I knew very little about Phoenotopia (pronounced “FEE-no-topia”, like “Phoenix”) going in. I first saw it when it popped up on the “Upcoming Games” section of the Nintendo Switch eShop last year, and unlike some other indie games, it hadn’t been released on other platforms yet (it was released on Steam finally earlier this year). But something about it drew me in. It looked beautiful, rendered in gorgeous pixel art with beautifully-detailed backdrops, and the story promised some sort of mystery set in an expansive world. Compared to a lot of other game releases, there just wasn’t a lot to go on pre-release, but I was intrigued, and picked it up pretty quickly after it came out.
And what I found was pretty incredible! In fact, it went on to become one of my most-played games of the year. So, what exactly is it? Well, that’s hard to describe briefly, so bear with me for a second.
Phoenotopia: Awakening actually has a pretty substantial history that I wasn’t aware of until after I started playing it and looked around even more. It was largely the project of a single person, developer Quang “Quells” Tran, and was preceded by another game simply called Phoenotopia, which was uploaded to Newgrounds back in 2014. Awakening is something between a remake and improvement of the original game that was worked on for the next six years, expanding on and changing around various things as needed, until it was something new and substantially bigger, with only a general outline of the plot in common.
With all of that real-world background out of the way, we can move on to the story itself. In the distant future, humanity’s ever-escalating wars and weaponry eventually destroyed a lot of the Earth’s surface, driving humans underground. After centuries below ground, humans eventually re-emerged to find that the planet had recovered enough to sustain life once more. Society began to reform, and hundreds of years after that, there are once again towns and nations in a world that’s largely medieval-style agrarian towns, but with a number of technologies from the modern day around helping everyone out.
That’s all just the opening text scroll establishing the world. The story in question follows a teenager named Gail, from the quiet farming town of Panselo. After retreating into the nearby forest to round up the local children for dinner, the group witnesses a UFO visit the town. After rushing back, they find the entire town empty, with the only clue being some machinery from space they found in the forest after it fell to earth the previous day. As the eldest remaining person from Panselo, Gail sets off across the continent in search of anyone who can help them find their missing neighbors.
Your quest across the world is a sprawling tale, but in the moment to moment gameplay, it feels a lot more intimate than that. You get general directions and goals at story points, but there’s a good sense of escalation to them; it takes a while before any of them “feels” world-changing, most of them are just “go to this town and check on this thing”, general stuff that keeps you pulling the narrative thread and watching as it unravels. And along the way, there’s a plethora of other tasks to tackle.
In fact, a lot of the game is sidequests. There’s no experience or level system. Instead, your improvements in combat come from finding health boosts, better gear, more money, or other things (or, of course, from plain old ‘getting better at it as you go along’). In essence, the process of facing dozens of enemies to grind in other games is replaced here with solving puzzles, searching every inch of towns, talking to characters, and so on.
In fact, if you choose to do so (as I did), you can largely decide to avoid combat in non-boss scenarios, with little ill effect on progress. It’s honestly a refreshing change of pace for a game of this type, having the dominant strategies be things like “collect fruit to sell at the bazaar” or “go fishing”, or making it so that mastering cooking or exploring every nook and cranny of a location is as reasonable a time investment as perfecting combat. It gives everything a nice, relaxing vibe, even with the greater overall stakes.
For gameplay, I mentioned in my roundup that it’s “not a Metroidvania, but not not a Metroidvania”. Most descriptors I’ve seen have compared it to Zelda II, although I haven’t played that entry myself; it is interesting though, as that was a radically different entry in the series, which makes Phoenotopia: Awakening something of a revival for an Orphaned Mechanic, like I covered back in my One Step from Eden review. To more directly describe it, you alternate between navigating a world map in a top-down view as you dodge enemies and other overworld obstacles, and standard side-scrolling platforming segments within the locations once you arrive at them. And on top of that, a lot of sections on the map are connected within side-scrolling segments; for instance, the sewer you drop into while exploring a town might let you out in a totally different segment of the map, so it does have some of the “interconnected map” features of a more standard Metroidvania.
All of that is great, and I’d recommend the game off all of that. But one of the things I enjoyed the most about playing Phoenotopia: Awakening is the sensations it instills in you as a player. There is an epic feeling in playing it, although that description feels too overused and (for video games, at least) mundane for the actual feeling I’m going for. So many games, really, so many works across mediums, promise an epic adventure of some sort. But Phoenotopia perfectly nails that tone.
