Alwa’s Awakening is the latest entry in the ever increasing retro-styled platformer genre. Coming from Elden Pixels, it is something that is deliberately old fashioned, and is a love letter to the NES era, with proper old-skool graphics and – at the risk of minor review spoilers – proper old-skool difficulty. But should you join this 8-bit world of danger, difficulty and pixel-perfect jumps?
The story of Alwa’s Awakening sees a young girl, Zoe, summoned to help defeat evil and free the land of Alwa. Standing between you and your ultimate goal is a sprawling map, that in true Metroidvania style cannot be accessed in full at the start of the game. The first thing that Zoe must do is find a weapon to defend herself, and this comes in the shape of a staff that can give the enemies a damn good thrashing. Jumping and thumping her way through the countryside, Zoe will soon find herself in the town of Westwood, a kind of hub for the rest of the game. Before she can delve into her first dungeon though she has to acquire a map of the surrounding area, which will get filled in as she discovers new areas. Looking at the map will also show areas where she hasn’t been, and so can lead to the discovery of secrets.
The game plays out almost exactly like an early Super Mario Bros. title, and if you’ve ever played an early platformer you’ll be right at home here. The way Zoe can be steered in midair to land on a platform, the way that you tap the jump button to do a low jump and hold it to jump further; all of the platformer tropes are here. And the way the game controls is an absolute joy, with no input lag or hesitation, so any deaths are squarely on your shoulders. And boy will there be deaths. The dungeons are full of enemies, fireballs, homing fireballs, spikes, water and all manner of deadly obstacles. Swinging a bit of wood around isn’t going to cut it for long.
Luckily Zoe’s staff is a magic staff, and with a little light exploring you can find gems that can be inserted into it, delivering cool new powers. This could be the ability to create a green block, which allows you to make higher and longer jumps, and also blocks the fireballs that are launched in your direction, or the ability to create bubbles that can be jumped on, lifting you to places that were previously out of reach. The last ability allows you to open doors with a lightning symbol on them, and so the basics are all there for the Metroidvania playthrough, where the use of powers you have gained allows you to return to earlier parts of the game and explore areas that couldn’t be reached previously.
Of course every dungeon needs a boss, and those in Alwa’s Awakening are no exceptions to the rule. The minions of the big bad are hooded figures, looking a little like Vivi from Final Fantasy 9, but then they transform into different forms, requiring different tactics to beat them. I’m not going to say any more about this for fear of spoilers, but usually the power you have just attained is key in taking them down.
Graphically, Alwa’s Awakening is a joy to behold. It’s smooth, retro looking in the right way, and the personality and animation of the sprites, whether that be Zoe, an enemy, or even an NPC in the town, shines through – everything here is beautifully designed and works extremely well. The chiptune music is also a throwback to the old days, being haunting and catchy all at the same time, and everything just blends into a great experience. The difficulty is proper with the period as well, with three “hearts” of health available, and if they are gone then it’s game over and back to your last save point you will go. The saves are done manually though, and you have to find a room that is marked with stars to be able to do so. My advice is whenever you find one, make sure to save. Having trekked halfway through a dungeon, you’ll likely be wounded, and the save points not only record your progress but they also refill the health meter.
Normally at this point in a review, I’d start listing all the things that are wrong with the game, however here it’s actually quite tricky to do. There are no issues with controls, the presentation is bang on and it’s a real challenge in terms of gameplay. The only complaint I would have is that there’s not a massive amount of replayability once you’ve beaten everything it holds, but given that is going to take a while even that’s a niggle rather than a dealbreaker. In short, the bottom line is that if you like retro platformers and are looking for your next game, you’ve found it. If you don’t like retro platformers, then I respectfully suggest you try Alwa’s Awakening on Xbox One, as I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it made you change your mind.