It is a long-held belief of mine that Metroidvanias are the best video game genre because of the immense gratification they give to players. They are natural underdog stories that start you off weak, then give you a plethora of weapons and powers that help you navigate the world around you. Levels are filled to the brim with secrets and just-out-of-reach items that require techniques unlocked later on, encouraging or sometimes requiring revisits of earlier areas. These revisits often empower the player by letting them breeze through obstacles that previously troubled them. It's a masterful blueprint, but difficult to pull off effectively. Alwa's Awakening succeeds at this in a great many ways, but bungles up some crucial parts as well.
Alwa's Awakening is an 8-bit 2D platformer where you play as Zoe, a hero sent from another world to the land of Alwa, where she is commissioned to defeat the evil Vicar by collecting four magical Ornaments from his four Protectors. Along the way, she must traverse more than a dozen unique environments using three spells that she can find and upgrade in the game's various dungeons.
The story is relatively unpretentious and straightforward, to its credit. It never gets in the way of the gameplay, however, that also means it comes across like an afterthought. A handful of the textboxes in the game contain grammatical errors, overworld NPCs are more wont to give you simple directions than provide any insight about the land they've asked you to save, and bosses precede their fights with blanket "Why are you trying to kill us" dialogue. If that is Alwa's Awakening's attempt blurring the line between hero and villain, it rings hollow.
Ultimately, this gets at the major flaw in Alwa's Awakening: it feels so lifeless. There are only two villages in the game, one of which has been obliterated while the other one only has a handful of houses. This may be accurate to the plot, since Vicar has been terrorizing the country, but then you would expect the rest of the world to be jam-packed with monsters and minions, which it isn't. Many screens only have two or three enemies, and just as many have none at all. It begs a question of motivation: what exactly are you saving? What are you even saving it from?
I'll backtrack for a moment so I don't give the wrong impression. Alwa's Awakening is a very well designed video game. The dungeons are laid out intricately, almost like Zelda in the way that they differentiate screens you can complete without the dungeon item versus those where it's required. The platforms have been meticulously measured and placed so that the player can see at a glance what jumps they can make, what they need to conjure blocks for, what they need bubble lifts for, and what they'll have to come back for later.
I love the magic abilities too. They are so simple--a block, a bubble, and energy balls--but they become incredibly versatile when upgraded. Blocks are initially used for block puzzles and to give you a boost for higher jumps, but later they can be used like boats to travel across water. Bubbles only give you a little bit of lift at first, but an upgrade will allow them to travel upwards nonstop until they hit a ceiling. Energy balls can be used as projectile weapons and to unlock electric doors, but they have a slower recharge period.
Though this leads to the next point of criticism. Everything about Alwa's Awakening is slow. Zoe moves at a snail's pace. You don't always notice it, but when you get stuck dying in a certain area and have to replay the same five screens again to get back to where you were, it gets to be pretty dull. I got stuck on one boss for a little while, and after every death, it took thirty seconds jumping through empty rooms to get back there. Thirty seconds may not sound like much, but when they're a joyless void between boss attempts, they stack up. My final completion time was close to eight hours, but I couldn't help but feel like it would have been closer to five or six if Zoe moved just a bit faster.
Also, those blocks, bubbles, and energy balls I just finished praising? They're pretty guilty too. Riding blocks across water isn't too bad, because normally there are other obstacles along the way to shake things up, but riding bubbles is a bland affair. They rise so slowly, and sometimes you have to ride them up two or three screens in a row, at which point you might as well set down your controller and grab a snack. The worst part is that every ability needs to recharge before you can use it again. With blocks and bubbles, the recharge period is not long enough to introduce difficulty, but just long enough to be inconvenient. Energy balls have a ridiculously long recharge period during which you can't even use blocks or bubbles. Each ability really should have had its own recharge meter, rather than one for all of them.
Many have talked about the difficulty of Alwa's Awakening, which is notably high, but I did not find it to be unfair. The learning curve raises proportionally to the growth of your skills both as a player and a character. Common enemies are no issue, and most spike pits will only take one of your three hit points instead of instantly killing you, so you can try again without having to revert to a checkpoint. Some of the platforming areas toward the end require a fair amount of precision, but even those give some elbow room on the timing. For an added challenge, players can also collect up to 99 blue orbs scattered around Alwa. After reaching certain thresholds, these collectibles will take a set number of hit points off bosses at the start of a battle.
My only issue with the difficulty is with the placement of warp points, checkpoints, and wells. For warp points, there simply aren't enough of them, and those that are there are placed so poorly that players have to repeat half a dungeon just to get where they actually want to go. The checkpoints are invariably placed just slightly too far away from each other, meaning each death is a costly annoyance. Then there are water wells, which fill your flask with water that restores your health if killed by a non-instakill obstacle. These only exist in a handful of places in the overworld, though. I know that if they were everywhere, the game would be too easy, but if you want to go into a boss with water on you, your best bet is to hit the checkpoint before the boss, backtrack through the entire dungeon, fill your flask, and then die on an instakill checkpoint to respawn before the boss. It's awfully time-consuming to go through.
That about covers the negatives of Alwa's Awakening. Beyond that, the pixel art is vibrant and colorful, reminiscent of Ufouria: The Saga in the overworld and Castlevania in the dungeons. The chiptune soundtrack is catchy as heck, running the gamut of medievalist themes to adventurous hooks that reminded me of Mega Man 3-6 level tunes.
Alwa's Awakening may not be a game-changer in the Metroidvania field or dethrone the likes of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but it is a solid title. The controls are competent. The world design feels natural and memorable. However, it gets mired up in its slow movement speed and lack of enthusiasm about its plot and characters. Still, Alwa's Awakening makes for an enjoyable challenge with plenty of creative energy hidden in its pixels.
Alwa's Awakening was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Alwa's Awakening makes a number of questionable choices with its slow gameplay mechanics, but the core experience provides fun and challenging platforming and magic abilities.
- Stellar Dungeon Design
- Great Chiptune and Pixel Art
- Creative Magic Abilities
- Slow Gameplay
- Game World Feels Lifeless