There’s a fine line being walked nowadays with the proliferation of indie games modeled after the 8 or 16-bit releases of the good ol’ days. On one hand, it allows for retro games to rise above the limits of their time so that their full potential can be realized through weaving in modern game design where needed, such as in games like Shovel Knight or Axiom Verge. On the other hand, it creates the potential for developers to be lazy, cashing in on nostalgia and tired tropes while adding few notable new ideas to the formula. Alwa’s Awakening falls somewhere in between these two extremes; it offers up a quality Metroidvania experience that’s well worth your time, yet it also doesn’t have any major hook or feature to set it apart from the crowd.
Alwa’s Awakening opens with a short cutscene describing the story, setting the stage with an extremely cliché fairytale narrative. The picturesque realm of Alwa is experiencing a golden age where the land is beautiful and everyone cares about each other, but the peace is quickly broken when a mysterious and evil being named Vicar arrives to enslave everyone, just… because. Vicar then enforces his rule by forming a group of four underlings called ‘Protectors’ to claim the ‘Ornaments’, which are McGuffins that grant their owner ‘immense power’. Just when all hope is lost, a silent heroine named Zoe arrives from another land to save the people from Vicar’s cruel reign, and this is where the game picks up.
As you’ve probably gathered, the story does very little to get the player involved in the lore of Alwa, offering up a rudimentary context for the gameplay to follow. For the sort of game that Alwa’s Awakening sets out to be - an 8-bit Metroidvania with a deliberate focus on puzzle design and platforming - this decreased reliance on storytelling is certainly forgivable, and we’d argue that it doesn’t do much to impact one’s enjoyment of the game. It feels rather lazy in how the developers couldn’t develop a better scenario than “evil wizard enslaves peaceful land”, but you’ll hardly even remember that there is a story once you get past that opening cutscene.
Gameplay takes the shape of a deliberately-paced 8-bit Metroidvania, though the focus is placed less on combat and more on solving environmental puzzles and clearing tricky platforming sections. A magical staff that Zoe obtains early on acts as the primary weapon and the source of your abilities, with there being plenty of locked doors and unreachable ledges to tease you into exploring further. As you move through the world, dungeons contain important boss fights and items necessary for further progression, while many of the in-between areas contain secrets and collectables in the form of blue orbs that raise Zoe’s level; each extra level reduces a boss’s total health by another node.
Level design overall feels rather basic, but it’s often quite challenging in what it demands from the player, largely mitigating any boredom. In some respects, levels call to mind the stages of earlier Mega Man games, with lots of pits, death spikes, and tight jumps being the norm. This works largely in Alwa’s Awakening’s favour, as it makes that moment-to-moment gameplay feel much punchier and more engaging, and difficulty scales nicely as you unlock more abilities and become more comfortable with Zoe’s movement.
One sticking point, however, is the occasionally unforgiving checkpoint system that creates tedious bottlenecks in the game’s flow. Interspersed throughout the game world are save rooms that often contain warps, and when you inevitably die, you respawn at the last place you saved. Though the game often places checkpoints before boss rooms and otherwise spaces them out evenly, there are still several segments where the distance between two of them is a bit too far, and failure at any point on that journey sees you sent back to square one. It can be frustrating, then, to get almost to the next save room, die, and have to do everything that you just cleared all over again just for another crack at the place that tripped you up. The problem is only exacerbated by Zoe’s relatively slow movement; a run button or something similar to cut back on the downtime would’ve been a wonderful inclusion.
That issue aside, moving through the ten(ish) hour campaign feels well-paced and natural, with a nice mixture of platforming and exploration. Zelda-style dungeons are home to plenty of ‘aha!’ moments and well-designed puzzles, and while your overall ability-set may be paltry compared to similar games in the genre, it also allows for the puzzles and platforming to be more focused on these elements, resulting in a campaign that feels free of extraneous bloat. This isn’t a world that’s positively stuffed with things to do and secrets to find, but there’s enough here to keep you constantly hungering for the next collectable; it never feels too thin.
With that being said, an issue arises with how the map itself conveys information to the player, or rather, how it doesn’t. There were many instances where it wasn’t made clear where exactly to go next, and the map wasn’t too much help in pointing us in the right direction. Essentially, almost every room looks the same on the grid-like map, meaning that you must rely on memory or notes to know the locations of previously inaccessible pathways or missed collectables. One could certainly argue that this is part of the old-school appeal, but it feels like a needlessly roundabout way to pad out the game length.
As for its presentation, Alwa’s Awakening manages to satisfy with its simplistic visuals and chiptune soundtrack, even if it doesn’t necessarily astound. As opposed to the visuals of games like Shovel Knight or The Messenger, which paint a very generous picture of 8-bit, Alwa’s Awakening goes for a much simpler look that in many ways feels more authentic. Environments aren’t burdened with loads of distracting details and colour palettes are kept simple and uniform while sprites are cleanly-made and nicely animated. This isn’t a game that’ll have you reaching for that capture button very often, but we’d be hard-pressed to say the visuals are anything less than nice. Similarly, the soundtrack does a good job of setting the appropriate tone, often leaning harder into the more gloomy tunes that would typically be found in a Castlevania game. Even so, there’s a solid collection of catchy songs in this soundtrack, too; enough to the point that we’d encourage you to play this one with headphones if possible.
Alwa’s Awakening is a game that perhaps manages to achieve its aims a little too well, with moments of great platforming action and a well-designed overworld being hamstrung by antiquated problems like an unforgiving checkpoint system and an unhelpful map. We’d give this one a light recommendation; there’s plenty of quality to be found despite some flaws and it’s evident that a lot of passion went into the development, although we would also add that there’s nothing about Alwa’s Awakening that screams “must play”. If you’re a fan of retro action platformers or Metroidvanias, Alwa’s Awakening is certainly worth a go, but if you aren’t a fan, this isn’t the game to change your mind.