Alwa’s Awakening (PC) Review: Charming Lands Marred By Unwieldly Mechanics

Alwa's Awakening (PC) Review: Charming Lands Marred By Unwieldly Mechanics

Alwa’s Awakening is a charming NES-style adventure, one that will relax players for many hours with its platforming magic powers and pretty pixelated countryside. At least, until its difficulty ramps up, tossing the player into spike-lined halls, relentless boss battles, and platforming areas that require pixel-perfect jumps. It’s entertaining for those looking for a challenge, but a few flaws make it a lot less fun than it ought to be.

Alwa’s Awakening features the player character Zoe as she awakens in the world of Alwa, its people needing her help in retrieving magic ornaments that will let her banish the evil Vicar and his jerk buddies. It’s just enough of a reason to head out and start smacking passers-by with your magic cane, exploring the interwoven hills and halls of the game’s lands.

They’re nice places to explore. The various locations of the game’s 400 screens all have pleasant details to them, offering some nice pixel work in the backgrounds. Each of the areas in Alwa’s Awakening stand out well, making it easy to know what part of the world you’re in as you roam around looking for power-ups and magical doodads.

There’s tons of stuff to find and collect. On top of new platforming abilities, players can find 99 collectable orbs spread across the world. If players collect a certain amount, they will get a free hit on every boss in the game, rewarding players with easier boss fights should they do some exploration. These items are hidden all over the place as well, getting players to poke around every possible route for extra boss damage.

The enemies players encounter also feature some fun designs. They all have a playful look to them, favouring a childish nature even when facing armed skeletons or colossal knights. It feels in keeping with the NES’ pixel visuals, evoking a time when even the monsters that killed players all looked a little silly. However, many of the same enemies show up over and over, and while they feature smooth animations and sharp details, they do get a little tired by the end.

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Alwa’s Awakening gameplay images via Elden Pixels

Repetitive monsters do have some plus sides. Players will know how to deal with them well after running into them so many times, and Alwa’s Awakening does introduce at least an enemy or two in each area, so it helps players learn their behaviours by the end. That being said, few enemies require the player do more than rush them and hit them, stun-locking them no matter how many hits they take.

To counter how easy they are, players can only take three hits, and Alwa’s Awakening offers little post-hit invincibility time. A single enemy with ranged weapons can easily hit the player two to three times in moments, taking them from full health to death from a single screw-up. It technically balances the challenge out, but it makes many deaths feel a little cheap.

Bosses can make this a worse problem. The bosses in Alwa’s Awakening are quick and have huge damage spreads with their attacks, shredding careless players. They’re also highly entertaining, as they will push the player to use all of their skills and abilities in creative ways to get past them. It feels really good to put these beasts down as they require timing and smart spell choice to beat (more on magic in a bit), making for some memorable battles.

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Alwa’s Awakening gameplay images via Elden Pixels

Most often, Alwa’s Awakening challenges players with platforming segments. Players will have to get Zoe through many lethal platforming areas using magical spells that she collects throughout the game. She can create a bubble that she can ride on as it floats straight up, and a stone that gives her a little boost, blocks projectiles and can float across water. With just these two mechanics, the developers have created many devious areas that can only be traversed with careful use of these powers.

Players looking for NES-era challenge will find it with these deadly arrays of pitfalls. In the beginning, these start out simple, teaching the player how to use these abilities in tandem. They stay simple for some time, honestly, giving the impression the game won’t be all that hard. Then, several hours in, these areas start to get significantly harder. It’s jarring and will catch many players off-guard before they adapt to the new challenge.

After that, it gets even harder, requiring pixel-perfect timing to complete the gauntlets of jumps. It’s relentlessly challenging, and while the game is normally generous with save points, these all but dry up at the end, making for exhausting slogs through several areas where players can’t make the slightest mistake.

