Games 12/21/10: Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, EA Sports Active 2, Funky Lab Rat

Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Game Republic/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)

“Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom” is a new game with an old soul — a fresh adventure that, for good, unflattering and arbitrary reasons, is a welcome throwback to 3D gaming’s more experimental formative years.

The premise of “Majin” is a bit too winding to properly summarize in a few sentences, and the game’s cutscenes do a much nicer job than text ever could of making sense of everything. In a nutshell, a kingdom has succumbed to darkness, and the guardian of the kingdom (known henceforth as the Majin) has been hidden in captivity long enough to achieve mythical status. But then along comes Tepeu, a human gifted with the ability to talk to birds and animals. With their (and your) help, he rescues the Majin, and together, they set out to restore the kingdom to its former glory.

Beyond that initial rescue mission, “Majin” plays like an escort game with a twist: Instead of being helpless and in constant need of protection, the Majin — a powerful, monstrously large creature with a sweet disposition and grasp of language that rivals that of Sloth from “The Goonies” — is the one doing much of the protecting. You control Tepeu directly while giving commands to the A.I.-controlled Majin, who can use his strength and other special powers to alter the environment and fight enemies Tepeu is too weak to take on himself.

As total packages go, “Majin” is no stranger to flaws. The world is artistically pretty but a few years behind the curve as far as technical visual polish goes, and while Tepeu is a capable character, his jumping and climbing abilities aren’t as fluid as those of his counterparts in other adventure games. The combat offers some cool opportunities for the two characters to team up, but it’s still overwhelmingly a case of “mash X to swing weapon,” and you’ll spend much of the game fighting the same enemy types in a pretty predictable puzzle-fight-puzzle-fight pattern of events.

A discussion of “Majin’s” modest production values also would be incomplete without mentioning the voice acting, which ranges from kind of silly (the Majin) to unbelievably hokey (most of the animals, who talk in a kaleidoscope of hilarious accents one normally expects from an episode of “Family Guy” instead of a grandiose adventure game).

Whether the crazy voice acting was a product of a low budget or a sly sense of humor is debatable, but so is the effect. Some will find it off-putting. But if the rest of “Majin’s” world charms you (and there’s an excellent chance it could), it’s entirely likely the goofball voices will simply add another feather to that cap. “Majin’s” characters are deeply likable in spite of how weird they generally are, and the reverence they show for their former kingdom — to say nothing of the friendship that develops between Tepeu and the Majin — gives the story the kind of heart most games don’t even comprehend, much less achieve.

And the best news of all? The one area where “Majin” must succeed is where it shines brightest. The expansive overworld is loaded with intricate environmental puzzles that Tepeu and the Majin must team up to overcome, and the game tests that teamwork in some really inspired ways. “Majin’s” puzzles hit a perfect difficulty note — never needlessly opaque, but elaborate and creative enough to make completing them very satisfyingly fun. And while some so-so combat always punctuates these puzzles, the game rarely makes you slog through too many enemies before serving up another challenge — or, during its very best moments, making the enemies part of the puzzle.

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EA Sports Active 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Xbox 360 (Kinect required), Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Video games may be the new fitness gimmick battleground, but the old truths remain true: If the equipment is a pain to use, it simply won’t be used.

“EA Sports Active 2” is exhibit A. As fitness interfaces go, it bleeds promise, with a polished arrangement of tools and a suite of online features that completely outclass those of its competitors. But the actual act of working out — both in terms of preparing for it and the diminished returns from that preparation — provide too much aggravation and not enough upside to make the year’s most expensive exercise video game ($100, regardless of system) also the year’s best.

The price tag reflects what’s inside the box, because in addition to the game, “Active” ships with three motion-tracking bands (one for each arm, one for the right leg), a stock-quality resistance band and a USB receiver that reads your motions as well as the heart monitor readings provided by one of the arm bands. Each tracking band requires two AAA batteries, and while the box comes with six freebies, those investing in “Active” might find this as good a time as any to invest in a rechargeable battery system as well. (Note: The Xbox 360 version of “Active” ditches two of the sensors in favor of Kinect compatibility, but includes the heart monitor band.)

In terms of interface, “Active” is awesome. The main menu offers a clear breakdown of calories burned, workout details and other information about your progress, and you can reference your history and graph your progress with a few button presses. The game’s preset workout programs offer up to nine weeks of scheduled workouts and structure it like an actual video game, with goals and progress bars in clear view to touch the same motivational nerves most traditional games tap. Throughout the entirety of the game, the heart rate monitor gives an onscreen readout — not necessarily crucial information while you’re flipping through menus, but enlightening nonetheless.

“Active’s” community features are similarly comprehensive — to a fault if you aren’t interested in them. The game tracks a ton of stats across its entire community, and if you join a workout group with some friends, it provides stats and updates on that front as well. The upside is obvious, but if your interest in “Active” is strictly on a personal level, the constant interruptions while the game connects to its online server become annoying in a hurry.

Unfortunately, everything good and bad about the interface kneels at the mercy of the actual workout, and this is where “Active” stumbles. The three-sensor system is a clear improvement over the original, Wii-only “Active’s” motion recognition capabilities. But it’s still unequipped to discern whether you’re really doing an exercise properly or using form that’s poor but close enough to trick it. Your onscreen character tries his or her best to mimic your movements, but it’s clear the game is guessing to some extent, and when games like “The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout” and “Your Shape Fitness Evolved” are using the Kinect to demonstrate 1:1 fidelity, “Active’s” educated guesswork feels obsolete out of the gate.

If and when EA Sports applies the same interface to a game that’s otherwise built from the ground up to capitalize on the Kinect and Playstation Move hardware, it’ll have the best fitness game on the market. So keep an eye out for “Active 3,” but put your money elsewhere until then.

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Funky Lab Rat
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Hydravision
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

On paper, “Funky Lab Rat” sounds like a who’s who of popular indie game conventions. But the separate presences of 2D puzzle platforming
, real-time level editing and time manipulation wouldn’t amount to anything special if the game didn’t harmonize them as well as it does here. The goal in “Rat” is to help Diego the rat escape the lab by clear each of its 81 levels. The levels are pretty small, and Diego’s limited acrobatic repertoire (running, jumping) leaves little mystery about how he can collect the floating pills (used to unlock later batches of levels) and reach the exit safely. Where things get complicated is in your additional role of creating a path of escape that Diego can navigate. During the tutorial stages, “Rat” introduces a handful of time manipulation tricks that allow you to rewind (to quickly correct a fatal mistake), fast-forward (temporarily skip a level that’s got you stuck) and pause the action. The pause function is by far the most interesting, because “Rat” allows you to arrange parts of a paused level to create a path for Diego. The number of pauses each level provides is limited, and the objective behind the objective is to plan a few steps ahead and set up a perfect plan of escape amid a flurry of hazards and moving parts. “Rat” starts off easy, but the later worlds are wickedly difficult, and the game awards a trophy to anyone who can finish the final level by pausing to rearrange it “only” 22 times or fewer.