Nope.  The name doesn’t work.  It doesn’t sound like a video game.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal, and a bland one at that.  The type that you would need to add copious amounts of sugar to just to choke down.  When you can name your game anything that your imagination can come up with and Brand is the best you can do, what does that say about the developer?  It’s not one of those catchy one-word names that you can get away with, like Halo or Infamous.  Brand.  Seriously, the name of the game is Brand.  What were they thinking?

“Brand thought Braid” says Brian.  Excuse me while I untie my tongue.

Brand is a hack-and-slash platformer where you try to upgrade your starting sword to make it “fit for a king.”  Once you’ve done this fifteen times (or sixteen, whatever) you move on to a final battle.  There are nine ways to upgrade the sword, and you can do each upgrade up to five times.  To get an upgrade, you select what one you’re going for, and then you’re sent off on a fetch-quest in one of three locations.  Once you’ve met the terms of the quest, you open up an exit portal and wait five seconds, then return to the shop and activate it.

It sounds like a solid idea, and if it worked it would have been fun.  But it doesn’t work.  I put eight hours into Brand yesterday and I can honestly say it’s one of the worst games I’ve played on Xbox Live Indie Games.  Wholly and entirely without any redeeming value whatsoever.

Let’s start with the first thing people talk about with Brand: the graphics.  They seem really good.  Certainly a couple notches above what people expect from an XBLIG.  But really, what do those good graphics get you?  In Brand, there’s only four enemy types.  Those four creatures are the same in every one of the three levels.  Nine Dots Studio didn’t even bother re-skinning the enemies to match the theme of each stage.  Variety is achieved through palette-swapping, with the stronger enemies usually signified by darker colors, resulting in the characters lacking distinguishing features.  The spitting frog-monster thingies are particularly pitiful in design.  It looks like someone just vomited out a puddle of sprites on a screen and said “good enough!”  If it seems petty of me to call out one creature type, I’ll remind you that creature represents 25% of the monsters you fight.  Great graphics?  Not when the character design is that bad.

Oooh, pretty! I can't make out anything, but damn!

Ironically, it’s the backgrounds that stand out the most.  They’re rendered beautifully and would work at setting the mood for the title.  They would, if they didn’t come with a tradeoff in performance.  The game has major issues with lag.  Especially the Castle, which scrolls very jerkily, like a first-generation Playstation 1 game.  These also are probably the contributing factor in the brutal load times throughout the game.  I actually used a stopwatch to time them.  It takes 52.2 seconds for the Mine stage to load.  If you die in the level and want to restart, the total time it will take is a 1 minute, 16 seconds.  For a 2D side-scrolling indie game.  The other two levels are worse, both taking over a minute to load, and about a minute and-a-half to reload if you die.  It’s not unlikely you’ll spend over an hour waiting for stuff to load up, in a game that should only take a couple of hours to beat.  It’s outrageous.

Once you’re actually playing the game, things go downhill quickly.  Combat is relatively simple: X is weak attack, Y is strong attack, B you’ll never ever ever ever ever ever use (it’s a useless dash attack) and A jumps.  Allegedly there are combos, but you’re not told what they are and I couldn’t figure out how to activate any.  The one or two times I thought I had done one, they didn’t really do any damage so I didn’t bother experimenting further.

Not doing any damage to baddies was a recurring theme throughout Brand.  Of the fifteen (or sixteen, whatever) upgrades you have to do, I “refined” my sword four times and strengthened it three times.  I also gave it the ability to poison, I made it so a magical light sword thingie would poke out my back allowing me to fight creatures behind me, and I added a fire wave to it and upgraded that a couple of times.  The end result?  The starter enemies might die in one hit, but everything else remained damage sponges.  Mind you, the entire game is about upgrading your offense.  There’s no defensive upgrades at all.  Yet, even once I had done the fifteen (or sixteen, whatever) upgrades and was dumped into the final stage, I felt like I had made no progress.  My dude was still a total pussy and my sword couldn’t cut butter.

