Review for Maize
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We’re all well-versed in the dangers of technological advancements creating sentient machines… but sentient corn and knock-off Russian teddy bears? While not nearly the dominant threat of The Terminator’s Skynet or the hosts of Westworld, it’s the crops and plush toys that have gained consciousness in the appropriately-named absurdist comedy Maize. As you’d expect from such a bizarre premise, the game comes with a wonderful dollop of offbeat humour, but once the comedic husks are pulled way, there’s a surprisingly conventional adventure underneath. The puzzles may be streamlined, the storytelling passive, the environments a little too labyrinthine, and the performance less than buttery smooth, but if you like your games with a little salty flavour, there’s a decent first-person experience here to sink your teeth into.
With no introduction of any kind, the game begins abruptly (or at least, abruptly following a snore-inducing load time) by unceremoniously thrusting you into the midst of a cornfield as several living stalks flee from your position. Okay, that’s weird. With no option but to pursue, you’ll WASD/mouse or gamepad your way through the predetermined paths in pursuit. Along the way you’ll see other passageways completely blocked by stacks of bright orange boxes, but eventually you’ll come to a desk in the middle of nowhere with a welcome note and English muffin. That’s weirder. A little farther up you’ll come across a deserted and rather decrepit farmhouse that’s begging to be explored. There isn’t a whole lot there to interact with, or in the surrounding chicken coop, silo, barn, and fields that soon open up, but you will find the first few inventory items to collect and random objects to add to your folio.
The folio is completely optional, but it is actually one of Maize’s two primary storytelling vehicles (the other being a series of scattered sticky notes later in the game). There’s disappointingly little narrative revealed in the environments themselves, so to make any sense of what’s going on, you’ll want to pull up the folio regularly and read up on the extraneous objects you’ve acquired. Some yield illuminating background information about the strange subterranean government facility you’ll spend most of your time exploring, plus the hilariously bickering co-founders who ran it (straight into the ground) and the wacky results of experiments gone wrong. Yet many other folio items (of 75 in total) are simply one-offs that serve no purpose than to tickle your funny bone. The tongue-in-cheek writing is always sharp and funny, but I’d have much preferred that the “essential” backstory details were presented more… um… organically.
Reading plays an important part in Maize, mainly because the protagonist never says a word. You are a true AFGNCAAP here, your identity concealed until the very end, though it’s hinted that you’re not the first to arrive either as the champion of the corn or a threat, depending on the source. It’s not nearly as lonely a journey as it may sound, however. Although the sentient corn only makes intermittent appearances, you’ll eventually repair and acquire a permanent companion in the form of a cheap Teddy Ruxpin clone named Vladdy, who dawdles slowly along before reappearing nearby like a furry “creepy Watson” whenever he falls too far behind. Like the real animated stuffed toy, this one can talk, but unlike the original, this one is a grizzled Russian version in a perpetually foul mood with an extendable mechanical arm. The arm, oddly, never comes into play, but his short stature does, allowing him to crawl into vents too small for you (except for one that inexplicably is not). That’s largely his only practical use, and you can’t interact with him directly, but he remains your reluctant sidekick throughout, interjecting his disdain for anything and everything every once in a while. I can’t remember the last time I was called an idiot, stupid, ugly, and dumb so often in such a short time, at least to my face. It’s never offensive, and I like sidekicks with attitude, but Vladdy is a one-trick bear and the novelty definitely does wear off.
While Vladdy rants in a distinct Russian accent, the bumbling corn characters have an unusually British affectation, a curiosity for a secret Midwest American facility until I found the appropriate folio item to explain it. Their performances reminded me, as did other elements of Maize, of a Monty Python sketch. (I can totally see these guys debating the weight of an unladen swallow.) There is also a particularly burly albino corn character who rustles when he walks and speaks with a lisp in contrast to his maniacal tendencies. While I can’t confirm the authenticity of the accents, the acting is consistently well done in bringing nonsensical characters believably to life, while injecting plenty of fun into what would otherwise be a very quiet adventure. There is “music” in the game, but it consists mainly of a few tonal notes per main environment that loop incessantly. It’s never overbearing, but it’s so repetitive that at times it started to grate on me anyway.
Visually the game is solid but no great shakes either. In part it’s limited by the environments themselves, which tend to include lots of winding, twisting hallways with office, sewer, and power station motifs with very little animation. But there are lots of welcome little exceptions, like a colourful children’s nursery, a weight room, recording studio, garbage-strewn living quarters with marble- and gold-plated bathrooms, plus lobbies, lobbies and more lobbies (an expensive extravagance of one of the facility’s narcissistic founders who loved to immortalize himself with statues). Outdoors, a lazy sun shines through light clouds to give off a lovely late-afternoon glow. The art is pleasant enough; the problem is that the graphical fidelity is not particularly crisp even on the highest settings, with slightly muddied textures and a general haze making everything feel ever-so-slightly out of focus. Perhaps that was intended to add to the surreal feel of the game, but it certainly didn’t increase performance. Particularly above ground, the game tended to chug with a barely-acceptable framerate on my PC, which is far from cutting edge but not an underpowered relic. Better looking games have run much smoother than this.
