The platformer genre has evolved greatly in recent years. As the technology behind games has become more advanced, so has the ambition for what's possible. In many ways, big sandbox games like Super Mario Odyssey are representations of the modern platformer; bold, inventive, and fresh. And yet, many long for platform games of the past. From Yooka-Laylee to Shovel Knight, these old-school platformers have earned their moniker not necessarily due to their scope or ambition, but rather their nostalgic charm.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood was originally released in 2013 as an Xbox One exclusive. It was an old-school platformer through and through. The comedic, cartoonish characters resembled those in games like Ratchet & Clank and Crash Bandicoot. Meanwhile, its 2D side-scrolling gameplay harkens back even further to franchises such as Oddworld and Donkey Kong Country. After being ported to several platforms since its initial release, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood has a new audience to win over with its old-school charm on Nintendo Switch. While the game has plenty of rough around the edges, including a poor story, clunky controls, and oftentimes obtuse design, The Curse of Brotherhood won me over with its inventive puzzles and well-paced levels.
The Curse of Brotherhood's story is as straightforward as they come. After coming home to find his younger brother Felix playing with his toys, Max goes to the internet to search for a way to make his sibling disappear. Finding a mysterious incantation, Max chants it in a fit of rage; however, the spell is all too real. A portal to another world opens up, and whisks Felix away, prompting a mortified Max to jump in after him. From here, the game's premise is clear: navigate through a dangerous and fantastical world in order to rescue Felix and bring him home.
While simple and easy to follow, the story has no real depth. Including the game's introduction, there are only a handful of cutscenes that provide insight into Max's and Felix's characters, and the parallel world they've entered. While the story features two additional characters - a Navi-like companion and an evil sorcerer Mustacho - the game never gives much context to their backstories. Instead, The Curse of Brotherhood opts to tell just a run-of-the-mill tale of "good vs. evil". There are no additional shades to either side of this conflict, nor is there a real sense of growth for Max or Felix as brothers.
Of course, you could chalk all this up to the fact that The Curse of Brotherhood is intended for younger audiences. The game employs a Pixar-style to its cutscenes, models, and animations, and its themes of courage and bravery will feel right at home with some of your favorite Disney classics. At the same time, however, I've learned to expect more from today's storytelling, both in games and in movies. Compared to the charm and humor of the Ratchet & Clank series or the complex themes found in Disney's Inside Out, The Curse of Brotherhood's narrative feels uninspired.
Thankfully, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood more than delivers with its gameplay. Over the course of 20 levels, players navigate Max through the parallel world, ranging from deserts and forests to swamps and volcanoes, in search of Mustacho's lair. While this foreign land is filled with deadly creatures and traps, Max is not helpless. With the help of a magic magic marker (get the joke?), Max is able to manipulate the environment to avoid pitfalls and fell enemies.
Initially, the game starts Max off with the ability to raise platforms up from the ground. While there isn't much to this - you simply hover a pointer over a predetermined spot in the ground, press a button, and push up on the control stick - the game cleverly continues to layer on more mechanics as the campaign progresses. What starts as a simplistic 2D-platformer, turns soon into an interesting mix of puzzles requiring the manipulation of earth, roots, vines, water, and fire to advance.
These puzzle-like scenarios are the game's greatest strength. There's a good deal of freedom involved in finding the solution to these conundrums. One, for example, might require drawing and cutting off a circular tree root to act as a makeshift wheel. Another may task you with tying a vine to a pillar of earth to trap a group of deadly bugs. With these mechanics constantly building on one another, the game only ramps up in complexity and enjoyment as it continues.
The Curse of Brotherhood manages to remain fun throughout its five-hour campaign, thanks in large part to great pacing. The game is divided roughly into seven areas. The first five represent vastly different parts of the world in which Max learns his various abilities. The final two, meanwhile, serve as an end-game sequence that continues to build upon the five different game mechanics. Each of these areas feels wholly unique, and levels never outstay their welcome. The elemental powers are introduced at healthy clips, and before long I began to feel as powerful and versatile as Aang from Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender (minus the air bending, unfortunately).
The addition of two types of collectibles - 75 of Mustacho's spying eyes and 18 scattered pieces of a broken amulet - keep things fresh throughout. In fact, many of The Curse of Brotherhood's best puzzles involve reaching a secret area housing one or several of these collectibles. Hunting down each and every one of them is sure to extend players’ completion times.
Unfortunately, however, there is no real point in collecting these collectibles (outside of personal enjoyment). While all the previous versions of the game offered rewards in the form of achievements and trophies, the Switch version of The Curse of Brotherhood has no such equivalent. While much of the onus lies undoubtedly on Nintendo, which has yet to provide a trophy system for its flagship console, it's disappointing that the developers at Stage Clear Studios didn't bother to implement an in-game tracker for players to complete.
As rewarding as The Curse of Brotherhood's gameplay can be, it has its faults. Jumping feels floaty and imprecise, far closer to the likes of Little Big Planet than Super Mario Bros.. I also struggled with the game's controls, especially when it came to dragging objects and grabbing vines. Objects like roots and blocks would often get caught on the geometry of some of the levels, whereas jumping to a vine would frequently lead to Max immediately leaping off of it. Since the game doesn't allow players to re-grab a vine that's already been jumped from, this lead to countless frustrating and unavoidable deaths. While disappointing, these issues fortunately don’t interfere enough to derail the game’s brilliant puzzles.
Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is a game I hadn't expected to enjoy as much as I did. Its shallow story failed to hook me, and its initial levels had me wondering if that is all there is to the game. However, the more I played, the deeper and more enriching its mechanics became, and the more I looked forward to each successive puzzle. While a bit unrefined and lacking a coat of polish, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is a challenging and entertaining experience for those looking to kill a few hours on their Switch.