It might have once been unthinkable to even dare conjure a fully-fledged, finished-build of a game in the 8-bit style of those original NES classics like Megaman, Castlevania, the original Metroid and so on, yet the reason why linking back to the past works wonders is not simply because of the visuals, but what was to be expected coming into a similarly-fully retailed product such as this. Or rather, what’s not to be expected. Be it back then, all the way in the late ’80s and early ’90s…or now, in the early-to-now mid-10s of this the second millennia of video games. Where appreciation and respect was more likely to focus on a time when games were devoid of handholding, unwanted assistance and avoided wrestling control from the player.
Whether it’s this untinged aspect to gameplay, or the continuing demand for indie games of this caliber, Elden Pixels have put together a simple but spry little adventure title, in Alwa’s Awakening, that longs to be treated in the same regard as those classic 2D side-scrolling adventures. Limited health, simplified offensive-defensive mechanics, a World to explore, traps and pitfalls to avoid. While it may not be the most complex or sophisticated system to unravel, there’s no denying that the developers manage to tick all the right boxes when it comes to laying the foundation for a Metroidvania in every chronologically-placed sense of the word.
Alwa’s Awakening places you in the role of Zoe, a girl who has been mysteriously flung from her World into the realm of Alwa, a rather colorful and colorfully-contrasting sectioned-off World complete with overground and underground and high-above-ground regions alike. Alwa’s tale is as flatulent as it is brief with its basic premise of evil people having taken over with the intention they must be to be destroyed. Save for the environments themselves — not to mention ocassional NPC dialog along the way and some introductory text from each of the game’s primary bosses — there’s little for the player to really learn about Alwa outside of its fondness for specific palettes of colour in certain areas. The switch-up in themes is by no means a bad thing in of itself, yet given how sparse and basic the level design is for the most of the game’s run-time — jump over x amount of blocks; avoid x amount of projectiles; avoid getting hit by the same enemy merely given a new visual look — what there is to wet player appetites leaves a lot to be desired.
Of course, players will come across points on the map that are at first inaccessible and like all good Metroidvania’s, there are indeed the allotted item acquisitions that allow one to get past that once inaccessible door or unreachable platform, yet the abilities presented here are rather basic and par the course of a 2D platformer. Over the course of the game you’ll gain access to a series of magic abilities that are unleashed via your trustee wand, yet none of these abilities carry as much the same visual flair as the bright and vibrant Worlds demand of them. Perhaps the more/most interesting aspect of your player’s magic-wielding abilities is the fact that each magic trait requires a cool-down of sort in order to use again. And given your character’s basic, perhaps sluggish movement and three-strike mortality, a miscalculation can potentially lead to instant death, of which there are plentiful catalysts. From the inability to swim in water (or green-tinted fire alike) to insta-death spikes that, at their best, require careful timing when hopping between moving platforms and carefully-arranged spikes alike.
Yet this more strategic focus on magic usage ends up being the minor spark of hope as opposed to the major selling point in Alwa’s Awakening, which means players will spend most of their time strolling from one similarly-textured room to the next — relying on the World map for guidance on more than one occasion from time to time. A crucial point the game tries to nail is the importance on gathering up blue gems which lay scattered right across the game World, be it in hard-to-reach places or places that can only reached at a later point. The intended catch is that the more of said gems you collect before a pivotal boss fight, the less damage you have to inflict in order to come out victorious. An interesting proposition you might think: exploring the game’s World, a reward in itself, ultimately netting you a better chance of beating one of the big-bad’s, right? Well given this concept, in both effect and end-delivery, ends up wholly underwhelming only epitomises how far short Elden Pixels seem to have taken their more ambitious elements in what might have been an interesting take on the age-old habit of scavenging for secondary add-on’s.
Even the boss battles themselves aren’t spared from the ills of Alwa’s over-simplification and often short-term memory loss on why boss battles (especially in this such dimension-restricted plane); fights consisting primarily of one set attack pattern that can be easily avoided, which is repeated ad infinitum with little tension and even littler sense of accomplishment upon victory. When the likes of Shovel Knight and even Axiom Verge take the very same visual aesthetic or indeed demand for discovery and puzzle-solving, yet conjure up boss battles with a far more diverse set of in-fight circumstances to either conquer or avoid altogether, it only cements Alwa’s position as a game that, sadly, seems to ride the crest of the nostalgia wave and little more.
And this is the biggest concern players will have not so much coming away from Alwa’s Awakening, but traversing (should the urge still linger) even past the half-way point with very little (aside from the color palette) shaken up to any real degree. With near enough the same standard of enemies and room layouts and arrangement of platforms and traps to avoid and before long, the game’s formula grows tiresome to the point of boredom. The only real appeal is that one glimmering blue gem high up on a ledge that may or may not be reachable from your current position. Even the game’s marketed chiptune soundtrack — outside of one very catchy melody in one of the more subterranean regions — does little to appease either the now-dampened senses or the memory banks. Of course there are some painstaking moments of tight platforming that, when done right, give you a lofty feeling of satisfaction and like other deliberately-restrictive platformers like Mutant Mudds, Alwa‘s own restrictions, ironically, are not the root cause of the game’s misdeeds. Far from it; if anything, it only certifies that there’s indeed a degree of limited joy to be had with its well-crafted platforming segments from time to time.
Ultimately, Alwa’s Awakening feels like the foundation to what might have been a rather more substantial revisit of the glorious 8-bit like so many before it. Though its varied locales and array of gems to find do at least give plenty of food for thought on how to achieve what may feel like a frustratingly impossible task, a lot of the finished product that comprises Alwa’s Awakening comes across as either undercooked or much too rose-tinted and reliant on nostalgia for the pure sake of it. A mere cosmetic look of the past is by no means the only reason why this period in video games still, to this day, lights up many a player’s eyes but with its sub-standard level design, lackluster boss fights and predominantly forgetful ventures, the conclusion here is that Elden Pixels have focused too much on the style and not enough on the substance.