The best point of comparison that I can think of in this regard is The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, for the way that those stories unfold into something epic from more modest beginnings, as well as how they treat their subject matter. There’s the sort of slow unveiling of scope, starting with modest heroes from sleepy beginnings in idyllic towns before pulling back onto the wider scope of the world. There’s the deep worldbuilding; Phoenotopia wants you to learn more about the world you’re exploring and how it got there, and there’s certainly a lot to dig into in that regard. There’s the moment-to-moment progression of each; as mentioned, the game is a lot less caught up in constant combat than most other games, just like Tolkein’s work was more relaxed and poetic in its pacing than most other fantasy works. There are other moments, too.
But if Phoenotopia was looking to those works as a guide, it also differentiates itself enough to keep those inspirations not obvious. It only hit me when I stumbled upon a plot point that made me go “Wow, this feels like a real ‘entering Mordor’ moment.” It wasn’t the first region of the game that felt hostile, but it was the one that was so alien and godforsaken that it made the earlier harsh ones seem warm in comparison. And the best part is how much it snuck up on me; I had known something was coming, but stumbling on it suddenly hits you differently. It takes your breath away. Phoenotopia is constantly doing that with its different landscapes, getting them to evoke emotions and feelings in the player, and when it finally goes for desolate terror rather than majestic natural scenes or bustling towns, it has a chilling effect. It really is something to experience first-hand.
Some of that is the game’s pacing, too, getting you caught up in the moment-to-moment list of tasks you’re trying to juggle that it can hit you with another twist in its winding narrative and complex world. Also, while the big “entering Mordor” moment I mentioned stuck out in my mind, it’s also worth mentioning how often it throws you changeups from the opposite direction. Entering areas that seem foreboding only to reveal a softer side upon exploration, or seeing buildings that appear ominous but prove less so upon access, or moments where the narrative stakes seem overwhelming but can be broken down into manageable goals. It’s kind of an emotional rollercoaster, and I love it for that.
If I have any complaints about the game, it’s probably the combat. But even that comes with a boatload of caveats. The game can be pretty punishing, using a stamina meter for everything, from any movement more complex than basic walking and jumping. So running, dodging, any attacks (even the standard ones), everything. It’s very easy to find yourself left totally unable to do anything because you ran out of stamina from just a few basic attacks, or even from just dodging and avoiding if you aren’t sure what you’re doing in a fight yet.
Now, the big boatload of caveats: most importantly, as frustrating as I found things, I was always invested enough in unfolding more of the story that I never considered quitting the game, which is a strong endorsement in my mind. And there’s the aforementioned general lack of focus in the game on combat; it’s very easy to just dodge combat encounters or run away if you do accidentally find yourself in combat. You can also mitigate things a lot by finding improvements and upgrades to your health, stamina, and gear, as well as just practicing (the game’s combat has a very specific flow to learn, and thankfully, you can get into overworld encounters and just leave if things start going badly).
But none of those are the biggest caveats. First, the game has a bunch of accessibility options if things get overwhelming, giving you a variety of options to make things easier if there’s a specific quirk of the game tripping you up. I definitely made use of one of these during one specific boss fight (of course, the first fight I had after making that toggle to the settings, I wound up not needing it; maybe it was mostly just a psychological block on my part?).
But even more importantly, it’s worth noting that the bulk of my playing came during the initial version of the game, which has since been patched out. Most of the new patches have come with an even greater number of options to ease the difficulty as needed, in addition to other things to make the game experience a little less overwhelming. The original version is too ingrained in my experience to just forget when talking about it, but it’s also very likely not at all indicative of the current state of Phoenotopia: Awakening. Also, big props to Quells and co. for the continued focus on the game post-release, especially given that he’s likely anxious to move on to new projects (like maybe a sequel???) after so much time already spent on this game.
Games that can pull off the types of grand feelings that Phoenotopia: Awakening can inspire are already few and far between. But the fact that a game of this scope came from a largely-one-person pixel art indie game is even more incredible, and it’s part of the reason that it was one of my favorite video game experiences of 2020. Challenging at times, it was still with all the time and effort I put into it, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a story with a wild world to dive into for a while.