Maybe I’m less nostalgic for the 8-bit era than I thought. Man, that sounds harsh when I come right out and say it. It’s the only explanation I have for wanting to shout from the rooftops that Elden Pixels’ Alwa’s Awakening is a triumph of design, and execution, while simultaneously screaming that I can’t deal with the difficulty.
Alwa’s Awakening hearkens back to the glory days of the early-to-mid 80’s with aplomb. The character sprites are large, colorful, well animated, and immediately memorable. There’s an impressive variety to the enemies and obstacles Zoe will encounter during her journeys across a lush and lovingly crafted world. The backgrounds are rich with detail and provide plenty of atmosphere without being distracting in their own right. Elden Pixels has created a world I want to learn more about, even when it’s replete with typical gaming silliness like floating platforms that could never occur naturally. The game is trying for the nostalgia sweet spot (how DID that enemy get there if it can’t jump?), and gets the aesthetic perfectly right. Then there’s that incredible music. Chiptune music can sometimes be irritating if not done correctly, but when I’m humming tunes (immaculately composed tunes with distinct harmonies and melodies), that’s a soundtrack worth hearing. The tracks perfectly complement the action and are almost a character in their own right. Sound effects are appropriately old-school, but nowhere near as memorable as the music. The writing is decent, although the storyline and dialogue aren’t going to stay with you for any length of time after playing, being rather standard defeat the overwhelming evil and save the world style questing.
Alwa’s Awakening controls well, although Zoe’s jumps are a bit floatier than I’d like. While puzzles and obstacles are well designed, they often require a level of precision that I’m simply not capable of, resulting in lost of (to me) unnecessary deaths and respawns. Since I’m only allowed to save at designated checkpoints (a feature of the NES that doesn’t need to be recreated now), that means I need to cover lost ground only to die again when I get stuck at a seemingly impossible bit of platforming coupled with inconveniently placed enemies. I do like that checkpoints serve as health refilling stations, and that they are liberally scattered throughout the world, but again, PLEASE let me save where and when I want. The health recharge also wouldn’t be necessary if enemies dropped health a bit more often. On the positive side, Zoe gains interesting, unique, and useful powers as she continues her quest. The powers are easy to access and easy to use. In fact, clever players with impeccable timing can utilize several of these abilities to sequence-break the daylights out of the game, a move the developers enthusiastically encourage. Unfortunately, I seem to lack the timing necessary, so I am forced to take the long way around most times. Boss battles are clever in that you’re required to learn the timing of your opponent’s attacks as well as the best time/way to strike back. In another homage to the old days, you’re probably going to get the stuffing beaten out of you early and often until you figure it out. Again, with the odd spacing of checkpoints, that means you’ll have to backtrack in order to get back to the boss’s chamber in order to go through it all again. The “get good” crowd will enjoy this, but it can become frustrating in a hurry for those not up to the challenge. While most metroidvanias require a measure of backtracking anyway, Alwa’s Awakening seems a bit egregious at times. Several important items (and many collectible orbs) are hidden behind passages locked unless you a) have access to the power(s) you need to proceed, or b) can sequence-break. Since warp points are few and far between and these items are hidden in the middle of fortresses, you’re going to have to cover a LOT of the same ground over and over again in order to find everything. Yes, this increases replay value, but it can also become tiresome. Combat is always satisfying, and learning enemies attack patterns is fairly easy, even if it requires some patience.
I really, truly wish Alwa’s Awakening was designed with people like me in mind who enjoy the sense of nostalgia inherent in the aesthetics and music without also including the idea of Nintendo-hard gameplay. I think the game deserves the accolades its getting, and anyone up to the challenge would be remiss in not adding it to their library immediately, but it’s just not for me, even though I’d love to see a more accessible return to this realm in the future.