If you follow anime (Japanese animation) and manga (comics) to any degree beyond that of a casual indulger, you will notice a repeating premise is that of a pretty, smart (and oftentimes barely of legal age) young woman to whom the fate of the world has been entrusted. Perhaps the producers of these works believe that their male viewers would like seeing females dishing out some butt-whupping and saving lives, but to be realistic, I'd have to say that it has more to do with giving the overwhelmingly male audience a vehicle to gawk at scantily-clad, buxom female characters jiggling and sweating. This is one staple of anime that would be frowned upon in the politically-correct United States, but in Japan it is relished and shows no sign of changing. Another characteristic of this genre is that there is quite a bit of humor thrown in—often turning these pieces into comedies as opposed to dramas. The Sailor Moon TV show and movies comes to mind as an example of the latter, but surprisingly it nabbed a large female following. Given the fact that they share audiences, this type of anime and manga has made the jump to videogame consoles. However, it is mostly in role-playing and adventure games, but occasionally they make it into more unconventional games. That was what I thought I was getting with Maken X, unfortunately it seems that the only thing in common with those entertaining pieces of anime and manga is that a young girl has been thrown into the lead role.
At one time, Maken X was a showcase title for the Sega Dreamcast, and deservedly so. It had high-resolution graphics, ran at a crisp 60 frames per second and was heralded as a first-person action title with role-playing game elements. It also had a moody, dark story that was supposed to branch into unexpected directions and included heaps of dialogue. Say what you will about Atlus, but they got the word out on this game, because for a while this was touted as a game to watch for long after the Dreamcast launched. In hindsight, perhaps the things that Asmik Ace attempted to do with Maken X deserve some praise, but after sitting through it, I must say that overall it was quite a letdown.
For one thing, the much-heralded first-person view looked pretty good in screenshots and non-action sequences, but when it came to using it during the game, it proved to be very flawed. In Maken X, the action was right up to the screen, which meant when multiple enemies were on the screen, I was at a serious disadvantage. The usual first-person shooter conventions like strafing and looking up and down were frustratingly difficult, and even when I pulled them off, it was pretty slow going. I can't tell you how many times enemies I couldn't see or avoid hit me with attacks. As an aside, I noticed that first-person shooters without long-range weapons, or at least rapid-fire, long-range weapons, it is pretty easy to get ganged upon by only few of enemies on screen. And given the limited view and close proximity of confrontations, this happened a lot.
Playing Maken X proved to be a lesson in repetitiveness. I guess to counter the cramped feel of the game, Asmik Ace tried to give the player a move or two to open the game up a bit. Unfortunately, their answer (a lock-on feature) was wrecked by the lack of AI built into enemies. As I alluded to earlier, when in groups, the opposition could overwhelm me, but when it came to lone attackers—or in some cases, two enemies that attacked in unison—they could be rather easily vanquished with a simple technique that rarely failed. All I had to do was lock onto an enemy and wait for them to advance or strike. Depending on what they did, I could just jump over them, performing a strange somersault that always managed to land me behind the enemy. So impressed with this feat of athleticism, the enemy would be literally frozen in place, leaving me the leisure of killing it with one blow or at least wiping out a good-sized chunk of its energy. In all fairness, I have to mention that just about the only enemies this didn't work on with great frequency were the sub-boss and end-of-stage bosses who wound up being quite a handful. Still, it was laughable how often this worked, but even more so how the developer never saw this could be a problem.
In critiquing Maken X, I am surprised I went this long without blasting the game's overall look. Although the game is rendered with crisp, high-resolution graphics, it is ruined by the choice of character designs and models. Being the anime fan I am, I have no problem with Asmik Ace keeping the anime-look and porting it into a three-dimensional environment. After all Capcom and Square have done it wonderfully with Power Stone and Final Fantasy VIII respectively, and the games were the better for it. The one caveat is that the designs must be appealing to begin with, and right from the start they appear to be some horrible concoction right out of Sega's House Of The Dead—coincidentally a game produced by Maken X's publisher. So bad are the designs that one of the main characters looks like some sort of Wombat mutation, yet no one seems to notice. Some enemies are actually seen in public wearing butterfly wings to go with their three-piece suits and 1920s Tommy guns. This sort of nonsense is extreme even by anime standards, and you have to draw the line somewhere.
Making matters worse was that the game doesn't make up for any of this in the sound department. The music is up-tempo, but it's of the looping arcade variety, and that meant after a couple of levels it began to wear on my nerves. But what takes the cake is what comes out of the character's mouths. Keeping the streak alive of Dreamcast games reaching new lows in the quality of their voice-acting, Maken X is the kind of effort that shows the developer or publisher was not even trying. Think of the worst B-movie acting you've ever seen (or heard)—or for those of you old enough, some really amateur porn—and you have a pretty good idea of how bad things are in Maken X. I groaned and laughed so loudly that sometimes I couldn't hear what the characters were saying—if it weren't such a stretch I might label that as a positive.
This is not to say that Maken X is without its share of positives. For one thing, I really liked the idea of brain-jacking. As the story goes, Maken (an artificial life with the ability to leap into the subconscious of humans) can take over the body of a select group of people. I could take over their bodies and use them to gain access to certain areas as well as use that person's unique skills during battle. If you think of a limited take on Messiah, then you will get the idea. The second thing I liked went hand-in-hand with brain-jacking. With the defeat of foes, their PSI-energy (think of it as Qi, Karma, their soul or what have you) is left behind to be collected and thus increasing my PSI-levels. If I didn't have enough PSI-energy, that meant I couldn't brain-jack certain individuals. Since the game's difficulty only increased as I progressed, this put an obvious emphasis on my need to level-up, and level-up quickly. Another favorite was the branching storyline because it gave almost every action I made some meaning. Each decision, whether it was choosing to not brain-jack someone, would affect where I could go and who I would meet later in the game. The thought and planning this brought to the game would have greatly increased the replay value of the game if it had been the least bit enjoyable.
Say what you will about the female hero-genre of anime—it's exploitative and plays up on too many stereotypes of women (which it can)—but you can't say they aren't entertaining. Whether juxtaposing hard-as-nail heroines in over-the-top, ironically testosterone-based action, or throwing one in with a band of interesting characters to bounce off of for dramatic and/or comedic opportunities, these works were generally enjoyable. The producers knew what the strength of their vehicle was and they milked it. As with Maken X, it seems they felt that the graphics and story elements would have been enough, but they didn't take into consideration that more would be needed to make the game compelling. In the end, the characters are boring, the story is mildly entertaining, the voice-acting and character designs are subpar, and the gameplay is repetitive. This is one utterly forgettable game.
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