Review - "Aaru's Awakening" (PS4)

One of the worst types of disdain you can have, I think, is of the unwilling variety. When you really want to like something, and you have nothing against it, but despite your best attempts, you ultimately just have a burning, festering hatred directed right towards the thing. It's one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the spectrum of human emotion, I feel.

Aaru's Awakening is that feeling encapsulated into a video game.

I'm sure the developer means well. There doesn't seem to be any ill intent behind this physics-based indie platformer. In fact, all of the pieces for a fun, clever experience are all in place. Everything is lovingly drawn by hand, and the style has a sort of 70's-80's Ralph Bakshi flair to it. The music is an eclectic blend of Middle Eastern sensibilities blended with ambient techno that's very pleasing to the ears. And, on top of the almost entrancing aesthetic, the concept, while a bit convoluted, is interesting and made me want to learn more about Aaru's world and its rich lore.

Too bad that the gameplay made me want to smash my controller into tiny bits.

If there was a dictionary definition for the phrase "style over substance," there should be a screencap of Aaru's Awakening to serve as a visual aid for the term. While visuals and audio here look and sound great, everything else about this game is absolute swill. That might sound harsh, and trust me, I take no pleasure in tearing apart an indie production. I'm well aware that this is a developer that lives and dies by word-of-mouth, not having any sort of major advertising budget to speak of. But even so, I can't, in all good conscience, let anybody spend their money on something that is this fundamentally broken.

"Broken" really is an apt term here, because the controls simply don't work. Aside from being yet another indie platformer with physics puzzles in a marketplace brimming with them, Aaru's Awakening's controls are painfully ass-backwards, especially when you're using a traditional controller/gamepad set-up. Players will guide Aaru with either the left analog stick or the directional pad, and make him face in a direction with the right analog stick. Also, there is no real jump button; the pathetically limited hopping motion is accomplished by either jamming up on the analog stick or pushing up on the D-Pad.

With this already frustrating control scheme in place, the game piles on two more mechanics that pushes it from "irritating" to "awful": dashing and throwing a ball of light. Dashing, which doesn't damage enemies for unknown reasons, is what's supposed to compensate for Aaru's laughable jumping abilities, but falls flat on its face. It must be aimed with the right analog stick, but in sections where you're running, jumping, and trying to not get hit by various foes, it starts feeling impossible to make Aaru dash anywhere but to his demise. As the game progresses, players will also have to use it to break through walls and do so in a split second, but with the unwieldy controls, it basically becomes the button-pushing equivalent to flailing about and hoping for the best. Precise, calculated platforming, this ain't.

Worse still is Aaru's "throw a ball of light" mechanic. This projectile serves two purposes. One is to damage enemies, and it fails miserably at that. The physics for the ball are imprecise and the trajectory is never entirely clear, despite there being an arrow present on-screen, and in order to damage these enemies, you'll need to tap into the ball's second function: teleportation. Yes, on top of having to aim, throw, and successfully hit an enemy, players then have to mash down on another button to teleport on top of an enemy... which kills them, for some reason. It's a flat-out stupid mechanic, and feels far too precise for a game in which imprecision reigns supreme.

This "ball" mechanic gets even worse, though, when it's used for actually solving transportation issues. At some point in the game, the ball becomes the only real way to efficiently traverse the landscape, and that's where it becomes abundantly clear that this game is busted to its very core. I had to keep jumping while constantly dashing in a narrow crevice while trying to throw a ball, while aiming it with the analog stick, while under fire from an unkillable enemy just to fit the ball through a miniscule passage, in hopes that it wouldn't randomly disappear, so I could teleport to the other side of a wall. This means that I was holding down and releasing one button while frantically bashing down on two analog sticks and another button, all while trying to avoid a randomized firing pattern.

Some might make the argument that I'm just not good enough to play Aaru's Awakening, and in fact, I almost expect a developer to find this post and tell me I just "don't get it." But this isn't an issue of the game being too hard. I love hard games, even ones some claim are too hellish. I relish them, in fact, because I feel like most games these days are cakewalks compared to stuff we were getting only a little over a decade ago. Aaru's Awakening's problem isn't that it's too hard. It's that it's fucking broken.

This game falls into a pitfall I've noticed a lot throughout my gaming career, and it's something that I notice in particular with bad platformers. Players are expected to do elaborate, painstakingly precise things in any given level, yet never given controls that are even remotely conducive to doing said things. Playing this game, I got flashbacks to Red Ninja: End of Honor, Sonic The Hedgehog (of the 2006 variety,) and, dare I say it, the old Bubsy games. These are experiences I vividly remember, because I can recall specific instances of the game wanting me to do something that was next to impossible with the mechanics provided. Did I just compare Aaru's Awakening to some of the worst games ever released? Yes, and deservedly so.

It's possible to make a difficult indie platformer, even in an over-saturated market, and strike gold. Look at Super Meat Boy. Look at Braid. Look at Fez. Look at Dustforce. Look at last year's phenomenal Never Alone. Those are five great games, and five games that Aaru's Awakening doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph-... no, the same review as.

While I don't want to hate Aaru's Awakening, and while I can definitely see the clear effort that went into making it, I'm left with that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. A burning, bitter animosity that won't go away, no matter how much I try to make it. That's because, at the end of the day, good intentions can't save what is, ultimately, an unfortunate failure of a game.

- Nice art direction
- Solid sound design

- Controls are fundamentally broken
- Level designs are half-baked
- "Throw the ball" mechanic is garbage
- Jumping is laughably limited
- There are other, better games just like it

(Almost scraping the bottom of the barrel, 3's are games
that would have had potential in the right hands. As they stand,
however, they are almost beyond redemption, and 
any enjoyment that could be derived from them is hampered
by awful design, bad execution, or all around moral bankruptcy.)


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