Review: Maize (PS4/XBO)

Developed by: Finish Line Games
Published by: Finish Line Games

This review may contain some minor spoilers.

Gentlemen… BEHOLD!

CORN!

Now that we got the obvious joke out of the way, on with the review.

First person puzzle/adventure games are a particularly prominent genre among indie game developers/the Steam crowd, with certain titles like Gone Home, Firewatch, The Witness, The Unfinished Swan (a personal favorite of mine), and The Stanley Parable, ranking up there as some of the most acclaimed titles of the past couple of gaming generations. It’s a style of game that provides a solid bedrock for telling great stories, delivering intriguing game mechanics, crafting visually unique worlds, or just making the audience laugh. And so here we have Maize, a first-person puzzle adventure courtesy of Finish Line Games that was first released on Steam last December, and is now making its way to the PS4 and Xbox One.

The game is best described as an X-Files type of story by way of Monty Python. To wit: the player is dropped into a massive cornfield, jumping back and forth between a farm and an abandoned underground research facility. Early on, you encounter a rather unusual sight: the player is ambushed by multiple stalks of sentient corn. As the game progress, the player learns that these corns are the result of a government miscommunication involving some nebulous ill-defined attempt to “weaponize” corn for… well who really knows? You also end up collaborating with Vladdy, a robotic Russian teddy bear with an *incredibly* abrasive attitude, to solve puzzles and help the corn stalks (and their leader, the Ruby Queen), escape the facility and find their way to The Great Beyond, essentially.

Vladdy, your teddy bear sidekick

If there’s one thing that the game excels at, it’s fleshing out the world and making great use of the mechanics for comedic effect. Even as early as the first chapter, the player will find themselves collecting an array of absurd objects both for puzzle solutions and the usual lore items for this kind of game. Heck, one of the first puzzles in the game involves using a rusty bent nail to fix a fuse box… and it works, somehow. The puzzles proceed to get more outlandish and absurd from there, with the highlights being the dummies that must be constructed to get past security checkpoints, and seeing how these puzzles piece together is nothing short of a blast. There’s also a gag with an English muffin that I won’t spoil directly, but it makes for one of the best long-form jokes I’ve seen in anything since the climax to the spaghetti strainer gag from season 3 of Bojack Horseman.

The foley items are also a great source of comedy and, to me, part of where the game’s writing truly shines. Much like other adventure games, the collectibles give the player peeks into the backstory prior to what they’re playing now. The standouts are all the internal memos between the different scientists within the facility as well as their communications with the government. There is so much detail cleverly conveyed within the item designs and the contents of their text that it paints a clear and vivid picture of the dysfunction and chaos between the facility’s researchers and the government tasking them with nonsense commands. On the flip side of things, there are items like rocks, wood pallets, pipes, and a series of boring mystery novels, that exist both as extra little punchlines and distractions that exist for no other reason than to question why you would ever bother collecting them in the first place. The writing of the descriptions features the kind of dry-witted style of writing that you can imagine being read in the voice of any Monty Python cast member.

The Ruby Queen and her servant corns.

While on the subject of dysfunction, the level design is another highlight in the comedy of Maize. The actual graphics are mainly serviceable, with only the occasional texture pop-in serving as a minor flaw, and the character designs are fairly simple. The generic corn stalks have this sort of uncanny valley-ish facial design (especially with their beady black eyes) while Vladdy and the Ruby Queen have noticeably more cartoonish features. What makes the design shine are the details (both big and small) put into each level that help flesh out the backstory. The main driving background conflict of the story is between a trio of researchers named Bob, Ted, and Helen. The farm and the research facility is *littered* top to bottom with sticky notes documenting the various heated interactions with Bob and Ted, with Ted trying to take his research seriously while trying to deal with Bob’s incredibly absent-minded business plans, and Helen seems to be sick of both of them. There’s this constantly escalating frustration with each new set of notes, and there’s various set pieces and landmarks to bear this conflict out. Perhaps the funniest design aspect of the game is the absolutely massive amount of empty cheeseburger wrappers that are just littered in seemingly every nook and cranny of the research facility, and it’s a riot. It also becomes clear that the Bob/Ted/Helen dynamic still exists and manifests through all the corn in the facility which helps fill in the gaps a bit more.

While there’s a lot to like about the game’s writing and backstory, the comedy isn’t always successful. The item descriptions and extraneous bits of worldbuilding get the biggest laughs, but the actual cutscenes and interactions with the present-day characters are not as funny. I can’t say I got as big a laugh out of the main trio of dim-witted corn stalks as I did reading the sticky notes, and while Vladdy’s acerbic attitude offsets the personalities of the other characters, his dialogue gets incredibly repetitive after a short amount of time. Outside of that, the mechanics themselves, while used to great effect in a writing sense, are rather straightforward for this kind of game. Maize doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel of adventure game mechanics, not to mention there’s some minor frustrations with trying to find items/puzzle solutions that are occasionally really buried in the environment and hard to spot.

With all that said, Maize is a perfectly entertaining and fun experience. There’s some great absurd humor within the premise and writing, and the world design does a great job of conveying the ridiculous backstory and dry sense of humor. While not every joke really lands and the gameplay is pretty basic for this type of game, there’s enough clever comedy presented to make the game worth trying out at least once, especially for diehard adventure/puzzle game fans.


Final verdict:
Maize is a delightfully absurd title with some clever design choices that merits experiencing, but maybe wait for a sale or discount before deciding to buy it. Maize was played on the PlayStation 4 for this review.

[Note: This product was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.]

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