of endings to see, there’s plenty of reason to come back to the game if the story interests you. However, the gameplay mechanics are odd at the best of times and frustrating at the worst, the game almost always gives you melee fighters and sticks you up against ranged fighters, the controls are awkward to learn, and the AI is not so hot. The game is more good than bad once you learn the controls, however, and if you’re the sort of person who likes morally conflicting plotlines, lots of depth and games that do things you don’t see every day, Maken X is well worth buying and loving for its odd, endearing quirkiness.
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Maken X is a largely forgotten but incredibly entertaining Dreamcast game that is worth adding to your collection if you’re the sort of person who can appreciate odd and awkward games with lots of depth and charm. The story is outstanding, the presentation is solid, there are seven different endings to unlock, and there’s plenty of depth, variety and challenge to the game at all points across the experience. Unfortunately, the controls can be a bit awkward at times and the mechanics aren’t always well thought out, the AI isn’t the best, and after the tenth time you have to face down groups of gunners with a sword you’ll probably get pretty annoyed. That’s a shame, sadly, as Maken X would have probably been a must-have classic otherwise, but even so, it’s still a good time if you can get past the bad things. If you think you can accept the game for what it is and deal with the downsides, Maken X should pretty much be in your collection, as there’s nothing quite like it, and for what it is, it’s pretty sweet.