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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Alwa's Awakening Is a Solid Little Indie Metroidvania

My last few indie game reviews have been really, really big, in different ways, touching on big, thematic stuff and more in-depth analysis. But doing only deep dives on the best of the best is exhausting and limiting, in a lot of ways, and I think there are also a lot of smaller titles that are incredibly solid and deserve love and attention, too, even if they aren’t in my running for whatever the video game equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzers would be.

So this one is more in the vein of my Blossom Tales review, which is fitting since there are quite a few similarities. Alwa’s Awakening, by first-time developer Elden Pixels, is an incredibly well-designed little throwback number that has clearly learned from the best. An 8-bit Metroidvania/platformer that feels like the perfect distillation of the genre, playing it on my Switch made me feel a connection with my younger self hunched over my Game Boy, while at the same time feeling like it’s own distinct unique thing rather than a recreation of a specific classic.

Of course, that nostalgic feel makes sense; Elden Pixels really feels like they’ve taken an old-school approach to designing things here. There was definite attention paid to focusing the game on specific set of elements the designers wanted to include and an emphasis on refining them, rather than letting the scope of things sprawl out of control. The player character only has two abilities in the start of the game, a jump and a staff attack, and every ability that you unlock over the course of the game is a spell that you cast with that staff attack. Not only that, but the game decides to pare that spell list to just three, with improvements to those three being the late-game finds that finally open up the entire map to you. There's a beauty in that level of straightforwardness.

And there’s a deeper deliberateness in all of that. It becomes very clear what types of abilities you’re going to be finding, as you come across areas of the map that are clearly kept inches out of your reach. Every challenge feels like a puzzle that you can solve if you just piece it all together, whether it’s dead ends that clearly just need one more tool, or learning the trick to spotting fake walls, or even finding ideal strategies for toppling bosses.

There are other nice things about their world design besides just the puzzle aspects, too. The different sections of the map are distinct enough in their design to stick in your mind and make it easy to remember spots to return to later. And the map is a very solid example of Metroidvania game design; secret tunnels connect you to areas you didn’t know would come back up, branching paths make you feel clever when you find them and explore them fully, everything is connected enough that it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere from any of the warp points which makes jumping between areas to further explore not a problem, and all of that good stuff.

Too many games in this genre stray into making things too linear, but Alwa’s Awakening has the good sense to leave things open and let you explore at your own pace with only general checkpoints for you to go towards at your leisure. You can poke into various parts of the map pretty early, a nice preview for what’s coming and a good way to get a sense of how things are laid out, and most of them have secrets to reach even if you can’t do much else yet. It’s all appropriately twisty and turny, and you can really jump ahead at your own pace in some areas (sometimes with ways forward that are clever enough that you feel like you may have accidentally broken the sequence the designers intended, even when it is all part of the plan).

The non-gameplay elements are all solid as well, if a little basic. Most of the character designs are lovable, if a little basic (particularly main character Zoe). Most of the story elements are pretty standard, but there are enough interesting hooks in everything that it certainly feels like the team is capable of more with more time, resources, and experience. The interludes in towns or up mountains add some nice variety from the dungeons and tunnels that make up the rest of the world, and again, with more time, I’m sure Elden Pixels would come up with a host of more interesting locals and characters to populate them.

The makers clearly studied their fundamentals of game design from the best, especially of the Game Boy/NES era, and applied that to creating their own vision of that style. All in all, it was enough to keep me coming back for ten hours or so in an attempt to find every secret and still leave me wanting more, which is always a positive experience. The things Alwa’s Awakening is good at are enough to grab your interest, and even it’s weakest points are never weak enough to make you feel like the game is missing out on anything. I look forward to seeing where Elden Pixels goes from here.