Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan Review

Sydney Hunter may look like Indiana Jones, but he’s a 180 flip. Sydney didn’t intend to be locked in a Mayan pyramid – he’s there completely by accident. He’s got no interest in the Haab calendar that’s been broken and tossed around levels (there’s no whisper of ‘this artifact belongs in a museum’), and he’s only searching for the pieces as a promise to the Mayan people that live there. If he superglues the calendar together, they’ll let him out. He gets to go home.

That ‘familiar, but different’ theme runs all the way through Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan like a stick of rock. Just as Sydney is a skew-whiff take on Indiana Jones, the game itself has a different take on the 8-bit classics that you may know. It looks like a Rick Dangerous, Balderdash or Metroid, but underneath the surface it’s got some modern sensibilities, a hell of a lot of depth, and a streak of humour.

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Indy – is that you?

We keep writing down that Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is a Metroidvania but then we scratch it out, because it kind of, sort of, is one. It’s broken down into levels, for one, which seems to declassify it. The structure goes a bit like this: you start in the throne room of the Mayan pyramid with a load of doors about you. If you’ve played the 16-bit Addams Family, you might have the gist. Each door needs skulls to open, so you better have enough to unlock the next one. If not, you’re heading back to an older door to canvas it for noggins.

Heading through the door and into a level, you’ve got a large, reasonably open dungeon to explore. There are branching routes, some of which are locked behind upgrades you haven’t gained yet (there you go: the reason we get tempted to throw ‘Metroidvania’ at it). But mostly you are heading in a direction you fancy, tackling enemies and navigating platforms, all in an effort to find skulls (the currency of opening doors) and keys. Those keys are their own currency, since they can be used in the other levels. They unlock routes that garner you more skulls, weapons, upgrades and, eventually, a boss. Kill the boss and a piece of the calendar is yours. Then it’s back to the hub to start all over again.

There are plenty of reasons why Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is ace, but this structure is definitely a big one. Each level is its own little Castlevania mansion. You can explore on a whim in any direction, and each screen is loaded with secrets. Cracked blocks are big hints that there’s a collectible nearby, but you’ll need some skill to get to them without dying. And defeating the boss and pocketing a slice of calendar is only a small part of it. If you want to see the whole game, including all of its non-critical, optional levels, then you will need to be rinsing each level of skulls.

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Double trouble – spikes AND flames

Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is deep and rich like Mayan coffee. I found myself swinging violently between collecting everything – gotta catch them skulls! – and racing through at speed, hoping to hell that I would reach a checkpoint. Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is brutal with these checkpoints, sprinkling one or two and then pocketing the rest. It can be devastating to collect everything and then find you’ve lost it all because the game last saved ten minutes ago.

It does, if we’re being frank, push a little too far into being unhelpful. While reaching a checkpoint is massively rewarding – we would often be punching the air – it’s not exactly consistent. We’d be shouting loudly ‘surely a checkpoint has got to be on the next screen!’, as yet another area would pass without a whisper of a save. That gets coupled with a lack of a map, some odd save rules (it’s hard to tell what will remain collected or not collected after a death or save) and some difficulty spikes to create a slightly too unfriendly experience. Difficulty is fine, but there’s difficulty and there’s unhelpfulness, and Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan can stray into the latter.

Challenge doesn’t come from the controls though. Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is a little joy to play, with tight-as-a-drum jumping and combat. It doesn’t do a huge amount that is complex, which is part of its secret: there is precious little parkouring or acting like Prince of Persia. But by keeping the abilities limited, they can get them right. The same goes for combat. There are additional attacks to be gained like boomerangs and spears, but mostly it’s a choice between melee and projectiles. Both feel good. These attacks are a choice: you tend to have to rotate through them, rather than having a constantly available arsenal.

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What is the Curse of the Mayan?

There’s a little criticism here, too. Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan borrows a trick from Legend of Zelda and TUNIC by having a secondary inventory to tinker with. That’s where all your potions and weapons lie. But there’s so many by the end that finding the one you want is a slightly numbing cycle through the shoulder buttons, or a quick jaunt to the inventory. It’s not a huge bother, but the bothers accumulate towards the end, when you want different abilities at speed.

It didn’t matter all that much because Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan had us in its skeletal mitts. It achieves what the best Metroidvanias do (there you go: we’ve committed to the term, even if the levels are too discrete and short for it to truly classify). It gives you a huge enticing place to explore, deep with secrets and taunting you with areas that are – just – frustratingly out of reach. By breaking its world into levels, you also have choice in what’s next. Do you exhaust an earlier level, unlock a side-room or continue with the critical path? It’s a small tinker to the formula, but it drew us in.

Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan isn’t in the conversation of ‘best Metroidvanias on the Xbox’. It’s got an unhelpful streak, and the graphical scrappiness stops it short from being the next Hollow Knight or Ori. But you know what? That’s a ridiculously high bar to set, and Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan confidently walks underneath it with its head held high. As a retro-leaning, budget Metroidvania, you can’t do much better than this.

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