His name is Marlow Briggs. The game named after him is a whole lot like God of War, but this brash action hero is no Kratos. He is, in fact, a walking and talking cliché, shouting out “Feel the burn” when he summons fire from the heavens, and “Trust me…it’s going to be a bloodbath” as he wades into danger. Marlow Briggs the game, not its star is keenly aware of its unoriginality, poking fun at video game tropes and its own hackneyed tribalism. Sometimes, self-aware humor is a crutch used to excuse banal gameplay, but Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death earns the right to make fun of itself: it’s a fast-paced confection that’s quite good on its own terms. The silly attitude is just sugar on top.
At first, Marlow Briggs seems like a typical self-serious action game, presenting you with a cackling madman, a damsel in distress, and a brash action hero brought back from the dead by way of a talking Mayan mask with an ancient shaman’s soul inside of it. Or something like that. The plot can be boiled down to “kill the bad guy and rescue your girlfriend after chopping up hundreds of nameless grunts,” but it’s not the story that keeps you pressing on, but rather the always-on action and the crazy dialogue.
Early dialogue is straight from a silly summer blockbuster. “Aw yeah. Class is in session,” Marlow shouts out as he violently slashes up anyone within blade’s reach, giving you no reason to doubt his dim-bulb sincerity. But then your ancient friend melodramatically bestows a new name upon you, Kamikal Alixel Xojol, before informing you that this means “dancing death princess.” “Do you like it?” he snickers, before quieting down while you wave your fancy weapon about as if you’ve been practicing your whole life. The humor isn’t highbrow, but it’s rarely juvenile, with Marlow poking fun at video game conventions like conveniently placed machine-gun turrets, and the mask making fun of you when you miss a jump and fall to your death.
The good news is that Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death doesn’t use its humor to explain away its shortcomings. It is, in fact, a good action game in its own right, changing up the environments, the gameplay, and the camera angles often enough to keep tedium at bay. You chain attacks together using two buttons, occasionally stopping to climb up some vines, slide down ropes, move a few objects around for platforming purposes, and so forth. And because Marlow Briggs takes place in the modern day, you occasionally get to shoot some stationary guns before switching back to your blades, and even get to gun down some aircraft in top-down shooter sequences.
The melee action is typically fluid and rewarding, with a few kinks here and there to remind you how hard it is for a game to live up to the legacy of the classic that inspired it. Marlow tumbles and swipes about with ease in battle arenas, rewarding your button taps with colorful displays of violence. He squashes bugs under his feet, carves up scorpions, and summons electrical tornadoes onto the battlefield, and his lively animations make him look like he’s having a good time. And that good time sure is infectious.
Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death goes for drama during boss fights and elsewhere, though some long, unusual cut scenes come across as more anticlimactic than exciting. In these scenes, the action is paused and the camera swings about, Matrix-style. The image changes throughout the course of the cinematic to indicate action, but what was meant to be a slow-motion payoff comes across as a low-budget mockery. Luckily, Marlow Briggs’ grand set pieces more than make up for the silly still-image scenes. As you shinny across a narrow ledge, the camera rotates to reveal a smoking industrial complex and an ancient temple existing side by side in the jungle. You whale on security forces while a demonic head rises up to gaze at you, its giant blue eye and toothy grimace making for a fearsome backdrop.
Its concepts may be familiar, and its mechanics are not best-in-class, but Marlow Briggs switches gears often, always moving forward at a breakneck tempo. You go from severing limbs in a train yard with locomotives zooming through it, to dodging flaming boulders barreling at you down a narrow corridor, to leaping across moving platforms Frogger-style in a log-sorting facility, to riding a scorpion and jabbing scarabs with its poisonous tail. Here’s hoping the sequel teased by the conclusion comes to fruition; Marlow surely has a few more tricks up his bloodied sleeve.
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