You’ll be doing plenty of running yourself throughout the game – or walking, by default, and sometimes aimlessly so. Though the seemingly arbitrary passage blocks (another issue that’s eventually sorta-kinda explained in the folio) keep you from wandering too far off course for the most part, the more the game opens up, the more likely you are to feel a little lost, particularly if you step away and return later. This is an adventure that definitely would have benefited from a map of some kind for reference. If you wonder why this game isn’t just called “Corn” then think about how Maize is pronounced. Coincidence? I think not! While it doesn’t go overboard to deliberately disorient you, even offering handy pictogram signposts above ground, it actually jokes about setting an “architectural record for having the largest number of corridors that lead absolutely nowhere” – an obvious exaggeration, but an indication of the design sensibilities here. The layout is actually cleverly intertwined when finally revealed in full, and the environments are big enough that you’ll generally feel like you’re actively exploring, but as you begin to increasingly backtrack to previously explored areas, there’s a definite sense of rat-in-a-maze that begins to set in.
Sometimes the mazes are even more obvious, such as a crane operation minigame and the timed labyrinth in a nuclear reactor (in which the only “timer” is the increased speed of the music before you die). As I stumbled about the orange-tinted radioactive walls of steaming pipes and valves, I finally found my objective only to be told I needed to hightail it back to the beginning. Argh! Took me three tries to get right, being reset at the start each time I failed. None of the other maze elements are nearly that obnoxious, and it was the only time I hit a game-over, though there is a late-game rhythm-based Quick Time Event that I suspect can be fatally botched. In general, however, the game is fairly forgiving, at least to those with a reasonable sense of direction.
Maize is even more forgiving when it comes to its puzzles. All hotspots are automatically highlighted as soon as you’re in the vicinity (including those only Vladdy can access), and items are collected with a simple left-click to pick up, but you can’t actually open the inventory directly. Instead, objects are selected for use with a rather tedious scrolling function via the mouse wheel, at which point the active item will appear in your unseen hand at the bottom of the screen. You will need to combine items several times – sometime even for the same purpose – but must do so at particular points in the environment. There is absolutely no guesswork involved, however, as such areas are also highlighted, going so far as to reveal an actual outline of the objects needed.
Even when inventory use isn’t completely telegraphed, interactive environmental objects are few and far between, and you’ll never have more than a handful of items at any one time, so it’s easy to brute force your way through. Turns out that’s a good thing, as there are definitely some liberties taken with “adventure game logic” for some of the far-fetched solutions. More than once I stumbled onto a puzzle solution before I even knew what I was trying to do. Sometimes that’s because I didn’t take the game’s advice and access the inventory close-ups that not only describe the item but occasionally offer suggestions for how it can be used.
Not knowing why things are happening is a common occurrence in Maize – a fact that grouchy Vladdy points out periodically, saving me the trouble. Occasionally things would make sense retroactively with later folio revelations, but that still meant I played a large part of the game not having such insight. I was pleased that such explanations existed after all, just not how late they were left to introduce or that they were restricted to the optional folio items, tucked in between rocks with pet names like Chauncey and stained cheeseburger wrappers. Some issues are never explained at all, like the notifications that would pop up saying that a new passage had magically opened. I eventually discovered that the corn was responsible for opening and closing passages, for example, but there was never any rationale for how I instantly knew when it happened. Given the labyrinthine structure of the game, I was grateful for the alerts, but it made no sense in context.
After 4-5 five hours of gameplay (which included two long stretches of “where am I supposed to go now?” confusion for me), Maize ramps up for an impressively big finish with a humdinger of a cinematic ending. With so little exposition throughout, this sudden influx of storytelling cutscenes felt like too much all at once, but I certainly can’t argue with the effort put into the final pay-off. The sheer audacious absurdity of the endgame is something that will always stick with me, and that’s not something I say about too many games.
Like a box of Cracker Jack, in the end Maize is definitely something of a mixed bag. There’s more actual gameplay than in many of its exploration-heavy contemporaries, but the puzzles are so streamlined that it won’t pose much of a challenge, other than directionally as you wind your way through its maze-like environments. What it lacks in visual sharpness, it makes up with impressive voice acting that’s pleasing to the ear. And while the actual story is a little thin before rushing headlong into an eye-popping finale, there’s an extensive amount of background detail hidden in the scattered notes and collectibles. So really, the yea or nay will come down to how wacky you like your games, and how much value you place on humour conveyed more through writing than design. I laughed many times at the sarcasm and zany banter, and for me that overshadowed any obvious shortcomings. It’s a flawed game, to be sure, but if you can stomach the undercooked parts, you’ll find Maize to be worth a little of your hard-earned bread.