In a landscape teeming with retro inspired games, occasionally a few rise to the top and stand out. Alwa’s Awakening manages to do just that. It’s easy to tell the passion the Elden Pixels team has for these types of games, as it just oozes out in every detail. There are plenty of examples of retro-inspired games that are able to capture the look and/or sounds of those they try to emulate. Alwa’s Awakening goes one step further and really captures the heart and soul of those titles. I do like retro style games, but I certainly love ones that get it oh so right.
The game takes place in the land of Alwa which has been besieged by the Vicar. He has stolen the 4 ornaments and brought evil to the land for centuries. As their last hope, the hero, Zoe, is brought to Alwa to help restore order and defeat the Vicar. Along the way she uses her magic staff to defeat enemies and explore the land. Only when she has returned the 4 ornaments can she go on to face the root of the evil in the land of Alwa.
Now that the setting is in place, it’s time to turn our attention to the gameplay. Alwa’s Awakening draws inspiration from such old school titles as The Battle of Olympus and Solstice. While I am not too familiar with Solstice, the description of that game does remind me a good deal of Legacy of the Wizard. If none of those names ring a bell, then feel free to sub in the “Metroidvania” description. What it all boils down to is a non-linear game map to explore. While there is a general order to follow, there is plenty of wiggle room in how and when you explore.
Zoe’s magic staff is the main tool for the platforming and puzzle-solving action. Its most basic function is to attack monsters that she encounters. Along the way there are several upgrades that need to be sought out to fully advance through the game, the first of which is the block, useful for getting a little boost to reach higher platforms and blocking projectiles. Later, an upgrade can be found that allows the block to float on water, which comes in handy. The next addition is a bubble, which gives more of a boost for when jumping off the block won’t do. This also can be upgraded so the duration lasts much longer and can be used to ascend vertically to rooms higher up. Last but not least is the lightning/fire ball, which is helpful in opening some doors and, of course, attacking enemies.
Alwa’s Awakening does go the route of those old style NES games when it comes to teaching the skills needed to complete the game. As Zoe progresses, each area provides different challenges to prepare you for the final destination. In general, these are done extremely well. They flow pretty naturally so that they aren’t exactly beating you over the head saying, “Learn this trick now for the next section entirely”. The only “learning experience” that escaped me at first introduction was controlling jump height. On the lead up to the first boss, there are spikes overhead and below with a gap between platforms. Like a thick-headed buffoon, I jumped triumphantly into each set of spikes and grumbled about unavoidable damage. It wasn’t till further along that this skill really became necessary, and I finally learned a much needed lesson once insta-death spikes were in play.
While some rooms are rather straightforward, many do require some puzzle solving and strategy to get through. This, of course, ramps up further into the game. There will be plenty of practice using everything in Zoe’s arsenal, along with some classic elements such as hidden passages through walls, spikes and even flames. Having tackled the game with full completion in mind, I thoroughly examined every nook and cranny of the rooms. Doing so is required to find every hidden room and item in the game. One of the collectables are blue orbs that upgrade Zoe’s power. There are 99 of them in the game, and I sought out and found all of them, even though doing so required lots of backtracking and thorough investigation of every element in the rooms. I still had lots of fun with it once the job was complete.
Originally, the plan was to take the bosses in their “natural” order. After the 2nd boss, however, this plan went out the window. While the bosses have some pretty straightforward attack patterns, there is very little room for error. One misstep can easily lead to multiple instances of damage and, soon after, death. Knowing that the blue orbs deal a set amount of damage to the boss’ pre-fight, I wanted to get as big a boost as I could. This was really helpful, as it shortened the time in which I had to not screw up to defeat them. Even still, the Cyclops boss was rather difficult, as setting the room up for eventual victory took a lot of tries to find optimal positions to attack and defend from. Well, scratch that, it seemed like there was only one place to set up shop, it just took me a while to find it, even though it was right in front of me the whole time.
Everything comes together for the final area of the map. Here is where it requires using every trick learned along the way. The rooms are difficult with little to no margin for error. This is where I was thankful that I spent so much time seeking out every item in the game. Having been through every room no less than 3 or 4 times, I had mastered the skills needed at this point (and spent over 11 hours doing so). It made the last section, as difficult as it was, a breeze. So, all those lessons the game wanted to teach eventually paid off. Make no mistake though, it is the toughest area in the game.
Having wanted to “complete” everything in the game, I was particularly perplexed by one shut door. Eventually, I moved past it, but it is a genuine mystery at the moment on how to open it up. There are a good number of clues along the way in the game, and there is that feeling of a whole lot more being hidden here than just what is on the surface. It’s already started an ever growing discussion on Steam about how to open it. So there may be a lot more left here to discover.
Having talked rather glowingly now for a while about the game, is there anything I didn’t like? Turns out, not a whole lot. The controls for a gamepad were great. The only minor issue isn’t so much with the controls, but at certain points during jumps, Zoe can’t activate spells, particularly when close to the ground and trying to get a bit of a “skill shot” over the top of an incoming projectile, but not so high as to miss the target. This provided some grief in particular with that Cyclops boss. Other than that, projectile speeds for enemies seemed to be just slightly fast and could cause some unavoidable damage due to room placement. In the “neutral” category the moving elements seem to be placed with speed running in mind, a bonus for those into speed running, but they can lead to some longer wait times for moving platforms to come back if you don’t move immediately towards them at the start of the room.
While I by no means want to skim over art and music, I do need to wrap things up here. The art is excellent, it has a really good look to it and genuinely feels like its old school counterparts. I particularly liked seeing some real identifiable homages to portions of other retro video games. The music as well is fantastic. There are some bonafide great tunes in there. The other tunes aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination but tend to pale in comparison.
Developer: Elden Pixels
Publisher: Elden Pixels
Release Date: 2nd February 2017