As Xbox Live Arcade title The Maw begins, you are having a very bad day. First, you are dragged through a spaceship and tossed in a cell. A few minutes later, the ship blows up and you land amongst the wreckage on the planet below. The guys who locked you up in the first place are either particularly tenacious or just really don't like you, because they're still trying to catch you or at least shoot several holes in you. Could be worse, though. At least you've got your new pal The Maw with you.
The Maw, featured in the Xbox Live Arcade game of the same name, is not Paw's counterpart, but rather a toothy purple alien was also locked up on the ship. The Maw isn't exactly a rocket scientist, has no hands, and is a bit of a coward, but he does have one unique talent that will prove invaluable as the two of you try to make your way to freedom: He's really, really hungry and can eat just about anything you throw at him. You wouldn't think the ability to digest would be such an important skill when attempting to make your way through an unfamiliar environment, but if Bear Grylls has taught us anything, it's that eating is key to survival.
Though at first it looks like an action/adventure title in the vein of Ratchet and Clank, The Maw is really a well-designed puzzle game that's been given a healthy coating of adorable-colored paint. The object of each level is simple - reach the goal at the end - but you'll have to figure out how to navigate around the many obstacles each environment puts in your way. Trees, force fields, laser turrets and bizarre creatures all do their best to prevent you from making it to the exit, but that's where The Maw's gullet comes in.
Feed him enough Yums (tiny pink puffballs that hide in the grass), and The Maw becomes big enough to eat larger creatures like Gastros (fire breathing lizards), Puff-Tors (worms that expand like balloons), and Loofers (peacocks that shoots lasers from their many eyes). When The Maw eats one of these larger animals, he absorbs their individual abilities, kind of the way Kirby does. Of course, it's a bit trickier than simply tying on the feed bag; The Maw will usually need your help getting to his lunch. He can't eat a firey Gastro, for example, until it's been extinguished in a nearby river. Douse the lizard, feed it to The Maw, who absorbs the Gastro's fire-breathing power, and then burns down the trees that are blocking the path. The entire game is made up of such sequences, which get satisfyingly more complex as the game proceeds.
Unfortunately, there's far too much tedium getting in the way. The Maw is a hungry kind of guy, and has to be fed constantly - not only so that he can grow bigger and eat larger creatures, but also because he has to consume a certain amount before he'll leave the level. This wouldn't be quite so bad if there were an obvious way to tell how much more The Maw had to eat, but there's just no way of knowing. Once he's full, he tells you, but until then you've got little choice but to try and eat every single thing you can find. You drag him over here so he can eat Yums. You drag him over there so he can eat more Yums. You crack open some snails so that he can eat them, and then you crack open some more snails so he can eat them, too. It wouldn't be quite so bad if you could just let The Maw go in a herd of Yums and he'd gobble them all up, but you either have to lead him to each of them, or catch them and feed them to him yourself. It's a chore. It's a drag. It's a grind.
I have to think that requiring The Maw to eat a certain amount in order to be able to leave the area was included simply as a way to extend the gameplay, because even with it, The Maw is a very, very short game - maybe about five hours total if you really take your time and track down every last little tantalizing morsel. It's a shame, really, because without the padding, the game is incredibly charming and fun. It's certainly not the hardest game in the world - laser beams don't kill you, they just knock you on your bum - but it looks great, has a nifty soundtrack, and the puzzles are pleasantly clever.
Bottom Line: The Maw has a lot of good ideas that are bogged down with tedious repetition. If you can look past the grind, you'll enjoy yourself. If you can't, then it doesn't matter how cute the toothy little guy is.
Recommendation: Absolutely worth a shot, if only to hear The Maw's brainless little chuckle.
Susan Arendt suspects her bottomless pit of a puppy is distantly related to The Maw.