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Alwa’s Awakening gameplay images via Elden Pixels

Being challenging is fine, but these sections are made a bit more difficult because the spell casting is unwieldily. Rather than map each spell to a button, players have to toggle through the three of them (there is a damaging lightning spell thrown into the mix). This can be irritating when casting while leaping and is made even worse because players have to hit up and attack to cast a spell.

Hitting up and attack while trying to control a jump through narrow, lethal spikes or pitfalls, while toggling through spells, is needlessly difficult. Also, given how much players have to fiddle with the control stick/d-pad, it means the right spell might not cast, adding a random chance of failure to already-difficult platforming sections, or they may be messing with the spell instead of guiding their landing. Spells also draw from a magic meter, so players also have to make sure that hasn’t drained on top of it all. It’s an awkward control scheme that drains the fun out of Alwa’s Awakening‘s challenge.

Alwa’s Awakening takes its players to a pretty, magical land filled with unassuming creatures, delightful environments, cunning bosses, and precise platforming segments. It would be a great game were it not for its clumsy spell system, which makes the game’s harder moments needlessly, and unfairly, difficult.

Motion Twin Set to Release “RogueVania” Dead Cells to Steam Early Access

Motion Twin Set to Release "RogueVania" Dead Cells to Steam Early Access

The Metroidvania formula is one many of us are quite familiar with, but the people from Motion Twin are set to add another genre to the mix; Rogue-lites.

Dead Cells will be hitting Steam Early Access on May 10, 2017 and is promising to bring a new twist to a well-loved genre.

Motion Twin set to release action-packed Dead Cells to Steam Early Access

You play as an as-yet-unnamed “green mass of sentient cells stranded on an ever-changing island” in what the developer dubs as a ‘RogueVania” defined as “the threat of permadeath, balanced with a generous system of progression, the exhilaration of discovering new hidden areas, alternate paths to progress through the castle, and a pinch of procedural generation to keep you on your toes.”

Several features players will be familiar with are compiled into a genre that looks like it will strike a cool balance between difficulty and rewarding gameplay.

According to Motion Twin in a release features in the game include:

  • Souls-like combat: Gameplay changing weapons, invincibility frames when rolling, pattern based bosses and monsters and of course, punishing difficulty.
  • Exploration: Unlock new levels, secrets and abilities as you learn the world.
  • Progression: Permanent upgrades will allow you to go a little further with every run.
  • Depth: More than 10 levels, 50 weapons, spells and traps, plus tons of replayability.

According to the release, Motion Twin says this is about 30 to 40 per cent of the content that will be found in the final version.

Motion Twin was founded as a developers cooperative in Bordeaux, France. Up until this point they have only dived into free-to-play PC and mobile games as well as pioneering some freeware developers tools.

“We’re a cooperative with no boss that’s been making F2P games for 15 years. It got to the point where we had to ask ourselves why we were doing it. After that there was no choice but to make something for us,” said Motion Twin’s lead designer Sébastien Benard in a press release. “We’re taking two genres we all love, adding our little twist, and aiming for the best rogue-lite/metroidvania you’ve ever played. So far the feedback has been really positive, so we’re really really excited to see people playing!”

Dead Cells launches on Steam Early Access on May 10, 2017 for Windows PC. Mac and Linux releases are planned for full launch at a later time.

Song of the Deep (PS4) Review

Song of the Deep (PS4) Review

The very idea of Song of the Deep didn’t instill me with much faith. Insomniac Games is one of my favourite developers, but seeing them try their hand at a worn genre just didn’t click. It felt like a forced attempt at trying to make something feel fresh. “Here’s a Metroidvania title, but with a submarine! Isn’t that a fun time!”

Read moreSong of the Deep (PS4) Review

Headlander (PS4) Review

Headlander (PS4) Review

Double Fine’s offerings have been off lately, haven’t they? The decorated developer’s output has left me cold over the last few years. It’s been feeling like their trademark wackiness has been coming at the expense of fully realized concepts. This hurts to say about the developers of some of my favorite games, like Brutal Legend and Psychonauts, but it’s just how I feel.

