Back when the NES and SNES were mainstay consoles, it was commonplace to get a single game and play through it countless times. It didn’t matter how awful the game was, how incredibly difficult it was, or what kind of game breaking bugs stopped you in your tracks; you just played it. That’s how games worked, and that's how they were played. Alwa’s Awakening harkens back to that era of gaming with its retro look and feel. But sticking so closely to those elements of the past might be the game’s biggest misstep as well.
Zoe is your typical NES-era protagonist; she is asked to save the world and dumped into a strange land where she can walk, jump, and attack. Story is miniscule in Alwa’s Awakening, and other characters you run into give you brief bits of dialogue that are usually more instructive than atmospheric. Much like another classic title with a female protagonist and backtracking, Zoe gains powerups as she continues her journey through Alwa, the mystical land she now inhabits.
You will die a lot in Alwa’s Awakening; that much is a guarantee. In fact, the developers have put a death counter on the continue screen just to let you know how many times you’ve perished. More often than not, my reason for death was the game’s platforming sections. This isn’t to say they’re difficult or unreasonable. In fact, they are very era-specific in their fairness and difficulty. Death brings with it one of the game’s major flaws, its save system.
I understand the desire to stick to the formula and have save rooms like a Metroid game, but their inconsistency can be frustrating when you have to rerun the same seven screens to get to the same problem area, only to die and start from that save screen all over again. The choice to stick to the era’s rigid structure hurts Alwa’s Awakening in that it feels old and uninspired in its design. I am all for games like Shovel Knight or Axiom Verge that take inspiration from games and run with it. But the difference between those games and Alwa’s Awakening is that the aforementioned titles evolve the genre and improve upon it. Alwa’s Awakening just sticks to the past and says “that’s the way it is."
As you progress through the platforming and simplistic combat that involves swinging a staff, you gain powerups. These include the abilities to create blocks and bubbles to get around certain areas of the game as well as a projectile attack. Each of these powers can also be upgraded to give Zoe more abilities and access to new locations. Keeping track of the secrets and places I couldn’t get to yet, only to go back and reach them easily with my new abilities was a nostalgic moment for me. It reminded me of taking notes back when I binged on SNES titles.
One interesting bit worth mentioning is that the upgrades, from what I’ve seen on YouTube, are somewhat optional. Apparently, some players have the skills to pull of complicated jumps and maneuvers in mid-air to reach the secrets without any upgrades. The fact that the option exists is really interesting and gives the game a bit of depth in the sense that there are secrets beyond what is in front of you.
While Alwa’s Awakening nails the graphical look and chiptune sound of 80s platformers, it’s too anchored in the past for its own good. Some would say the platforming is too easy compared to those games, but it makes up for those easy spots with frustrating save rooms and making the player replay through the same few screens to get to the next point. Backtracking comes with the territory and while it’s expected in games like this, that doesn’t make it any less tedious. Overall, Alwa’s Awakening sticks to its inspirations for better or for worse, leading to a game that feels like an homage to the 8-bit era without bringing anything new to the table.