The phrase “trying too hard” sometimes comes under scrutiny for seemingly discouraging people from putting their all into their work, but that’s because it seems to be forgetting the implicit second part of the phrase, where despite trying so hard, they didn’t manage to succeed. Malice is certainly a case of game developers trying much too hard and falling flat on their faces for it, the game trying to rope in the band No Doubt to voice its cast but then not using them, trying to manufacture a new popular heroine meant to somehow rival Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, and it was hoping to show off the potential of bump-mapping visual technology. The game pretty much failed in all three departments though, and the game that was meant to support them anyway wasn’t given nearly the amount of effort the failed ideas were, leaving it with barely a leg to stand on.
Right of the bat, Malice herself should be addressed. While generally every moving character model in Malice is made up of rigid polygons that don’t do much for the visual appeal of the world, Malice herself is oddly incongruent with the rest of the world. Drawing on teen fashion from the nineties, Malice’s blue jeans, defiant crop top, and fingerless gloves all speak of a character designed to be cool and, at the time, somewhat modern, but the entire game world around her seems to be going for a fantasy style that seems like its from an entirely different game than its lead character. Malice’s appearance is never justified, and with her rebellious outfit also comes an attitude that leads to her replying to anything, helpful or otherwise, with some attempt at cracking a joke, the characters almost always continuing on after as if she hadn’t said anything. Malice’s teenage cockiness isn’t really part of her role in the story either, Malice dying right at the start in her efforts to take down an evil being known as the Dog God who is trying to destroy the universe. However, Death recognizes her as a goddess and sends her back, Malice at first surprised to hear she’s one but halfway through the game everyone just seems to accept she is one without it ever being solidified further.
One thing that can be said about Malice despite its out of place main character is the game certainly seems to be having fun developing its own mythology. Many different ideas are combined together to create the worlds you explore in Malice, and while Malice herself is never joined by any modern looking humans or anything, the rest of the game mixes its fantasy elements with the technological in a more cohesive manner. The Dog God’s forces have access to industrial technology, but its griminess, reliance on cogs and gears, and the fact a bunch of crows are operating it root it in the same world where you can encounter witches, talking glow worms, and living mushrooms. They are outside the realms of possibility, and the marriage of mystical and mechanical is even first presented when Malice’s ally, the clockwork being known as the Metal Guardian, recruits her to find logic keys hidden across the universe so he can track down the Dog God for Malice’s rematch with him.
This mix of ideas is somewhat ruined by how often Malice falls back on the same ones. Despite being sent out to find eight logic keys around the universe, the player is sent back to the same world at least three times, that being the Siren Tree which is an already compact and rather bland forest level to start with. They do take you into new areas of it on each visit at least, but some other stages also repeat setting ideas from older ones despite still having different level designs. The 3D action platforming in the levels usually takes on the form of linear adventures to wherever the logic key is kept, so revisiting areas doesn’t benefit a mode of play where seeing a similar place means less overall variety. Luckily, areas do keep trying to turn out new ways for you to climb and explore them to ensure their navigation doesn’t feel too repetitive. Even when you do start moving through new or unique areas though, Malice has trouble populating them well, especially since it seems completely unaware it’s fighting system is incredibly dull. Malice is, over the course of the game, given some huge, meaty looking weapons such as a large club, a clockwork hammer almost as big as she is, and a tuning fork that can vaporize weaker enemies, but despite looking like a satisfying arsenal, none of them have any heft to them. Malice swings all of them at her foes with all the energy of a rhino’s tail lightly swishing flies away from its read end. She only has two options when it comes to attacking, the basic attack having almost no impact as she swings her huge weapons back and forth like they were wiffle bats, and the second attack option is a quake where she slams her hammer down, it being too slow and only a touch stronger than the basic attacks, meaning that just swinging the hammer regularly will do more damage more quickly. Any time the game locks you into a fight, it’s pretty much mindless swinging until it’s over, so the platforming challenges are definitely the better side of the game. It has a few small ideas that do work like guiding little robots through dangerous areas or platforming challenges that require some awareness and skill. This somewhat decent design certainly needed more support to shine though, it’s just any other possible support went to failed ideas and mechanics that worsen the experience.