That’s why it’s delightful to see that with Headlander, the developer still has a good head on its shoulders.

Read moreHeadlander (PS4) Review

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime (Xbox One) Review

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime (Xbox One) Review

The notion that any piece of art is perfect is just wrong, but sometimes you can get pretty close. That’s how I feel about Asteroid Base’s latest game, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. By creatively blending genres like space shooters, tower defence, and metroidvania with bright colours and an original art style, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is one of the most unique and original titles on the market.  It’s one of the best games I’ve played in a very long time.

Everything about this title is unique, and that’s most evident in the plot. In the distant future, space scientist rabbits harnessed the power of love as a new fuel source. This new green energy was beloved by everyone; until an engine malfunctions, opening a portal to another galaxy, spilling hostile aliens and Anti-Love across the universe. Every cotton-tailed creature is captured and it’s up to you and your cat (or dog) to man a spaceship to save captive bunnies.

loversinsert4I heard the game really shines with multiplayer, but our office Xbox One only had one, so I had to settle with single-player, and it was a delight to play. It’s one of those games where it sounds complicated until you actually play it. You and your companion control a giant space circle fully equipped with four fixed turrets, one constantly moving cannon, a shield, and a map. You guide your ship looking for bunnies and jumping from turret to turret, taking out evil aliens. The combat is hectic as you need to move around constantly to man the proper turrets, while also controlling where your companion should be. I find the most effective way to play is to keep your pet on shield duty, that way the side you’re not on is still defended until you can switch to defend it. This leaves you in a position where you get surrounded because you can’t move, but if you’re fast enough, it shouldn’t be a problem. When you’re not locked in battle, exploring is encouraged. Each stage has a minimum space bunny requirement, but there are more scattered throughout the map and, while you do that, you can find upgrades for your ship along the way. It gives you incentive to explore and earn a better score.

The presentation is even more appealing. Everything is bright and neon. When bunnies are rescued they shoot rainbows, every character has a cute 2D cartoon aesthetic, and their colours are a stark contrast to the dark space background. To add to that, the techno soundtrack fits perfectly with the game and never gets old. Everything just fits to make a great experience.

Everything was put together carefully and lovingly, and that’s why it’s so fun. It’s originality and charm make it stand out from the rest of the XBLA marketplace’s indie titles. I really can’t say anything bad about this game. From amazing, frantic combat, to the exploration, right down to the art direction and music, Lovers in A Dangerous Spacetime is hard to forget. While no game is perfect, this comes dangerously close.

Xeodrifter (PS4) Review

Xeodrifter (PS4) Review

If I were to describe Xeodrifter in its most simple form, it would sound like every other indie game out there. It’s an 8-bit metroidvania-style shooter with RPG elements developed by Renegade Kid, but hot damn is it ever fun. Originally released as a 3DS title last year, it’s made its way to next-gen consoles and PC. It’s a love letter to games that came before it, with a simple story and pick-up-and-play game mechanics, while keeping the formula fresh to make a game that is completely unique.

In terms of story, there’s not much there. You play as a nameless astronaut whose ship is hit by an asteroid, and you must search nearby planets to repair it. Unfortunately for our space explorer, none of these planets are friendly and you have to Mega Man your way through them for some upgrades.

xeodrifterinsert1Upgrades come in two forms: gun enhancements and new abilities. Both are very important to the game, but your actual powers are what get you through each level. There are six to be had; a submarine power, the ability to jump between the foreground and background, rocket ability, speed run, a charged shot attack and teleportation. On their own, these powers are pretty useful. But farther into the game, players need to combine these features to make it through each level. This makes for really intense reflex situations where players must combine all the powers in succession to traverse each world. There are four planets in total, but players will have to make multiple trips to find everything. There’s always a secret or two scattered on each map, and there are locations you can’t reach until you acquire a specific skill. It makes each world feel small at first, but very expansive later on in the game. Midway through each location, there is a boss fight. Unfortunately, they’re all palette swaps of the same weird insect monster, but each one has an extra ability to keep you on your toes. Eventually, you’ll have to use each upgrade to expertly take them down; but it will take a few tries.

