Malicious is a fitting name for a game as punishing as this. When it first came out in 2010, Alvion’s boss rush action title combined the best and worst of the “git gud” approach to game design. It had a deep, complex combat system that’s difficult to make sense of at first but so satisfying to master, but was marred by shoddy controls and an uncooperative camera. An updated version, Malicious Rebirth, added more (and even harder) encounters, but was similarly plagued by technical problems. Third time’s a charm, though; with Malicious Fallen, those kinks have finally been ironed out. It’s still hard as all hell, but at least you’re no longer expected to play with the equivalent of one hand tied behind your back.
Malicious is a third-person action game that cuts to the chase by pitting you against boss after boss, without the usual faffing about in between. At the same time, these bosses are huge, with health bars to match. To help even the tables, your character – known simply as the Slayer – comes equipped with a powerful Mantle of Cinders that can transform into different weapons at will, can heal you, and can be charged up to deal enough damage to take these behemoths down.
It has the same building blocks as your typical character action game: weak and strong attacks, the ability to guard and dodge, and a focus on spatial awareness and cue recognition to keep yourself alive. However, it builds on that with a simple, elegant resource management system. Each boss is accompanied by hordes of minions, and killing these builds up something called Aura. This is then used to heal, and to power up, Dragon Ball Z style. There are three levels of charge; a higher level means a bigger damage boost, but quicker draining of your Aura stash. This comes together to create a rather interesting system of risk and reward. Powering up is basically a requirement to kill each boss in a reasonable time, but going overboard can leave you unable to heal when things go south.
You can also use Aura to augment your regular attacks – they won’t do more damage, but an enemy killed with an Aura Attack drops more Aura, and damages surrounding enemies. If that damage is enough to kill a nearby foe, they get the same dropped Aura boost and explosion. By herding enemies and timing your attacks just right, you can create a chain effect through a huge group, getting a massive Aura return for very little spend. At the same time, getting careless with these attacks can see you just pissing this vital resource down the drain. Success or failure ultimately comes down to how well you manage your Aura.
It also comes down to how well you know the game, the level layouts, and the enemies you’re facing. As I said, it’s brutal. You can only take three hits before you die, and restoring your health makes you vulnerable for a few seconds. When you’re learning each encounter, you’ll get hit a lot, and if you’re not careful, you’ll die very quickly. On top of that, the screen is very busy, with enemies and projectiles all over the place, and even when you’ve figured out how to dodge all that, finding ways to safely attack the enemy is another challenge. Most bosses are either nimble or bulky, making it hard to find openings to do some good damage. This, coupled with the aforementioned heavy life bars and resource management, makes Malicious’ encounters tests of endurance as much as of reflexes.
It’s a slow process driven by trial and error, which is frustrating given how lengthy the fights can be. When you die, you can continue on the spot – you don’t have to start the whole fight again – but you get only five continues, and the later bosses will chew through all of these when you’re figuring them out. Few things are as annoying as almost having a boss killed, after 25 minutes, only to die and have to restart the whole thing again. To make matters worse, your stock of continues is shared across the whole chapter, each of which consists of five or six bosses. If you get stuck on an early boss and spend your continues there, you back yourself into a corner that makes the final bosses that much harder. It’s an infuriating limitation on an otherwise exciting game.
The context for all of these is an abstract, dark fairy tale story about an evil monster borne of the malice of humanity. As the otherworldly Slayer, you’re tasked with killing this creature, but it keeps being reborn because people seem driven to conflict. The game is broken up into four chapters, two of which are brand new for Malicious Fallen, each traversing a different event giving birth to an incarnation of the the monster. There’s not a lot of explicit storytelling in the game itself, but there’s plenty of depth to be found if you’re willing to dig for it. It’s an exploration of the human cost of war and the greed that so often drives it, as seen through a surreal, dark fantasy lens.
Much of that comes through the phantasmagorical boss designs. They’re the stuff of nightmares; giant, deformed suits of armour, animated siege weaponry, mutant animals, and bizarre creations that defy description. They’re more awe-inspiring than ever in Malicious Fallen, not just because of the HD remastering, but thanks to an increased field of view and draw distance that lets you see your enemies in a way that you never could in the original.
If you want to see all that Malicious Fallen has to offer, though, you better be prepared to fight for it. Tightened controls and camera mean that it’s no longer as unfair as it was on PS3 and Vita, but make no mistake: Malicious is a brutal, malicious game that’ll pose a challenge even for character action veterans.
Matt received a digital copy of Malicious Fallen from PlayStation NZ for review.