The worlds of self-analysis, meditation, and a deep understanding of your role in the universe aren’t something you would come to expect from many games, particularly not the big hitters like Call of Duty or FIFA. But lately, certain developers have attempted new things, providing experiences that have been instrumental in dealing with the more weighty subjects going on in our everyday lives, detailing examinations of the philosophical dilemmas we have to cope with. Waking is no different: a game that hopes to combine exciting exploration and combat with some very personal revelations that relate to you and your living history. But does this super blend of ideas and genres prove successful? Or will you need to have a long hard look at yourself in the mirror?
The big thing I admire about Waking is that it’s trying to do something very different in the gaming world. Developed over 5 years, the game puts you into the shoes of a faceless human lying on a hospital bed, placed in a coma and hovering between life and death – it is here where the original name of Coma comes from. From there you are visited by strange gods of death and sleep, and personal demons who transport you into a strange world to find the journey back to life.
One of the things Waking does very well is to make the character all about you. You type your name, and from that moment the game addresses you directly. Later on, you are encouraged to add more personal details like the town you grew up in, the type of house you lived in, the building you had the most connection with as a youngster. And then it gets deeper still, as you stumble upon companions who can go into battle with you against enemies, with these companions being a pet that you can name, allowing you to select the species and whole look of your childhood best friend. There is also the chance to capture the likeness of a loved one, name them, and put them into the world with you. All this combined does a good job of making the journey through Waking very intimate and personal. It is one of the game’s success stories.
This journey revolves around entering into a strange world of randomly generated areas, one with demons to battle, gates to open, and open worlds to explore. Taking the combat first, and it certainly includes a bit of the old Dark Souls fighting style, mixed with plenty of ideas. You have a telekinesis attack whereby you can charge up bits of debris from the floor, or use special attack items you gain on your travels, flinging them at the enemies. These foes range from actual daemons called Death Councilors to weirder affairs; stranger cyclical objects in the sky throwing missiles at you. You have other attacks too, like a melee that can be used for a short period and the ability when you can use telekinesis on a shield and deflect attacks, like missiles, back onto the enemy. The combat works quite well and you will get used to it pretty quickly. But then, after just a little while, the gameplay gets too familiar and things start to get a bit tiresome.
The gameplay throughout Waking consists of you following the main mission, working your way across randomly generated maps, destroying enemies and opening pathways. Some of these pathways might be a collection of neuron bridges for you to build, whilst a boss battle may well see you fighting against an inner demon. Your progress through is dictated by a huge open map that gives each section several chapters or acts. But this is where my first problem with Waking comes into play – this game is much too big for what it is. You see, throughout my time with Waking I’ve constantly got lost, unsure of what to do, or where to go next. I’m not advocating that all games have to hand hold or arrow point, but there have been times here where I have spent hours wandering; lost in this huge game.
It will take you around 20 hours to complete Waking – or many more if you keep getting lost – and that would be just fine for many, but chances are that when you get to the halfway point – something around 8-10 hours in – you will start to feel that you’ve had enough. There are thankfully moments at the end of a chapter whereby a revelation or a final encounter will peak your interest once more. But then the grind kicks in again and I feel like the whole experience is just too long. Waking certainly doesn’t need to be so bloated. The setup and the gameplay just don’t ever take you anywhere different enough to keep you involved and immersed; the world isn’t that interesting enough to keep you stimulated for that amount of time. If the whole experience was much more streamlined, then things could have been different, making the whole game easier to handle for the player, and much more successful for the overall experience.
When it does work, visually the game has some great artwork, with brilliantly strange, god-like creations in the form of Death Councilors and the angel of death who chats to you in some strange antiquated language. Your character is a bit generic – but then that is the whole point with Waking – and the whole visual tone has a soft focus like the game has been smeared in Vaseline. It also has hints of last generation visuals about it in places, which is a shame because there are some moments of sheer genius to take in.
The soundtrack has a heavy metal feel to it – one that is exciting across the combat sections and works well with the action. And then there are some serene soundtracks for the more meditative scenes that work great. The voice-over is a mixture of a made-up language that is brilliantly spoken by the gods of death and sleep, and the decisions chosen for the mediation sections are perfect, with a sense of calmness and beauty to it. It has to be said, the writing found in Waking is spot on and could well be taken straight from a self-help book.
Ultimately, there is a deep sense of regret from playing Waking on Xbox One because I feel there is something brilliant and life-affirming underneath all that is presented. The meditative sections and use of your personal details are unique and something I enjoyed, and there are certainly some great ideas within. However, Waking will divide gamers, with some loving this intriguing premise and others being put off by the overly long, randomly generated areas. I would love to see what this talented developer will do next, but for me, right now, Waking just doesn’t live up to its promise.