Malice does try to add something to its gameplay in the form of magic, but this system has its own flaws that prevent it from truly changing the face of the overall package. As the game progresses you’ll gradually unlock new spells to use, each of them drawing from the same magic pool which is already a problem because even if some might have earned their place, you now must try and balance any use of them with the potential that another might be needed soon. On the other hand, so many of them aren’t necessary that the few decent ones can be called on when needed. For example, Malice can use magic to glide from platform to platform, but it’s slow, awkward, and burns magic quickly to prevent you from moving too far. However, when it’s needed, you can pull it out, you just won’t find it too useful otherwise. Bullet shield magic is also incredibly situational. If an enemy is shooting bullets at you, put it up and and that’s essentially the end of any peril in that moment. At least that basic response to a hazard is more than most other magics can claim. Speed magic has almost nowhere where it is needed, the game putting down things like crumbling floors to look like its required, but the floors crumble slowly enough that you can walk casually across them before they fall. Weapon Boost magic is meant to make your weapon stronger, but its duration is short and the increase small, making it a worse choice than just waiting and seeing if other magic is required. Other “super” magics appear later in the game, including a time slowing ability when even the fast enemies are easy enough to hit, a “nuke” that is meant to damage all nearby enemies but doesn’t do so reliably, and oddly enough, the least useful might be healing magic, because healing in this game is pretty useless. Enemies drop health regularly, even boss fights offer up chances to replenish it through pick-ups, and every level features a few items that aren’t hard to collect that can be used to upgrade your total health. Malice actually features a level unique to the revival process if you die, Malice needing to find her way out of the Beach of Souls, but the only time I ever encountered it was deliberately killing myself just to see what it was like for the sake of this review.
Bosses pair pretty poorly with all the mechanics mentioned so far. While there are some that are over and done with after a decent match of dodging the foe and striking when possible, the game starts trying to make them harder by giving them long periods of full invincibility that only give you brief windows of time to strike them for any actual damage, that damage being essentially set so your magic can’t help there. These battles are just about waiting out the same boss patterns to complete so you can take out only a sliver of a massive health bar, the threat of death barely present since you’re packed full of health and can replenish it easily enough. Like all battle in this game, it’s pretty much brainless and tedious, doing whatever action is necessary over and over until it ends. Even the final boss is just a slog of repeated attacks and brief vulnerable moments, making the few bosses found in the game that do require more active participation more interesting despite being plain or easy.
THE VERDICT: Other than some passable 3D platforming, most everything in Malice certainly deserves to be maligned. While the wise-cracking main character delivers dud quips, her fighting style makes every enemy encounter a bore with its simple nature and lack of impact, and when it comes time to fight a boss, they’re artificially extended by invincibility that only means more time spent dodging the same attacks instead of engaging in a battle. Malice’s magic, which was intended to enhance the play, is either mostly useless or only needed at certain moments that discourage using them for anything else, and with so much health to fall back on, there’s very little peril. Exploring an environment can still lead to a few decent jumping challenges or minor puzzles, but Malice is mostly a game about repeatedly encountering things both boring and familiar, meaning that the areas connecting to what were meant to be action highlights are instead the only parts with something to enjoy.
And so, I give Malice for Xbox…
A TERRIBLE rating. Were it not for some of the effort put into the platforming design, Malice would just have been dull battle after dull battle until the end. Even if defeating enemies was meant to be easy, the act of taking one down is so lifeless and devoid of energy that any moment it’s given real focus it can’t sustain the moment. Boss battles in particular are poor mixes of the lack of general stakes with tasks that aren’t enjoyable to do being stretched out for longer than necessary. Since any magic that could help in certain moments either isn’t effective enough to do so or less work than simple attacks, everything but the simple platforming combines into a messy and boring experience.
Malice’s developers did try too hard, all those efforts going towards areas that didn’t actually need it. Bosses need to be tough so they’re made too long and invincible most the time, but that just makes them dull waiting games. Malice is given impressive weapons and an attitude, but the world shrugs off her quips and her weapons have neither the impact or variety to be satisfying. If not for the worlds giving you a few somewhat interesting platforming and exploration challenges to do, all the effort here would have been totally wasted. The message that you need to make something good to start with before trying to do more is perhaps spoken loudest through that small redeeming quality that kept it from being an absolute failure.