It takes some going to stand out among the Switch's throng of superb Metroidvanias. When your competition includes the likes of Hollow Knight and Iconoclasts, you know it's going to be a rough ride. But Phoenotopia: Awakening somehow manages to stand out, and it does so by being a little more... low key. That may sound a bit like a direct contradiction, but the more sedate, thoughtful pacing on offer here gives it a relaxed and cerebral feel that results in something truly important; an identity.
Based on a Newgrounds browser game, the adventures of young orphan Gale, on a quest to find out what happened to her home, take the form of a 2D action-adventure with a Zelda II-esque overworld map, a slick inventory system and plenty of secrets to find.
The controls are largely traditional - move, jump and attack - but there's also an enjoyably challenging sprinting system, where you tap and hold ZL to begin running and have to release and tap again to keep your speed up when landing from a jump. You can use this to cover ground faster, obviously, or leap larger gaps with ease. It will also let you dash into a roll to quickly pass under hazards, which never gets old. You'll need to master this system quickly; the "tutorial" room for the sprint is itself very demanding, but this is by design as Phoenotopia: Awakening is not messing around in terms of difficulty.
From the moment you first leave the safety of your village, the game is difficult to the point of being punishing; your attacks are a short range swipe and a slightly broader charged attack, but all have a windup before your swing that you'll need to account for. Apologies for evoking the journalistic crutch that is the Dark Souls comparison, but you also have a little green stamina bar that lessens the more you swing your weapon, meaning you can't just put up a wall of pain for enemies to leap or fly into - you have to measure your attacks carefully. It's a demanding system, particularly as even the basic wildlife here isn't docile, but it fits the thoughtful tone of the rest of the game.
It's all about exploration, but it's a different kind of discovery to most other titles of its genre that we've seen. For one thing, there's no map; this could be seen as an oversight by some players, but we felt that it complimented the pacing of the game; a map means you're essentially filling in squares rather than truly exploring uncharted territory, and makes everything seem that much more oppressive and dangerous. Unlike a lot of genre titles, every room in Phoenotopia: Awakening feels like it matters; there are puzzles to solve that require you to pay attention to room layouts, remember what you're able to do, and apply it intelligently. In fact, intelligent is a good word to describe the game as a whole - it's a methodically-designed, carefully constructed world that won't hesitate to kill you if you rush in blindly. It's up to you to figure this game out, not some pop-up text box that tells you exactly where to go and what to do.
There's a nice little cooking system here, too; simple but engaging. Plants and meat can be found, hunted, harvested, and devoured raw if you please. But locating some flint and starting a fire will allow you to roast your meals to your liking, conferring additional benefits; rather like Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Initiating the cooking minigame begins a brief, challenging sequence where you have to hit buttons as they swing back and forth above your head. It's fun, cute and another way Phoenotopia engages you in its world.
And it's a pretty world; at first glimpse we weren't too impressed with the graphics - the characters' big dot eyes don't seem too expressive - but as soon as we got stuck in, things quickly picked up. The locations are beautifully colourful and evocative, and the backgrounds are tremendous. There's a real lushness to the greenery and the ancient ruins are suitably moody. There are also a lot of neat touches - there are small lizards crawling on the walls in certain areas which seem like a nice, aesthetic bit of flavour until you realise you can shoot them down with your slingshot and consume their bodies, making them into a more traditional bit of flavour. Chatting to the locals and exploring the villages will yield further treasures. It's all beautifully and cleverly designed stuff.
Lots of care has gone into the creation of this game, and it shows with the gorgeous graphics and atmospheric soundtrack. It's a game that feels vast, and a slow burn experience for the patient gamer. It's possible that its difficulty will take some time to get used to, but it's worth persevering with this truly rewarding and excellent game. Phoenotopia: Awakening is a thoughtful, coherent game which, if you click with it, doesn't lose a step. A marvellous surprise.