But the challenge isn’t an issue in this game. Sure, it’s not easy, but there is never a point where I felt the game was unfair. The difficulty curve is almost perfect, and the more you play the better you get. The problem lies in how some of the more difficult points line up. There are a lot of enemies waiting for you at the edge of your screen that you can’t see. Because it’s a rather fast-paced game, it’s very easy to run into a gross alien face. Trial and error is one way to put it, but there are points that don’t sit well. Those times of frustration pass as you learn the game, though, so it’s more of an annoyance than anything.

It’s really hard to stay upset at a game so charming. Aesthetically, it’s gorgeous. Its 8-bit-plus style makes it feel like a relic from the past, but slightly upgraded to show more. The musical score is interesting; it’s reminiscent of Cave Story but with more of a Metroid feel. It all fits together to make an experience that feels genuine. Admittedly, the ability to jump from foreground to background doesn’t translate as well onto the big screen as it does on the 3DS, but it’s a minor gripe for an otherwise amazing experience.

It’s really hard to walk away from Xeodrifter with anything but fond memories. Its retro inspired aesthetic and difficulty make it a blast for anyone who grew up playing Metroid, and its straight-up fun factor make it a great time for anyone else. It’s a highly enjoyable game with a unique take on a genre that’s overused in today’s gaming landscape. This game is a gem and should be enjoyed by everyone, so go out and have a blast!

Apotheon (PS4) Review

Apotheon (PS4) Review

All It’ll Cost You Is Time

Sony does some decidedly original marketing when it comes to the release of indie games. One of their riskier tactics is to make games free, which basically means they paid the developer a certain amount of money to ensure they didn’t starve to death while people happily downloaded their brand new game courtesy of a PlayStation Plus subscription. It happened at the launch of the PS4 with Contrast and it’s happening again with Apotheon. So, what does a free game get you? In this case, a Metroidvania game with a Greek urn aesthetic.

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God Of Metroidvania

Nikandreos is just your average Greek warrior minding his own business when the entire realm is endangered by none other than Zeus himself. Having decided that worship was overrated, Zeus has forsaken Greece, leaving it ripe for the picking for anyone that left the land alone for fear of divine retribution. Nikandreos, as the request of an annoyed Hera, travels to Olympus to set the King of the Gods straight by exploring different areas, finding out he doesn’t have the right tool/ability for certain parts, and going to other areas to fight Olympians get what’s needed and finish the job. In other words, this is  Metroidvania game.

Of course, the biggest thing selling Apotheon is the aesthetic. Alientrap have heavily channeled the style of Greek urns and other examples of ancient Greek artwork, and created a look and animation that resembles this. It’s quite striking in motion, and on the PS4, performs buttery smooth, which you’d expect from a 2D, side-scrolling game. The sound is also surprisingly rich for a small indie game, complete with voice acting. This may be an independent title, but it’s one that enjoyed a decent budget.

The game, however, doesn’t quite live up to the lush presentation. It’s a side-scrolling Metroidvania game, so most will already know the drill. This is about combat, some RPG-lite mechanics with upgrading equipment and stats, and getting new abilities through the acquisition of new weapons and gear, which also makes it possible to explore new areas. It’s a tried and true formula and Alientrap does not mess it up. Neither, however, do they make their design shine brilliantly. Combat is a little clunky, using a combination of trigger buttons with the right analog stick to aim, awkwardly combining twin-stick shooting with melee. It’s not broken, but it never feels as responsive as it could. On the conceptual side, some boss fights, like the Artemis confrontation cleverly use Greek mythology in fitting ways, while others like Apollo are just standard hacking and slashing to get the life bar down to zero.

