Marlow Briggs and the God of War

We don't use the term phalanx in modern militaries because no one could think of a better one, y'know?

I don’t know about you, but I find this a lot more believable than having your superpowered hero come from a culture which was famous for its military discipline and unit organization.

It took me about six hours, start to finish, to get through Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death.  Considering that I was playing it at the same time as Final Fantasy IV: The After Years and my usual Final Fantasy XIV shenanigans, it took me a few days of real time, but it is not a particularly bulky game.  Not that you’d expect a whole lot from a game that costs you a grand total of five dollars.

But I’m pretty sure I had as much fun with it as games that cost me ten times as much.

In a just world, this would have been the first game of a series that would predate God of War, because I’d much rather be playing the seventh installment of Marlow’s adventure than watching Kratos grimace through a field of inexplicable tits and sneering white guy violence.  Alas, we don’t live in that world, we live in this one.  But comparing the two is telling, because it’s one of those times when a much cheaper game manages to do everything a more expensive equivalent does with equal panache – and often with traits that the “bigger” title lacks altogether.

Odds are good that you’ve never heard of Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death, which is a shame.  The game is basically a loving blend of blaxploitation cinema, Tomb Raider-style adventure, and a sly wink and nod toward genre conventions that pop up time and again in video games.  Marlow Briggs is a smokejumper on vacation to visit his girlfriend, Eva, when he stumbles into her employers mad plans of godhood and gets killed for his trouble.  Fortunately for him, he’s resurrected as the chosen warrior of an ancient Mayan king (helpfully possessing a floating mask) and proceeds to embark upon the contractual roaring rampage of revenge against Heng Long to rescue his girl and stop Long’s insane destruction of the landscape!

If that description alone doesn’t make you want to see at least two or three movies, I don’t know what to tell you.

The music sort of misrepresents the genre, but that's unsurprising.

If you can give me Drax the Destroyer, you can give me Marlow Briggs.

All of that could easily just be an excuse plot for chopping up goons with gusto, but the designers followed in the vein of Pacific Rim and didn’t equate “simple” with “stupid.”  No, the plot is not worthy of endless literary praise, but it hangs together solidly.  It frequently dips into humor, but it does so not to disguise its flaws but just to keep you smirking.  Yes, the whole line about firing maintenance workers and safety inspectors is lampshade hanging, but it’s also a convenient explanation.

By contrast, God of War has an ornate plot drawing from Greek mythology that is, in no uncertain terms, a load of hogwash.  It’s certainly very dense, and it takes a lot of pains to be packed full of references to things that should delight students of classical myths, but it’s also chiefly packed together to serve as a delivery vehicle to get Kratos from one ornate killing setpiece to another.  Or, occasionally, to degrade women and celebrate that male power fantasy.

System-wise, literally everything that Marlow Briggs does is an homage directly back to God of War.  You have your selection of melee weapons, yes, and your magical attacks that mix up the pattern.  Here’s the weapon with range and no damage, here’s the one that’s slow and hits hard, and so forth.  It’s also rife with some balance issues here and there; most of the magical attacks are functionally identical as local nukes and the weapons are kind of skewed toward the fast-moving paired blades.  But even in this, it’s not exactly doing any worse than its stylistic inspiration; God of War has the same problem with its own arsenals.

Heck, maybe they were.  They look good regardless.

The rotating static images that pass for the game’s cutscenes are most likely meant to be a cost-saving measure, but they do a good job of coming across as a stylistic choice.

Things get even worse when you get to the protagonists.  Kratos of God of War is a murdering bastard whose main claim to heroism is the fact that he did awful things but then regretted them when he got hit with a dose of manpain.  That’s literally all that happened.  He lost something and he feels sad and unhappy now, and he’s gone on to act exactly the same but now he blames the gods.  Despite the fact that this is his own doing.

You’d expect a Spec Ops deconstruction there, but of course not.

By contrast, the eponymous Marlow Briggs is a hero.  He’s a smokejumper, which is basically a firefighter who shows up to make other firefighters feel inadequate for just rushing into burning buildings.  Then he dies, gets resurrected, and wastes exactly zero time getting right back to stopping the guy who killed him and is putting even more people at risk.  He’s even forgiving to the woman who literally murdered him and then tried to kill him again, without so much as a muttered “bitch” at any point during their interactions.  He’s not a hero because he rose above being a villain, he’s a hero because he makes heroic choices.

The game manages to be more inclusive than a game that had an enormous budget without even trying.  It manages to stay lively and fun throughout its entire run time.  Sure, the platform bits get tetchy and sometimes the camera angles are all wrong, but let’s be real here – these exact same problems plague no shortage of triple-A brawlers in the same vein.  It’s almost encouraging to think that if the game did have a significant budget, it could have used that budget to actually address issues like poor camera angles and slightly static cutscenes instead of spending another million dollars on perfect stubble simulators.

And I don’t doubt it was all intentional.  The Pacific Rim comparison I made above wasn’t just for show; much like that film, this is clearly a game being made by very smart people.  You could argue that the game would work just as well with a white protagonist, but that would be missing half the fun of the title, that if a protagonist could just as easily be white there’s no reason not to make him dark-skinned.  It’s a kidney shot to the people who whine that making a protagonist not a straight white cis dude is suddenly making the title all about race or gender or sexuality.

It's a good ride at any price, and it's not even much price.

The whole thing is helped by a trailer and official store page that clearly recognizes how important its influences are and some really stellar art direction.

What you have here is a game that I’d happily recommend instead of any one of the God of War titles.  It’s not a difficult game, it slogs a bit toward the end, and it has a few odd little isolated sections, but it holds its own more than well enough even if it weren’t a $5 title.  The biggest complaint I have about it is that the ending features a hook for a sequel that will probably never exist, though I’d love to be wrong.  It’s polished, fun, and entertaining throughout its runtime, and if you want to dive back through there’s even an achievement for skipping all the cutscenes because you just want to get back into the hacking and slashing.

People complain of modern games losing sight of imagination, but I think it’s more a matter of momentum and doing the same thing that the development teams have always done.  Marlow Briggs does something different, but it’s not a game-changer and it isn’t trying to be.  It hits a perfect spot of simplicity and fun, and all the while it manages to surpass its obvious influences in ways great and small.  Sure, it uses bog-standard plot devices and game mechanics, it doesn’t break any molds beyond the fact that it doesn’t star Yet Another Stubbly White Guy, it isn’t a timeless classic.  But point for point, it does better than it has any right to do.

So go buy it and go play it.  Again, it’s five bucks.  I don’t know about you, but I’d like a future wherein “generic dude slicing up evil goons” brings to mind a shirtless Marlow Briggs powered by Mayan magic, wouldn’t you?


This article is a Patron-funded piece, outside of the usual schedule.  If you like what you see, take a look at the Patreon page; you can fund an article yourself and get access to bonus articles.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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