GAME REVIEW: The Maw

The Maw is a 3D puzzle/adventure game released by Twisted Pixel in 2009. The game starts as your player character — a rather cutesy alien of childish proportions — is taken into custody by a military force and put into a force field cell on a transport ship with other captured species of various varieties. Before long, the ship crashes and the player escapes. The player soon makes friends with a tiny but ever-hungry purple blob, the title character known as the Maw. The blob is held in a collar and the player character soon finds an electric leash that can latch to the collar and direct it.

Although the childlike alien is the playable character, the game is really about the Maw (as you’d expect from the title). The Maw is the tool to get past most obstacles in the game. The Maw will try to eat anything that crosses its path and can be led to other creatures using the leash. Its most common fodder are the Yums, cutesy defenseless creatures the Maw gobbles like popcorn. If it eats enough, the Maw will have a growth spurt that will allow it to eat ever-larger things. Generally in each level you have to feed the Maw enough to pass a particular obstacle.

To get through most of the levels you’ll also have to feed the Maw other kinds of creatures, more formidable ones with special abilities. After eating them, the Maw will take on those abilities, thus making it more capable to continue on in the game. These creatures aren’t such easy prey, and you’ll generally need to figure out how to disable them so that the Maw can gobble them up. The first such creature is a fire-lizard, which grants the Maw the ability to breathe fire. Neither the player nor the Maw can be killed by enemies, but enemies can knock the two back or block their progress entirely. Between each level the Maw will lose whatever abilities it had gained. This is not explained in the story, but I supposed it’s reasonable for power-balancing reasons.

The game has no dialog and the text is limited to brief tutorial splash screens that (usually) pop up to explain controls. As a result, there’s never a name for the player character that I can discern, nor any explanation of why the character is being arrested or even what the military force’s objectives are. Thinking back on the events of the game, although the military seemed to be set up as a clear villain, I did wonder if their actions might not be justified in order to suppress the growth of the Maw who could be considered a biological weapon. Sure, the Maw is cute and friendly when it wants to be, but given its insatiable hunger, its ability to grow boundlessly, and its ability to digest anything smaller than it… By the end of the story I’m fairly convinced that the player character has done a horrible thing of great magnitude by aiding this little amorphous critter in its growth. Sure, the character escaped death or imprisonment with its help, but by the end it kind of felt like I’d dropped a plague vial in a crowd in order to avoid jail time–even if the play is wrongfully imprisoned (which the game never actually says), that still doesn’t justify the consequence…. But the game lets you come to your own conclusions about that.

Visuals

Very cute, cartoony visuals. I especially like the Maw itself, and it’s loyal slackjawed drooly face that generally reminds me of a puppy. And how you can see the Maw’s teeth through its body if you look at it from behind.

Audio

Overall, not a lot in the audio that really caught my ear. Except the Maw’s grunting vocalizations, from gobbling sounds to quizzical sounds–I thought they added nicely to the Maw’s visuals.

Challenge

Not particularly challenging. The game’s not set up to push your limits by any means. In particular, neither your player character nor the Maw can die–attacks from enemies only knock you back a bit. There are some light puzzles as you try to figure out what exactly you need to get past a force field or the like, but nothing that proves a major obstacle. For me, the points where I felt overchallenged were those where the game failed to let me know how to use the controls to do a certain action properly–those aren’t challenges inherent in the game, but in the format. A screen in the menus that would show the various controls was conspicuously absent.

Story

Light on story. There’s no dialog, and goals in the game are generally depicted with cartooned speech bubbles. It seems that the main character and the Maw have been imprisoned by a military force that is taking over this area, but it’s not clear why or whether the military force has some benevolent goal in mind. The uncontrolled progress of the Maw once it’s been released suggests that maybe the military force was right to keep it locked up–left unchecked it’s kind of like a biological weapon let loose into the general population.

Session Time

You can’t save progress in-level. Some of the levels, though not hard, did take me some time to navigate, on the order of a half hour. And the game didn’t make it obvious that my progress wasn’t going to be saved in these cases. I wouldn’t sit down to play this unless I have something like 45 minutes of time to sit down at once.

Playability

The controls were easy enough, once they were explained, but they only seemed to be explained by in-game pop-ups which didn’t always pop up before I needed that control, so I’d struggle through trying to get past an obstacle without knowing the proper control. My first experience with the modular turrets, for instance, is when the turret is put in a narrow place in between two steep slopes. The turret will shoot projectiles from a distance which you can dodge, and will send out a shockwave if you get too close which you can’t dodge. I actually got past that first one by very, very carefully inching around it between the shockwave area and the slope but then the Maw got stuck on the other side of it and I couldn’t get him to move around the turret like I had, not realizing that there’s a control to use the leash to destroy the turret by yanking it out of the ground and smashing it.

Replayability

Not much replay value. You can try to go through and make sure you get the extra achievement for having the Maw eat everything edible, and for having the Maw eat the hidden snot bugs in every level, but I didn’t see that as a huge incentive.

Originality

The idea of a creature that can eat powered enemies and take on their powers is not a new one, of course–Namco’s Kirby comes to mind, who’s been around for a couple of decades. Nothing about the game is hugely original, but it’s still fun and visually appealing.

Playtime

It took me about 3 hours to play through all the levels.

Overall

The list price on Steam is $10, which considering the short playtime, the light challenge, and that it didn’t feel hugely original, I think is too high. I happened to get it for $2.50, which I thought was just about right–I’d catch it on a sale if you can.