Alwa’s Awakening – The Switch Island Review
Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. It’s the backbone of Disney’s current business plan for the next decade as they re-release the same stories they made years ago, and it’s the reason I still think S Club 7 are one of the greatest bands of all time – I was just the right age at the right time. The thing is, though it can be a great comfort in these turbulent modern times, nostalgia can actually be more of a hindrance when it comes to reviewing games, and negatives can be downplayed or ignored. Luckily for me I never owned an NES; actually I’m not sure if that makes me lucky, but what it does make me is an ideal candidate to review Alwa’s Awakening.
A retro-styled metroidvania that wears its influences on its sleeves, Alwa’s Awakening harkens back to a time where home gaming was booming, and the challenge was real. You play as Zoe, a mysterious protagonist from another world who wakes up in the land of Alwa with little knowledge of who you are, where you are, or what to do. After a brief chat with a friendly old woman you’re brought up to date on the local history; the land of Alwa once prospered until an evil known as Vicar arrived, devastated Alwa, and created four Guardians to guard four powerful Ornaments. So that’s true retro adventure game fashion its up to you to explore the land, defeat the Guardians, and claim the power of the four Ornaments to help defeat Vicar once and for all.
Unfortunately, however, that’s pretty much it in terms of story. The game doesn’t focus much on the narrative, and it’s seems to be there only as a loose connection to drive the player forward. There aren’t many NPCs in the game that aren’t enemies, and when you find one they don’t always say anything that has any meaning to you or the game as a whole. In fact there were several time when I came across an NPC and was surprised to remember that there was actually a story here; most of the game relies on the moment-to-moment platforming and puzzles that the narrative is easily left by the wayside. It’s a shame because whilst I know the developers are just trying to emulate the style a certain era, I really feel the game would’ve benefited from more of an emphasises on the writing.
That being said, this is an action-platformer metroidvania in the truest sense, and so the real strengths of Alwa’s Awakening lie in its gameplay. The game essentially runs as a single screen based platformer; from the beginning you’ll make your way through all the various locations in Alwa, each with their own distinct style and somewhat unique enemies. Enemies will respawn as soon as you move to the next screen making each time you die or have to backtrack that much more painful, and the platforming hazards will only continue to get harder as you explore. It starts with a slowly moving enemy killed in one hit followed by a jump even a toddler could make, and ends with screen after screen of falling platforms, instant-death spikes, and fireballs being hurled at you from across the room. Despite its difficulty the game never feels unfair, the challenge ramps up at a comfortable speed and whilst you will die repeatedly (this is not a a guess, it’s a certainty) the next goal always feels just within reach, and with a bit of persistence you’ll get there in the end.
To help you along your journey you’ll need your trusty magic staff. You’re introduced to this early in the game, and while at first you’re limited to only being able to hit things with it, you’ll soon discover three types of magic that will each help in different ways. Whether it’s through traversal or combat, each of these powers are critical to furthering your exploration of Alwa and some are necessary to even try to take on the bosses. This is where the metroidvania is at its best, everywhere you go there’s often more than one path to take, and though you’ll end up exploring every avenue, the game does a great job at hinting at areas you cant access just yet but should remember for the future. Powerful upgrades to these different spells are also available, though they’re somewhat of a requirement to finishing the game and so hold less of an RPG like element than you might initially think.
Combat is somewhat of a letdown however, as the majority of enemies are very easily defeated and the only ones I had any trouble with were the bosses. Don’t get me wrong, thats not to say the game is easy, the platforming is the part that really asks the most of you; your precision and timing will really be put to the test here and being off by even one pixel can often spell your death. This isn’t a game thats going to hold your hand, and the phrase “git gud” weighed heavily on my mind every time I fell down the same pit for the tenth time in a row. And, as if to intentionally shame the player, the game keeps a running tab on just how many times you’ve died. By the time I’d finished the final boss, my own personal counter of shame was at 335! It wasn’t until after I’d beaten the game that I realised the Switch port has the option of an ‘Assist Mode’ that shows item locations on the map and enables instant respawns. That being said I would highly recommend not using this mode, the regular game is tough sure, but it’s equally rewarding.
When it comes down to it, Alwa’s Awakening is a game that knows exactly what it’s trying to achieve. The story may be limited but the gameplay is superb, the enemies may be minor inconveniences but the platforming is fiendishly perfect. In every area the game seems to be lacking, it makes up for it and then some in another way, and thats really a testament to the way the developers were able to realise their dreams – the gorgeous 8bit art and soundtrack is just the proof in the proverbial pudding. It would be interesting to see how my perceptions would have changed if I had the nostalgia of playing similar games on an NES back in the day, but as it stands I would say that this game could hold its own regardless of console generation; there’s such love and polish that’s gone into its creation that it’s utterly impossible for me not to recommend.