When The Great Giana Sisters was released way back in 1987, it quickly became notorious for its remarkable similarities to Super Mario Bros. So much so, in fact, that it attracted the legal attention of Nintendo and was swiftly withdrawn from sale. The franchise later re-emerged in the form of a DS sequel in 2009 and while it proved to be quite good fun, it was again far from original in its premise.
So it comes as quite a surprise that the latest instalment in the franchise, Giana Sister: Twisted Dreams, is one of the most unique and original platforming games released in years. Developed by Black Forest Games – which picked up the rights to the IP after previous owner Spellbound Entertainment went bankrupt – the title features a game-changing mechanic that drastically enhances both its gameplay value and visual presentation.
The plot in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is quite surreal. One night, Maria – the sister of Giana – is inexplicably pulled through a portal to the Dream World, where a rather large dragon kidnaps her. Just before the portal closes, Giana manages to jump through and becomes Maria’s only hope of being rescued. Luckily, Giana possesses a rather unique power and can use it to transform not only herself, but the entire Dream World around her.
The way in which this is visually portrayed in game is nothing short of stunning. At the press of a button, each in-game assets instantly transform to reflect one of two versions of the same world – seeing the scenery change instantly without any slowdown is quite a sight to behold. In her natural form, Giana exists within the nightmarish half of Dream World, which sports a grim, hellish aesthetic and an array of satanic creatures. It’s horrid – as you’d expect from a nightmare – and Giana’s cute and innocent demeanour contrasts quite vividly with this. Hit the switch, and the roles reverse; Giana becomes a punk rebel and the world is suddenly filled with all kinds of lush and colourful objects. Gone are the devilish creatures roaming the environment, instead having transformed into adorable owls and bunny rabbits. It’s all wonderfully realised with 3D visuals that perfectly portray two distinct, yet creative art styles. As is the case with the visuals, the style of music changes according to which realm you’re in, and it really boosts the overall mood of each one.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams may not tell a particularly thought-provoking story, but its presentation does embody some pretty in-depth ideas. Giana’s transformation is very much representative of her personal journey into adolescence, with her rebellious side kicking in when needed to wreak havoc on anything stupid enough to stand in her teenage way. Again, this is in no way reflected in the story, but the way in which it is presented through a very unique gameplay dynamic is absolutely sublime.
The ability to alternate between worlds is also the core aspect of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams’ gameplay and it works beautifully. In her natural form, Giana is your standard platforming game character: good at jumping (thanks mostly to her hover ability), but otherwise quite vulnerable. Turning into punk Giana enables you to use a fiery dash attack to blast your way through enemies and certain walls. However, that’s not to say that the punk segments are any easier and, rather, the real challenge actually comes from learning to masterfully switch between the two variations.
Each world is filled with its own hazards, switches and platforms that don’t exist in the other, and it frequently sets you up with tricky chasm- and enemy-filled gauntlets that require impeccable timing when it comes to making the transformation. Moreover, the game enables you to instantly switch worlds through or during a move; for example, using punk Giana’s dash attack when in normal form will still activate the move and change her and the environment. This adds a considerable amount of depth to the gameplay, and you really need to understand your entire move set in order to navigate the incredibly complex set up of some stages.
That’s the thing when it comes to Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams; it looks cute on the exterior but it serves up an utterly vicious challenge. While it isn’t quite as sadistic as Super Meat Boy or Cloudberry Kingdom, dying in this game is a regular occurrence. The level design is exceptionally tight, meaning that any deaths you incur are always your own fault, and only through precise control and execution of advanced techniques will you get further. Thankfully, a rather forgiving checkpoint system has been included so that if you die you usually don’t have to go too far back. If you’re a fan of challenging games, then Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams will likely be your thing, although it’s worth noting that your in-game progress is dependent on your performance in each level. You’re scored according to how many gems you collect and how many times you die. This feature artificially lengthens the game – no doubt because it’s a rather short experience – and can prove quite frustrating when you’re forced to replay difficult stages multiple times.
Unfortunately, the experience is marred by two technical issues. The first is that the game suffers from unusually long load times. Individual stages take a fair amount of time to load, a problem which seems inherent to many Wii U games as of late. The other issue relates to the GamePad. Off-TV play functionality is supported, but a bug currently prevents any sound output from the controller. Black Forest Games is aware of the issue, however, and it’s possible that a fix is already on the way.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is an admirable effort that provides an innovative, entertaining and highly challenging experience. Its art style is superb as a result of the world-changing transformation feature, which has an equally impressive impact on the gameplay. While the rather gruelling difficulty won’t appeal to everyone, there’s a fair checkpoint system for the determined player and lives are infinite. The difficulty level and technical issues aside, the game triumphs in what it aims to do; the Giana Sisters franchise may have started out as an uninspired rip-off of Super Mario Bros., but this latest effort very much proves that it has become a unique, fascinating and rewarding experience in its own right.