Waking is the Dark Souls of meditation games.
You know it's a bad sign when one of my editors okays me starting a review with "It's the Dark Souls of..." That's not to say anything bad about Waking right away, just that it wears its very obvious influence on its sleeves. Waking wants to play the part of both an action game and a meditative experience that analyses aspects of your life. Does it manage to do either well?
In Waking, you play what is essentially supposed to be a fictional version of yourself. After a mysterious accident, you're in a coma and fighting to hang onto life. As you lay there you'll go through a spiritual journey, living through memories that will help you recover and break out of the coma. At the same time Somnus, the god of sleep, is trying to ease you into death and let you pass into the next life peacefully. You'll find yourself caught in a conflict between life and death, all while learning about what exactly put you in this coma in the first place.
Waking advertises itself as a "uniquely personal journey of self-reflection" and that it combines its gameplay with "real-world meditation." Much to my shock, it does indeed try its best to combine all of these experiences into a single whole. At times, you're asked to meditate on moments in your life, and then you come to areas where you're asked to use those moments and memories to craft weapons and powers that you can use. I was worried the game wouldn't be able to pull this off, and there are certainly times where it doesn't work as intended. One of the noticeable assumptions the game makes is that you want to remember, and have positive memories, of your hometown. If you don't, that whole segment begins to fall flat and feel like it's not lining up with your personal journey. However, when it does line up, Waking has all the ability to be touching.
At least, it does until it becomes unintentionally hilarious. There are many reasons I could put down for why Waking went from serious to comedy, ranging from picking the wrong prompts to generate weapons to my own lack of maturity. However, there are no two ways around it, Waking quickly became one of the most unintentionally funny video games I've ever played. I was asked to name a cherished possession and, having some difficulty thinking of one, I glanced around my room and noticed my PlayStation Vita. The result? I was throwing PlayStation Vitas at people for 20 damage. A later segment saw me listing the positive and negative qualities of my parents. For my dad, I put "racism" as his negative quality, because, bluntly, he has a problem. I then immediately blurted out "oh no" as I was promptly awarded a weapon named "My Father's Racism." Nearly every weapon, relic, and ability feels like a misguided attempt to be serious that dives straight into absurdity.
As for what you use these abilities for, your goal is to find twelve Pages of Somnus, which allows you to solve a puzzle and wake up. You explore three different worlds, each of which has four pages on it. Each world has several towers with doors, and entering a door will have you move to a randomized dungeon where you need to complete a goal. Often this means finding objects to interact with, killing a powerful monster, exiting through the right door, or one of a handful of other simple tasks. Complete the goal and you'll usually be rewarded with new power and moved to a new section on the map.
Of course, there are enemies trying to make sure you die in your dream, killing you in the "real world" like a bad horror movie. To fight back, you'll have to pick up the clutter in your mind (taking the shape of actual clutter like barrels and wooden pallets) and throw it at enemies using telepathic powers. Doing so often causes them to drop one of three items, which you can then use for stronger attacks. Knowledge works just like clutter, but stronger, while Feelings are limited use melee attacks that can do damage to stunned enemies. However, both pale in comparison to the hilariously overpowered Belief. You use Belief like a shield, and it reflects enemy shots back, doubles the damage, and hits any target nearby if the original target dies. The result? I've completely cleared rooms because an overzealous enemy launched a ton of shots into my Belief shield. Before long, I always defaulted to Belief when available.
As you kill monsters, you collect two currencies. You always get Neurons, which you need to spend to use some abilities, activate items and objectives around the map, among other things. If you manage to kill an enemy without being hurt, you can also get Hope which you can use to unlock boxes with powerful items inside. However, getting hurt causes you to lose all your Hope and some of your Neurons, so you always want to play defensively. Despite this, I can't think of any time where I didn't just have an overabundance of Neurons, and at least enough Hope, so the system never mattered much.
There are so many elements at play in Waking that it took a while to grasp it all. I could get special powerups by defeating guardians without them hitting me. Dealing enough damage gave me charges for power attacks. I could collect body parts that eventually get used to upgrade my character. Hope could be used to gather wishes that I could use to make my Knowledge, Feeling, and Belief stronger. If you get hurt you build a fear meter. The higher it gets, the more aggressive and powerful the enemies become. You can find random challenges in the dungeons that, if completed, can reward you with Neurons or Hope.
However, none of this covers up a massive problem in Waking's design: you're just running randomized dungeons over and over. Not only that, but you are doing this for a very long time. I put a solid 30 hours into the camp[aign, and there was very little variation. It hit me that by hour 30, I was still doing the same things I was doing in hour 3. Waking could have easily lost 3/4ths of its random dungeon runs and it only would have just improved the experience. Before long my eyes were just glazing over, as I repeated the same actions to kill the same enemies and open the same switches over and over.
This problem is exacerbated by other, smaller, issues. There's a very low variety in what you're fighting, with only four major enemy types. Most of the bosses are just one of these normal enemies, but with a health bar of several hundred HP rather than hovering in the 20 - 60 range. There isn't much in the way of environments either, and you'll be going through the same "vaguely grassy hill floating in space" or "dungeon-ish area" over and over. The soundtrack features the same couple of songs, and before long I had nicknames for them. I always knew that "guy moaning while playing a guitar" was the song that meant good things were going to happen, while "creepy piano with two notes" was the bad one. If you heard bad trance music, it was time for a boss fight.
In addition to all this, the game's dungeon randomizer has no problems putting you in extremely compromising positions. If I had a dollar for every time I spawned into a level with 3+ enemies actively trying to kill me as soon as I left the safe zone, before I could even gather the weapons to fight back, I'd be a rich man. Likewise, I'd sometimes start random challenges only to find myself spawned above an endless pit, instantly killing me and kicking me out of the challenge. It's frustrating when these situations come up and I lose through no fault of my own.
Waking Review | Final Thoughts
Waking genuinely feels unique, and I think that's pretty interesting. Not many games manage to hit this level of genuine innovation anymore. However, that doesn't mean it's a good game or that it's worth playing outside of intellectual curiosity. For all the things I liked about Waking, there was far more that failed to grab me. The meditation doesn't work with the game design, the randomized dungeons get boring before long, there isn't enough content for a 30-hour game which makes the whole experience run thin. I want more games to try this style, but they need to look at something that won't put me to sleep in the process.
TechRaptor reviewed Waking on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One.
- Honestly Feels Unique
- Unintentionally Hilarious
- Way Longer Than it Needs To Be
- Randomization Issues
- Unintentionally Hilarious