The Majin is everything that Ico's Yorda is not. In Fumito Ueda's classic, you lead the waif-like girl-child along a castle's craggy ramparts, crying out to her to follow your footsteps, catching her by her wrist when she falls, and batting away the black ghouls that tug at her bright white dress. It is a game about custody, about caring for someone weaker than yourself at the expense of the speed of your progress – a rare theme in a medium obsessed with the relentless exertion of power and dominance over others in search of the quickest route to a goal.
Ostensibly, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom shares the theme. Here too you play as a gangly boy, Tepeu, thrust into a hazy pastoral world beset by fighters made of wispy blackness. Within 20 minutes you've freed a companion from captivity and begun the work of guiding him to safety.
But in contrast to Ico's Yorda, the Majin, a Muppet-like rendition of one of Shadow of the Colossus' moss-covered giants, is a physical powerhouse. For all his loveable stupidity and lumbering gait, he heightens your effectiveness with his thumping arms, which are able to prise open 10-ton gates and hurl your character over ramparts. Yorda's brilliant uselessness is overturned: rather than holding you back, the Majin is a companion without whom you could not progress.
Thankfully, then, controlling this hulking mythical beast is both straightforward and intuitive. A squeeze of a trigger button brings up a reticule with which you can direct your companion and dictate his behaviour. Highlight an enemy and a single button press will send the Majin off to clobber the target, while selecting 'Action' while hovering over a fragile wall on the side of a cliff will have him topple it onto a group of enemies below with a short, sharp thrust.
In mechanical terms, the Majin acts as a handy toolbox with new abilities added as you progress; each subsequent action is another tool for overcoming the various obstacles you meet. One moment you may need to ask the beast to kneel, allowing you to access a high platform by climbing onto his back; the next, he'll be setting off a trebuchet to launch you through the air onto a nearby parapet. With a flexibility and usefulness that belies his size, the Majin is used as a Swiss-army-knife solution for a range of routine, occasionally ingenious puzzles.
While there's a heavy emphasis on stealth (sneaking up to an enemy undetected will allow you to dispatch them in a single blow) you can also team up with the Majin in fights. Lower an enemy's health enough and you can team up for a co-operative finishing move that's both weighty and satisfying. Defeated enemies drop 'friendship shards', currency that increases the strength of your combination attacks as well as levelling the Majin's abilities, while giant pieces of fruit can be claimed from the foliage to feed to your companion in the hope of reawakening yet more of his abilities.
Once you escape the waxy hallways of the opening chapter's castle, the game world, while tightly corridored, is attractive. Ancient walls built from oversized stones rounded by wind and time rise, resolute, from the tall grass. Patches of bright purple flowers are attended by origami butterflies, dazzling white in the high-contrast sunshine.
The delicacy of the art, however, isn't matched by the game's lighting, which is crude. Set against Shadow of the Colossus, which has landscapes of similar terrain and climate, textures lack detail and the absence of filters and fog to soften each vista ensures the game world is never quite as enchanting as it should be.
Likewise, some atrocious voice acting undermines what could, with a little more care and attention, have had a cohesive, magical atmosphere. It's an issue of design as much as execution. The choice to have the Majin speak without eloquence in childlike rhythms, combined with a disappointing performance from the voice actor, lessens the character's appeal.
In the animation, too, the Majin falls short of what he could have been. His lantern jaw grinds comically as he speaks, but there's only rudimentary characterisation in his movement, suggesting that Game Republic's artists lacked the talent or budget necessary to meet their impressive imagination.
Too often, the flow of play is interrupted by an in-game cut-scene. These, while well-directed, are spoiled by a weak script and risible voice-acting. In time the game falls into a familiar pattern of puzzle-solving, platforming and combat leading up to a well-telegraphed boss battle.
Nevertheless, there's just enough inventiveness to maintain your interest. Remove the theatrics and storybook charm, and what's left is little more than an elongated series of locked-door puzzles. But it's a testament to Game Republic's vision and skill that the game's set-dressing makes it enjoyable over the long haul – and for all its rough edges, this is an experience that will likely pull you through to its endearing conclusion.
There is undeniably a scrappiness of execution here, one that only serves to make Team Ico's achievements seem all the greater. But despite the shabbiness, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom delivers on some of the promise of its premise.
With Enslaved and the forthcoming The Last Guardian, 'buddy' games are becoming fashionable, their setup offering both narrative and mechanical benefits to the designer of adventure videogames. Game Republic's effort lacks polish and elegance, but, thanks to charm and the in-built strength of its setup, it is an experience worth partnering with.
7 / 10