Platforms – PC (reviewed), Mac, and Linux
Shovel Knight made it okay to enjoy games styled after the 8-bit era. It certainly wasn’t the first to touch on it, but what it did to make it successful was take the lessons learned over the decades since and applied modern gaming conventions to it. Alwa’s Awakening shoots right for that same feeling.
Alwa’s Awakening is a bit of an odd game to pin down. For everything it does right to hit those 8-bit era notes, it stumbles a bit on some conventions that were best left in the past. Its appearance wouldn’t be out of place on an NES, nor would its soundtrack. Both its looks and sounds are simple and clean, but to the point of them not being particularly memorable. Different areas of the game have different enough looks to them, but not enough that anything ever stuck out particularly well. Even the dungeon designs rely more on color palette than any design choices to distinguish themselves from one another.
Alwa’s Awakening brought back feelings of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, a game I have an appreciation for but never really latched onto. What Simon’s Quest tried to do with the Castlevania series wasn’t quite hit upon properly until Castlevania: Symphony of the Night a decade later. Alwa’s Awakening often feels like the middle ground of those two games. While it’s never as outright obtuse (or mean spirited) as Simon’s Quest is, it also lacks the easy flow from one area to the next that Symphony of the Night does so well.
You do need to backtrack to check out areas you previously couldn’t get to. Unlock a new ability and go to dig just a bit deeper into a previously explored area. It’s made a bit easier by the warp points that you unlock as you go on, but there are areas that seem a better fit for a warp point than others. Better placement of them would take away some of the tedium of trekking back and forth once you unlock a new ability. Walls that you can walk through and floors that you can fall through were the instances that brought back the frustrations I have with Simon’s Quest. About midway through, there’s a door that’s completely hidden from view by a waterfall that set me scouring every screen more than I liked. Not nearly as ridiculous as needing to kneel in a corner for a few seconds with an item equipped, but frustrating nonetheless.
While the platforming is never unfair, it does slow the pace of the game down when you start unlocking abilities and go back to check out previously visited areas. Some of them are tough, but with patience they’re likely never to completely stump you. If you don’t see any way of continuing on, odds are you just don’t have the necessary abilities yet. There’s always those pesky walls and floors you can move through, but using certain items will let you figure out if there are any of those in the room as well. Later areas have you utilizing all of the abilities you pick up in one screen. The timing on those can be tough, but looking at the room before blindly moving forward will often lead to the solution presenting itself. Solving a tough puzzle in a room is one of the most gratifying experiences in the game. Even when they’re simple, there’s often enough of a hurdle to overcome to keep them from feeling rote.
Combat can be a different story. Enemy hitboxes never really seem consistent. I found myself getting damaged by an enemy that looked far enough away that it shouldn’t have happened. Other times, I saw what I thought was a sure hit do absolutely nothing to me. There are never more than a few enemies on each screen, which almost amplifies the issue. It seems silly to get hit by something that seems rather easy to avoid altogether.
I had these problems with the hitboxes of the common enemy rabble. The boss fights were never an issue which is quite important since those are pure pattern memorization. Fighting a boss with a repeating pattern is not something I’d consider a weak point of most games, but with the bosses’ life bars not insubstantial, repeating the same movements over and over can make them drag out longer than they need to. Also, no matter how low their health goes, there’s no change in the patterns. Even speeding them up when they’re down to two or three more hits might alleviate that a bit, but without anything like that, they drag out just hair too long.
Being able to appreciate the past is something to be admired. It’s easy to forget where things got their start as we move ever forward. Alwa’s Awakening sets out to bring those of us old enough to have lived through the era it harkens back to and put us in those days again. For those too young to have gone through that era of video games, it tries to encapsulate some of the better aspects of it, while minimizing the things that us older folks might overlook because of nostalgia. It doesn’t do it perfectly, but it’s easy to appreciate the simplicity of Alwa’s Awakening and enjoy what it brings to the table.