Alwa’s Awakening transported me back to the living room floor of my childhood home in Peoria, Illinois. Clutching the controller with childlike enthusiasm, it was hard to contain the euphoria I felt as I plunged into the 8-bit dungeon-like depths of Alwa, a land ravaged by an evil entity known as Vicar. The fate of the land was in my hands as I controlled Zoe, the enigmatic purple-hooded heroine, in her quest to vanquish the evil Vicar and his acolytes and bring peace back to Alwa.
We live in an age where retro-inspired games are flourishing. The 8-bit and 16-bit designs in modern games tend to exude the same character we loved from the actual classics of these eras. To put it succinctly, retro-designed games – especially those of the popular 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania subgenre like Alwa’s Awakening – rely heavily on gameplay to attract an audience. These games are stripped down without the production frills of voice acting or big-budget animation. The plot, as in most classically-designed games, is thin. Addicting, challenging gameplay is what bolsters the appeal of retro-inspired games. That rings true with Alwa’s Awakening.
The champion of Alwa
The game begins with Zoe heading eastward into the heart of Alwa. The evil Vicar stole four ornaments – objects of power – from the people of Alwa. He dispersed them to four separate protectors, each being a significant foe. Zoe must acquire all four of these ornaments in order to confront Vicar. The trick, however, is that the player must overcome the puzzles and obstacles the world presents by exploring and seeking upgrades for Zoe’s magic abilities.
On the outset, Zoe’s primary attack is with a staff that players will acquire rather quickly. Then, through exploration, three separate magical abilities can be acquired. The abilities are to summon a block, create a bubble, and fire a lightning projectile. While the lightning projectile can be used as an attack as well as to unlock certain passages, the others are specifically for traversing the world and accessing new areas. Even after these abilities are acquired, a further upgrade for each of them is needed to continue exploration at a certain point.
Learn from the challenges… and your own mistakes
Early on, players can obtain a map that shows where they’ve been and where potential exploration can occur. At first, I was torn by the open layout. But, after an hour into the game, I started to realize how organic my pioneering choices felt. At times, you may head in a direction only to turn around realizing that it leads to a hard stop without further progression until you acquire some new ability. But take note, this title is not linear by any stretch. Areas will be retread multiple times. There will be moments when an object that is needed for your quest is visible, but also out of reach. This typically means that you need to advance your abilities or continue exploring in order to obtain it.
Trial and Error… sometimes
The inhabitants and design of Alwa vary. In the first half of the game, enemies were rather easy to defeat. During this time, most of my deaths occurred from ill-timed jumps that plunged me into spikes, water, lava, or things of that nature. And yes, be aware that water (among other things) is insta-death. I discovered this by intentionally jumping into the first body of water I encountered to see what happened. Eventually, standard enemies become much more formidable. Additionally, the platforming challenge utilizing your magical abilities steadily increases as you access new areas.
One thing I learned, is that this game was partially designed for a trial-and-error style of play (as in my initial water scenario). Enemy patterns, including boss fights (the four protectors and Vicar), can be learned after a handful of deaths. Other times, danger sprung at me quicker than I anticipated. Each step and misstep you take is a learning opportunity. Therein lies the magic of Alwa’s Awakening much in the same way as the NES dungeon-crawlers of old. It’s an experience that constantly asks you to remember what you’ve learned. By the time you finally face Vicar, you will need to implement strategies you’ve learned such as blocking projectile attacks with your block-summoning ability as a defense. You’ll need to learn how to rapidly shift between abilities as well.
Lost and confused
The only fault I find with Alwa’s Awakening is its use of the world map. As mentioned earlier, many times you may stumble upon an object that is presently unobtainable. It’d be nice if the map noted discovered items. I had a hard time remembering where exactly some of the items were that I needed to go back to and possibly wasted a bit of time just roaming. The only items marked on your map are the locations of each of the four protectors, the save points, and the warp points that you can take to teleport to different regions of the map.
Timeless, like the classics of old
Alwa’s Awakening is exactly what I had hoped I was in for when I booted up the title. The classy, evocative 8-bit design, the charming synthesized soundtrack, and the addictive gameplay all aggregate to form one hell of a gaming experience. These titles aren’t only for those yearning for a nostalgic trip. The cartoonish design and controls on a 2D plane were beckoning my young son to pick up the controller. The character of throwback, retro-inspired titles that were crafted with care, like Alwa’s Awakening, will always find an audience with those seeking an experience where gameplay is king.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: Sept. 27, 2018
No. of Players: 1 player
Category: Platformer, Adventure
Publisher: Elden Pixels
Developer: Elden Pixels
The publisher provided a code for this review. Our review policy.