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Apotheon is never a bad game, and occasionally, it’s even a great game, but it’s never consistently great enough to become a classic in the same way other indie titles like Journey have. That’s not to say the game isn’t recommended, and at the February price of “free” with PlayStation Plus, it’s definitely a worthwhile addition to your collection. At the regular price of $15 on the PSN Store and Steam, it’s still a good title for Metroidvania fans looking for their next fix. It’s just not necessarily going to stick in your mind as a classic of the genre once you’re done with it. Alientrap has shown some real ingenuity with some portions of Apotheon. If this small Toronto studio can keep it up, and make their future games as consistently imaginative and fun as some of the best parts of Apotheon then they’ll have a bright future in the indie scene.

The Tale of Buck a Kickstarter About a Dog

The Tale of Buck a Kickstarter About a Dog

Ever since game designer Gal Kfir got his dog Buck 17 years ago, he knew he wanted to make a videogame about his canine.  Kfir always  wanted to be a game designer, so the idea of creating an experience centered on a little mixed breed that had a lot of fight for his size seemed like a no brainer.

He started interning at Microsoft Studios where he won an internal award for a game design, and then he left to start Wave Interactive. At the moment it’s his side project, he edits promo videos to get by. But Buck is something he’s constantly worked on. His original idea was to create a big 3D game.

“Back then before I had any idea how freaking hard it was to make videogames, I imagined it being 3D, like Crash Bandicoot with guns,” says Kfir. “But then to work in a real company with a real staff on a real game… I realized I had no idea what I was talking about.”

So when the time came to start the project, he decided to go for 2D, metroidvania style instead. It’s more budget friendly and a little easier to put together. So, he started working on concepts with his brother.  It was around this time he met fellow game designer Amir Barak. Barak liked what he saw and started working on a prototype without talking to Kfir first. Kfir loved this and they’ve been working together ever since.  The team has since grown, but they don’t work from an office. Instead, each individual works from home and they communicate through Skype. For Kfir, that’s one of the biggest challenges with this game. “The artist wants to have every bit of pixel and quality inside, while the programmer wants to make it run and work on as many platforms as possible,” says Kfir, “managing that through a Skype call can be very challenging.”

What was easy for the team was the decision of how it plays. They loved the non linear progression and dialogue options of The Witcher, and the customization of weapons from games like Ghost Recon, so they meshed them together into something they’re pretty proud of.

The story follows Buck, who recently lost his girlfriend and goes on a quest to get her back. Aside from appearances, they tried to base the Buck character’s personality off of Buck the dog’s. “He was always a bit of an outsider, he couldn’t stand other animals,” says Kfir, “he was really aggressive toward bigger dogs.” As a tribute to Buck, they made the enemies bigger than him.

They also built a world where he’s an outsider, everything is new and sort of hostile towards him. Many of the locals have pre-conceived notions of him too. This is where the dialogue option comes into play.  They are still tinkering with how it will actually function, but Kfir thinks it would be a good idea to have it function as a tool to how people will react to Buck. Players can either stick with the prejudices of the townsfolk or they can win them over and play their own way.  It’s something that is still being worked on though.

An example conversation from the game.

With all the progress, there was a break period  for a short time following the death of Buck. Saddened by the loss of his friend, Kfir didn’t want to continue developing the game. “When the real Buck passed away, I went on a small hiatus. I didn’t feel like working on it anymore,” says Kfir, “But what really got us back was that we had a really small community… that sent us a lot of support and talked about us on websites.”

That inspiration kept the team working toward their goal—get the game to Kickstarter. And they have. The deadline is set for May 28, 2014 to reach it’s goal of  $75 000. But it is looking like they will fall short. Kfir notes that they spent too much time developing and not enough time marketing, something they’re working on now. One thing they’ve done to get some attention was to add an incentive to get other animals added into the game. Certain backer’s pets will now appear as characters because their owners pledged $200 dollars or they will appear as enemies because owners pledged $250.

