Ah, release timing. We see countless examples of games that come out at the right and wrong times, be it Dying Light avoiding the hideously packed fall release schedule or Forza Horizon 2 quickly leaving the minds of the masses. If Thief had come out last fall, as opposed to the very beginning of the year, would half as many people have played it?
Lets set aside sales numbers for just a second and think about the curious case of Aaru’s Awakening, shall we? The hard-as-nails puzzle-platformer from Lumenox Games certainly has a few factors working in its favor. As great as its grungy aesthetic may be, the titular character’s teleportation mechanic will likely be thought of as its defining characteristic. As great as flinging a small ball of light around the stage is, this action is nowhere near as exciting as that of its closest comparison: Velocity 2X. Sure, these are two completely different games, but after seeing a similar title succeed in every area Aaru’s Awakening fails, the dichotomy is staggering. Aaru’s Awakening was intended to be a brutally difficult adventure that forced you to solve its puzzles at break-neck speed; you’re supposed to be tested while maintaining a sense of rhythm. Instead, its a clunky misstep that falls victim to unpredictable physics and an awkward control scheme. It’s hard not to wonder whether or not Lumenox’s gorgeous game would have been received better had it been released one year ago.
Aaru’s Awakening weaves a forgettable narrative in traditional storybook fashion. Long sections of child-narrated dialogue bookend each group of the nineteen available stages and every one of the five boss battles, all of which feel a bit too heavy-handed to elicit player care. Aaru, the player character, is a disciple of the deity Dawn (if you assumed that the other deities were called Day, Dusk, and Night, you would be correct) sent out on a mission of destruction. By destroying each of the temples dedicated to these other godly beings, Aaru is able to essentially remove their power. There will certainly be people out there who really take Aaru’s continually evolving introspective journey to heart, but any hope of narrative continuity is harmed by the trial-and-error nature of Aaru’s Awakening‘s gameplay. Difficulty isn’t a problem in it of itself, but when certain levels might take over an hour to complete, it gets pretty difficult to remember every detail of a largely generic story. Because such large gaps exist between narration, especially between each of the four levels in each deity’s respective section, anyone with a less-than-stellar attention span will quickly dismiss Aaru’s Awakening‘s story.
The real star, and tomato-throwing audience member of the show is the gameplay (as it should be in pretty much every video game, let’s be real here). Aaru’s Awakening treads the line between standard platforming, action-platforming, and puzzle-platforming without succeeding in any single department. At any given time, there are four things that players are able to do: run, jump, charge, and teleport. Because the general assumption here is that, since you’re able to read, you have a brain, so we can forgo discussing the intricacies of those first two mechanics. Both charging, which essentially amounts to directional dashing, and teleporting require the use of an on-screen aiming reticle. At face value, this aiming mechanic is simple enough: simply point the reticle in any given direction and execute the command. Charging feels hit or miss; don’t be surprised if your command takes a split second longer to register than you would have hoped, even with a mechanical keyboard. Aaru’s teleportation ability is far and away the saving grace of Aaru’s Awakening‘s gameplay, as flinging a ball of light that sports full collision detection and warping to whatever point it finds itself at works wonderfully. Being able to teleport into an enemy or the orbs featured in the well-designed non-linear boss battles to eliminate them is an awesome idea, though this faux-combat often feels at odds with the idea that Aaru himself is a vulnerable protagonist. Granted, there are moments where the downright obtuse standard control scheme and spotty physics prevent players from having the chance to unleash a proper teleportation orb, dampening the best part of the overall gameplay experience.
The defining moment that demonstrates everything that is wrong with Aaru’s Awakening came during the fourth level of Night’s domain. After trying time after time to cross a long pit of spikes, a strange trend began to emerge. After a press of the W key, the standard jump up button, Aaru instantly rocketed downward, literally the opposite direction of the input. Everything was instantly made clear; it finally made sense why every level, why every jump never felt quite right. Aaru’s Awakening feels at odds with its control scheme in one way or another, be it the egregious example of the game literally doing the opposite of what the player wants or the feeling that commands aren’t being executed in as timely a matter as they should be. There’s a number of reasons why people adore the Mario franchise, but one that sticks out is how intuitive and tight its controls feel. The sense that Mario is doing exactly what the player wants him to at exactly the right moment creates a sense that the controller is an extension of the player’s mind. Buttons are pushed without the player ever having to think about pushing them. In Aaru’s Awakening, the controls never feel natural even after hours and hours of play. It’s easy to rag on the straight-up heinous standard gamepad control scheme, what with jumping mapped to an upward press of the left joystick, but problems occur even when switching to the clearly superior keyboard and mouse. Even though mouse-based aiming is as precise as it should be, the spotty directional controls prevent players from executing the actions they want to. Difficulty is often a good thing in games, but when some of that difficulty comes from constantly fighting against awkward controls, that’s a problem. Think about it, if a shooter was harder because of poor hit detection, that would be a bad thing, would it not?
Inconsistent controls and physics that don’t seem to play by any rules hurt a title that, frankly, boasts some fairly impressive level design. There are moments where Aaru’s Awakening boasts tight platforming mechanics, moments where it seems as floaty as LittleBigPlanet, and everything in between. Even after spending numerous hours with Lumenox’s gorgeous game, it’s still difficult to boil down its platforming physics into a single word or phrase. This inconsistency leads to countless deaths that don’t feel like they’re the player’s fault, regardless of whether or not they actually are. Combine this with some downright bizarre collision detection that seems to treat the edge of every platform differently and you’re left with a recipe for frustration. Oh, and it certainly doesn’t help that the number one selling point, the art-style, lends itself to confusion over whether or not a surface is actually a surface. At its core, Aaru’s Awakening‘s designed difficulty is a great strength, but the added nonsense that comes from its clunky execution overshadows what could have been a fair challenge. Again, difficulty is a good thing, but “difficulty” that results from mechanical flaws does nothing but make a game worse.
While this review has been largely negative up to this point, and for good reason, at least this is a stunningly beautiful game. If reviews were based entirely upon whether or not a game would make for an fantastic framed poster, Aaru’s Awakening would easily earn a perfect score. Take the 1981 film Heavy Metal and throw in a fair helping of acid-fueled sketches and you might be able to come close to describing the hand-drawn gorgeousness on display here. From a purely visual standpoint, every inch and animation seems to be crafted with care. If your purchasing decision is based solely upon your ability to grab an awesome screenshot for your desktop background, then pick up Aaru’s Awakening immediately.
Lumenox states on Aaru’s Awakening‘s Steam Store page that it’s “a hand-drawn, fast-paced 2D action platformer.” The issue here is that there isn’t a whole lot of action to speak of, outside of the occasional enemy elimination through warping, and its trial-and-error nature causes it to be anything but fast paced. There are aspects of Aaru’s Awakening that will catch the eye of the hardcore audience, namely its level design and brutal difficulty, but it fails to be the very thing it sets out to be. Sure, players can speedrun through levels in hopes of gaining a gold, silver, or bronze metal, but these achievements will be marred by the maddening inconsistency of nearly every mechanic present. It’s hard to see a great deal of the audience putting up with all of Aaru’s Awakening‘s issues long enough to complete its campaign, let alone achieve timed greatness. If you’re looking for a challenging, fast-paced action platformer, you should simply flock to games like Velocity 2X or Guacamelee, as both of these titles do everything that Aaru’s Awakening does, only better.