Since the start of the indie-stry - the indie games industry - games have been produced using the NES visual style. But it has felt since Yacht Club Games exceptional Shovel Knight there has been a massive push for NES visuals. Shovel Knight is a phenomenal game that has a perfect blend of visuals, great old school difficulty and modern day design. Since then it has felt that the indie-stry has latched onto NES era graphics but ignored all modern design. Alwa’s Awakening fits perfectly into the category of looking great but not playing fair.
Alwa’s Awakening is a puzzle platforming game that has you taking on the role of Zoe. This is like one of those Legend of Zelda names where the main character is not called Alwa. Alwa is the name of the kingdom you are trying to save. You see, Alwa was a peace-loving kingdom that had no conflicts or bad times until one person woke up one day and thought to themselves “I should take over this peaceful land,” and so they did. The people of Alwa, instead of trying to fight back cower and summon Zoe to come save them. Who is Zoe? Where does she come from? Why was she chosen? Who knows, because the game forgets to tell you. The story is just a setup but it does feel odd that Alwa didn’t have someone in their own kingdom to save them.
Let’s talk about how amazing this game looks first. Shovel Knight will always be the standard for sprite-based aesthetics and animation going forward but Alwa’s Awakening comes very close to replicating what Shovel Knight started. The look of the game is fantastic and would fit perfectly with any later day NES game. Animations are basic but let you know exactly what your character is doing. All-in-all the game is a genuine joy to look at.
The music is also very good. From the opening with its creepy and downbeat tones setting up its sad tale of power gone mad, to the joys of the starting dungeon with its positive tones that you are on a mighty quest to save the kingdom of Alwa from the evil Guardians, the music stands out as one of the better moments for the game. When you turn up the volume to anything you know you are onto a winner.
Other aspects of the game fall painfully short of the expectations that the aesthetics and music set up. Let’s talk metroidvania-style design, which suggests to the player that eventually they will reach this object or goal but first they need an item or an upgrade to do so. Alwa’s Awakening has this in buckets and it’s great. Exploration in games is an absolute joy. However, Alwa has a problem in that Zoe can only take three hits before she dies. Now, this wouldn’t be such a big pain if say when you died you got sent back to the start of a room. In this case though, the game can send you back punishingly far because relies on player-activated checkpoint rooms. Again, not a bad thing if the rooms were placed in tactical places. But nope, Alwa sends you back several difficult rooms and expects you to glide through them with getting hit once. Alwa made the mistake of putting exploration into its game but forgot to give players the tools needed to enjoy that exploration. Also, don’t stray from the main path of the game. If you go off and explore you are going to get very frustrated trying to get back to the place you need to go next. True, the game has a teleporting system but the teleporters are few and far between and getting from one place to another is a huge chore.
The game relies on puzzles as its main form of gameplay and we should really use puzzles in the loosest sense here. The basic setup comes in the form of going into a room and trying to get to a higher place or reach that unreachable object. Sometimes it requires you to just jump, which is where the platforming elements come in. Other times it requires you to have a certain spell such as the block spell. You summon a small green jelly like cube that allows you to jump a little higher. Using the jelly block and your ability to jump gets you to a higher place and voila: puzzle complete, onto the next room. The game then asks you to do the same thing again and again. Not once did the game achieve the sweet bliss of the “Aha!” moment. There is a great flaw in your puzzle game if the player isn’t feeling great when they complete a puzzle.
The game has some light combat elements, by “light” being you swing a staff, it hits an enemy and kills them. This isn’t such a bad thing as it is nice to just bop an enemy on the head and defeat them but it feels like a missed opportunity that the spells weren't used more to clearly defeat enemies. You get a spell later on that allows you to shoot lightning which opens doors but it can also be used to defeat enemies. The jelly block spell allows you to block enemy attacks and that is used tactically in sparse situations. The bubble is only really used to reach higher places. It would have been interesting to have seen the bubble spell used as an attack to lift enemies up Bubble-Bobble style. It just feels like a missed opportunity.
Alwa’s Awakening feels like it could have been a great game. The way it looks and sounds is one of the most inviting things and will surely grab people’s attention while looking at the Steam Store. However, when you finally get into it the frustration starts to build. The repetitive puzzle design, the exploration style world with the characters limited health pool and the awful checkpointing and teleporting system make for an overall disappointing experience.