This idea generated some interest in the game, but it’s still not where they want it to be in terms of funding.  For now, the team is going to work on publicity and adding the fun factor into the game. If this Kickstarter fails, they will probably go back after generating some hype.

For Kfir, this is a chance to live a dream he’s had since childhood–to make a game about his dog. While Buck isn’t around to see it come together completely, it’s a tribute to him and pets worldwide.

Check out the Buck Kickstarter!

Strider: A Cut Above (PS4) Review

Strider: A Cut Above (PS4) Review

Capcom’s Strider was one of the arcade coin-op action games instrumental in solidifying my hobby as a console gamer. It begat two popular console games of the same name; one a near-perfect, ‘killer app’ port on the Sega Genesis that introduced me to the world of 16-bit gaming, the other an 8-bit ‘Metroidvania’-style platformer on the Nintendo Entertainment System which drew me into its story and world far deeper than Metroid and Simon’s Quest ever managed to do. So you can imagine how delightful it is to play a modern take on this classic game that not only incorporates both versions in equal measure but also refines them to a point as sharp as the cypher-blade wielded by its protagonist, Strider Hiryu.

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As in the original arcade game, the player as Hiryu must assassinate the evil overlord, Grandmaster Meio, slashing his way through the belly of the dystopian, Soviet Union-inspired city of Kazakh to get to him. What’s truly impressive is just how much of the classic coin-op developer Double Helix has managed to not just retain but also expand upon. For example, the brief appearances by the unfortunately-named martial artists the Pooh Sisters as well as the Boba Fett-like bounty hunter named Solo in the arcade game have been fleshed out into larger rivalries with Hiryu, culminating in multiple boss battles that are both challenging and satisfying. In similar fashion, Hiryu has kept all of his trademark acrobatic flair, agility, climbing abilities and ninja-lethality showcased in his debut as well as his cameos in the Marvel vs. Capcom games, but his trademark tools as well as his robotic drone, jaguar and eagle sidekicks have received upgrades that enhance gameplay without slowing down the action. Most notably, Hiryu’s trusted cypher-blade and kunai throwing stars gradually attain a variety of different plasma types though upgrades, which affect their properties in battle as well as unlock new routes of travel and means of traversal. Hiryu’s signature scarf and mask also take on the color of whichever plasma is equipped, making exploration, backtracking and combat simpler, and gamers looking to get the best value for their money will find all of the above elements in spades. Better yet, there’s even a story with half-decent voice acting tying it all together.

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Accompanying this deeper, lengthier remake of Strider is a level of difficulty that veterans may find intimidating at first, even in Normal Mode. While player attacks are awarded extra damage for dispatching strings of weaker foes or landing consecutive strikes on tougher enemies without getting hit, only the twitchiest players accustomed to bullet-hell-style games are likely to frequently fill their combo meter early on in the game. This generation’s Hiryu is built to take a pounding, and his foes are experts in giving them, so unless you’ve unleashed a perfectly-timed charge strike, or deflected a barrage of bullets at just the right angle, don’t expect to fell an enemy in a single blow. And until you’ve unlocked enough abilities, be prepared to absorb additional hits when stunned or knocked down, as the minions of Grandmaster Meio can be relentless. Thankfully, the solid controls live up to the challenge, and before long, even beginners will start to feel like cypher-swinging badasses. What fans will find familiar however is the game’s soundtrack, which features several tracks masterfully remixed from the original arcade and NES titles, and in another nod to the NES classic, the game is filled with hidden collectibles that will have players searching every last unexplored corner for upgrades, concept art and story dossiers. The game simply oozes fan service.

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Without question, Strider is worthy of a $15 purchase regardless of the platform it’s on, but on PS4 it’s a solid and welcome addition to the console’s still-anemic game library. More importantly, it’s a testament to the continued appeal of the franchise, and while this is likely the last Strider game to be developed by Double Helix (thanks to their recent acquisition by Amazon), this die-hard fan hopes Hiryu’s next solo adventure won’t be so long in coming.