Editor's Note - This review was first published at the time of the European launch of Milicious back in February. Since Malicious launches in North America this Tuesday (July 24th), we've decided to re-publish the review for the sake of our North American readers.
I was really starting to wonder when, or even if Malicious would ever make it here to the West. It's been more than a year since the Japanese PSN release and smaller games such as this are never a sure thing for localization. Thankfully it's finally here in the form of a surprise release on the European PSN (or SEN I guess it's called now). A combination of Devil May Cry battle system with Shadow of the Colossus enemy sensibilities, and a Megaman-like character progression. Can it live up to such lofty comparisons?
Malicious is the story of a slayer who has been summoned by some all powerful numerologists to take on a dangerous entity known as the Malicious. It's about as weird as it sounds. You aren't so much a person as you are a thing summoned to perform a task. Defeating the Malicious will be quite difficult, so your first task is to take out the holders of certain powers so that you can increase your abilities and stand a chance against the Mad Queen, the final holder of power. The Mad Queen and her followers were actually given their powers by the same prophets that now control you, but refused to give up their powers after their version of the Malicious was defeated. After all that is done you can finally face the Malicious yourself. It's a simple enough storyline, even if the jargon can be a bit much at times.
If you really want to get a better idea of what the game's setting is all about, I highly suggest reading the back story provided at the main menu. Short stories with illustrations aren't usually the way game stories are told, but for something that isn't direly necessary for the gameplay it was a fun read and helped give me some insight on how the Mad Queen and her minions became who they are and helps to humanize them. It's a similar feeling to when you learn about the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus. You can also get a bit of a hint at who the vessel you play as may have been in life. I would've loved if this back story could have been told throughout the game in cut scenes, particularly if they were able to match the fantastic art style of the back story's illustrations, but you can't expect too much of that from a smaller game release.
Lifeless vessels probably aren't the most dangerous adversaries in the world, but luckily the Elders have given you the Mantle of Cinders, a cloak which can take on various forms and is the means by which you do all of your attacks. Pressing different directions on the d-pad turns the cloak into different weapons with different strong suits. Giant fists for fighting off enemies in front of you, a lance for charging through groups of enemies, projectiles that allow you to lock on and fire at anyone in sight, and a sword to swing at anyone around you are all forms the cloak can take. Two of these are obtained by defeating the holders of power, so at first you'll just have projectiles and fists. Controls are relatively simple with buttons for light and heavy attacks, a button for blocking and dodging, and one for jumping (it deserves note that by the time you finish the game, you have 6 “double jumps” which are surprisingly fun to perform). I have to commend the developers for having completely customizable button layouts. I always enjoy having the ability to put whatever action I want to whatever button I want in a console game.
Unfortunately, there are some obvious issues with the controls as well. The most damning would have to be the camera controls. There is no simple way to switch from one locked on target to another as there is in something like Dark Souls, and I only learned through the internet that pressing the lock on button twice will always lock onto the boss in the fight. One boss in particular warps around like crazy which makes the camera move around a ton when you have her locked on. That's fine in principle, but when one of her attacks is a slow moving explosive orb that you're trying to constantly keep away from while the camera is going nuts trying to follow the boss, it's difficult to choose between keeping track of the orb or the boss. Doing both proves pretty impossible. My other quibble with the controls is that dodging and blocking are the same button, so if you press the block button while simultaneously moving the analog stick you'll dodge in that direction. It would have been nice if there were two different buttons for these actions as quite a few times I would do one when I really meant to do the other. This never got me killed but it seems like a simple enough fix.
Defeating each of the holders of power is set up similar to a Megaman game if you could skip right to the boss fight. You have a time limit and a boss with a plethora of minions around him to contend with. At first you might think of the minions as a hindrance, but they're actually a necessity if you want to defeat the bosses with any kind of speed. Killing the smaller enemies gives you aura which you can use for much more powerful attacks on the boss. If you use aura attacks on the minions you can also rack up aura more quickly by maintaining a chain of dead enemies before a short timer runs out. Upping the chain greatly increases the aura you get from each foe you defeat so it's a great way to quickly get back your aura so you can take the fight to the boss again. This gives the fights a natural rhythm which you cycle through of killing enough smaller enemies around the boss to build up aura, and then using that aura to take advantage of the boss' openings for greater damage. You can also use the aura to go into one of three levels of aura mode where all of your attacks are increased in damage and the aura is eaten up over time. Combine this with aura attacks while in aura mode and you can pump out some serious damage when a boss is open for attack. It's a fast paced risk/reward system that is a ton of fun to play around with.
If there's one thing that's close to perfect in Malicious it would have to be the presentation. There isn't a ton of detail work on characters when you look closely, and fabric/hair physics seem to be a bit on the erratic side, but everything has a style to it that I couldn't help but love. The white dimension you choose the next stage from is riddled with equations that float in and out of existence, your cloak turns into a chair for you to sit on when you don't move for a while (and the male and female versions of the main character have different chair styles), and all of the character models have a quite distinct painting come to life look about them. It's little things like this that really sell the setting to me. One of my favorite touches is that there is no health meter; instead if you take enough damage your vessel will lose one of their limbs, and all that is left behind is the strap from your Mantle of Cinders. Nothing like seeing a girl float wordlessly around a battlefield with a strap flapping in the wind where her arm used to be to hammer home the idea that she's anything but human. Luckily you can use aura to heal your wounds if you aren't going for the gold trophy. When you note that accompanying all this is some really poignant music, then if the story wasn't just a wall of text I'd be inclined to give Malicious top marks for presentation.
Malicious only took me 3 hours to complete my first playthrough of all 6 bosses with 1.5 hours of extra time spent working through the first few levels again to help me beat the final boss. It's designed to be kind of an arcade style game, so time trials and score attacks all open up when you beat the game, with the requisite online leader boards (though I currently don't have access to them). You are given a score for each stage dependent on time, how many enemies you killed, highest chain reached, and how many parts you lost. Story Mode only allows three continues so I actually played through the story again with my new found skills to give myself some continues for the last boss. I could definitely see myself going back to try the first few stages with all of the powers unlocked in Free Mode, but beyond that there isn't much to come back for in Story Mode. One lost opportunity is that Story Mode has a difficulty setting but I could only seem to access normal and easy so there wasn't a harder setting to give me a reason to play through the main campaign again.
I'm so glad Malicious has finally made it to the West because this is exactly the type of thing I love to see on PSN. Unique presentation and stage design, as well as fast, frantic controls make this an absolute steal.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Malicious, purchased by the reviewer.