Part of it seems to be a result of the game just ignoring your actions.  Direct combat seems to work best, in that about half of your attacks will result in damage.  On the other hand, the upgraded effects do not want to work at all and will fight you every step of the way.  As I noted, I got the fire sword thingie and then upgraded it once.  I then watched as I would send a colossal wave of fire at an enemy and have it pass right through him, doing no damage at all.  I know it didn’t because the enemy didn’t do it’s damage-indication flash.  I wish I could say this was an uncommon occurrence, but actually it got so bad that I started keeping count of how many attacks a single enemy could fail to take.  Around three seemed about average.  Ten wasn’t all that rare.  The most was this one mid-level wasp that was all alone in a normal room with no walls, barriers, or anything else in the way.  I was swinging the sword close enough that in theory the sword itself would do damage, but if that failed the fire would get it as the wasp was dead center in the wave.  Total swings before it registered damage for the first time?  Twenty-fucking-two times.

In order: useless, useless, useless, useless, useless, useless, useless, useless, and useless.

Again, there’s no defensive upgrades in the game.  Well, there is one.  It makes it so you damage a creature you block.  Sounds great!  Sure, the block doesn’t even work on anything past entry-level enemies, but at least you’ll be dealing them damage back!  Yea, about that.  If you get this upgrade and use it too much, it kills you.  No really, you die from it.  And once you have it, you can’t turn it off.  Thus, you’ll be unable to defend yourself throughout levels for the rest of the game.  Given the fact that harder enemies attack faster, cause more damage, and gang up on you, you’re already screwed without the block “upgrade.”  With it, you might as well take your sword and commit Seppuku.  Although if you could actually do that, it would probably take the game five or six tries before registering it.  You can’t increase your lifebar, armor, speed, or jumping ability.  I guess Brand wanted to prove that a good defense is a strong offense.  It’s too bad a strong offense is not an option.

Once you’ve made the last upgrades to your character, you enter the final stage.  Hopefully your sword will be strong enough -snicker- because you’re entering the arena.  You know those stages in Zelda games where you fall down a hole and then you have to fight every single enemy in the game?  Yea, that’s what this is.  You fight a wave of ten or so guys off, all attacking your literally defenseless ass all at once.  If you kill them, a door unlocks, you fall down a hole, and you repeat the process.  There’s no situational health refills.  It seems like one random enemy in each stage will restore a sliver of your bar, so naturally it was always the first enemy I killed each time.  Hell, I can’t say with 100% certainty that there is a random enemy giving away a teeny tiny scrap of health each floor.  I cleared whole rooms out and was always left with a micro-fraction of health left.  I tried beating this for an hour yesterday and another thirty minutes today, never actually making it past the fourth wave.  Perhaps I didn’t upgrade my sword correctly.

Yes, Brand has avatar support. No, I have no fucking clue why this was added instead of fixing the game.

Apparently there is some kind of boss monster at the end of it.  I never found out for myself.  The thing is, I’m guessing that the giant scorpion-dog thingies that were scattered throughout the normal stages are in the Arena and I just hadn’t reached them yet.  If they are, I want to go on the record of saying the game is probably impossible.  I encountered several of those fucking things throughout the game and I only managed to kill one.  They have four attacks, three of which are maybe-unblockable quick strikes that drain your health faster than smoking the exhaust pipe of a bus.  If you manage to get close enough to start swinging, they take dozens of shots before they die.  The mere threat of them was enough to make me realize playing the arena wasn’t worth it, because unless the game ends with you shoving the sword through the throat of the king, then deleting Brand from your hard drive and replacing it with a better game, it’s just not worth the effort.

I could go on about the play control (meh) or the jumping (bleech) or the fact that the price of Brand is going to be raised to 240MSP in 90 days (a proclamation so fucking arrogant the developer ought to be flogged just for thinking about it) but I think I’ve said enough.  If anything I’ve said about this game sounds like something you want to play, have at it, you fucking weirdo.  I’ll close by going back to the graphics, because once again the usual gang of idiots are saying “it’s worth it just for the graphics!”  Quite frankly, I don’t think the graphics are that good.  But let’s say they were.  I think saying gameplay doesn’t matter if the art is good is kind of a hypocritical stance from a community that complains about everything done by guys like Silver Dollar who phone-in nearly every title they release.  How come it’s not okay for them to release busted, broken games with limited play mechanics, but a game like Brand can be nearly unplayable and still get you XBLIGers to stock up on tissues and baby lotion?  I don’t get it.  It would be like only being able to enter the Louvre if the curator gets to cockslap you across the face while the janitor shoves his mop up your ass.

Brand was developed by Nine Dot Studios

80 Microsoft Points said “yes, mop side first” in the making of this review.

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