Friday, 9 October 2020

Switch Review - Alwa's Legacy


The eShop describes ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ as “a modern retro game” where  you “choose your own path in this non-linear adventure game brimming with exploration.” Yes it’s another pixelated ‘Meroidvania’ game, but maybe this one is better than the countless others.

 

Developed by Elden Pixels

Released in 2020

 

Familiarity breeds contempt; what was once my catnip, has now become something that’s repellent to me. Five years ago, I would see a ‘Metroidvania’ style game and been intrigued but now I roll my eyes. This style of game seems to be the obvious go-to for too many developers. Online digital stores are crowded with mediocre titles whose main selling point seem to be that “it’ll remind you of playing ‘Super Metroid’ 25 years ago”. A ‘Metroidvania’ game can of course be done very well, we need only look towards ‘Celeste’, ‘Hollow Knight’ and ‘Axiom Verge’ for proof of this. But, more often than not, it seems developers shun exploration in favour of monotonous backtracking and an enemy onslaught. When playing a good ‘Metroidvania’ game there’s that wonderful moment of realisation when you find an item and know immediately how it can be used to reach an inaccessible area. In Mediocre examples you find something and then sigh as you know it’ll mean a lot of re-treading old ground to use it. The worst ‘Metroidvania’ games see you find something and then realise you have no idea why you need it. The game then demands the player randomly use this curio everywhere they’ve been, in the hope that it’ll be productive somewhere. The strength of a one of these game therefore is its ability to hide things in plain sight and minimise the sense of toing-and-froing.

I make no secret of my love of pixelated graphics, but much like ‘Metroidvania’ games, what was once a niche art style has become mainstream. Celebrated Amiga graphics artist  Dan Malone once said “I just wanted to hide the pixels. I wanted [the characters] to be smooth like it’s a comic”. Today having a dotty protagonist is seen as a selling point; and it seems half the modern independent games offer “retro inspired graphics”. I love the look when it is done well, but increasingly bad 2D character sprites are excused by claiming the look is just like it was back in the day. True, but the games this new title is aligning itself with, also looked bad thirty years ago. Having pixel art doesn’t mean a game immediately looks good or even nostalgic. Decades ago Super Nintendo magazine reviewers didn’t say every game looked fantastic even though the majority had pixelated presentation. So it seems bizarre that so many people today are convinced that having blocky graphics equals instant appeal, regardless of how good the pixel art actually is. 

There was a time when I would have been so excited to play Elden Pixels' ‘Alwa’s Legacy’, but knowing it is yet another pixelated ‘Metroidvania’ game really didn’t make me want to play it. However, this game is beautiful and may actually compare to the original games that fused to create the genre’s name. Unlike poorer imitators, ‘Alwa’s Legacy’  favours exploration and puzzle solving over tedious backtracking and excessive combat. It is a title that, while inspired by ‘Castlevania’, somehow manages to avoid its monotony; a game that feels fresh even though its walking down a very well-trodden generic path.


‘Alwa’s Legacy’ is a crowd funded sequel to ‘Alwa’s Awakening’; a 2017 side scrolling action game that was comparable to ‘Battle of Olympus’ and  ‘Legend of Zelda: The Adventure of Link’. The developers claimed the original was a game “that tries to stay as close as possible to the authentic 8-bit look with sweet pixel art, a soundtrack filled with catchy chiptunes and so much charm it’ll bring you right back to the NES era.” True to the time, ‘Awakening’ also borrowed heavily from the 8bit ‘Mega Man’ and ‘Faxanadu’ games. It was largely well received with one critic calling it “an excellent example of retro-style gaming. Not just big chunky pixel art, but actually playing like a game that could have been released 30 years ago, and I mean that in the best way possible”. ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ sees a leap in visuals, in a manner similar to how Super Nintendo follow ups improved upon their NES prequels. Imagine the graphical improvements seen in ‘Super Mario World’ compared to ‘Super Mario Bros 3’, or the visual advances of ‘Link to the Past’ compared to the original ‘Legend of Zelda’. If ‘Awakening’ was a tip-of-the-hat to 8bit graphics, ‘Legacy’ is a 16 bit tribute. “Alwa’s Awakening was a game we truly are proud over” says designer Mikael Forslind. “But it was also the first game we ever made, so we learned a lot during the process. The way the design of ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ started was that we made a list of the ten most common criticisms we received and we built our design foundation with the goal to fix all of those issues”.  

This sequel takes place right after the events of the first game, with you once again playing as Zoe a purple cloaked magician. Unfortunately for amnesiac Zoe, the antagonist from the prequel;  the Sorcerer Vicar has also returned along with a slew of monsters. This time, Zoe must take a mysterious book around the land of Alwa to collect magical artefacts and defeat Vicar, which in turn will restore her memories. The plot is simple enough to follow, advanced largely through short cut scenes and by interacting with friendly villagers.  At the start you're armed with a staff which you can only use to perform a weak melee attack, however gradually you unlock its magic potential.  Once learnt Zoe’s magical spells allow her to do three useful things: She can conjure up bubbles that can be stood on and used as a lift. Her second trick sees her creating a block out of thin air, which can be then climbed on top of or used to weigh down switches. The final spell she learns allows her to shoot balls of fire, which serves as a range attack and can be used to activate switches from afar.  However, use of the magic wand is limited, exhausting a magic bar. This essentially prevents you from spamming actions to brute force your way through a puzzling sections and there certainly are a lot of puzzles to deal with.

“I think what sets our game apart from the rest, is that our title is never about the violence or the collection of wealth” says
  Forslind.  “I’m talking in broad terms here of course but most ‘Metroidvania’ games that I’ve played are often about killing enemies and collecting gold. We want the players to focus more on the exploration, the puzzles and the adventure than the action.” In the main you’ll be doing a lot of platform traversal, leaping between ledges to try to reach a ladder or door that leads to a new room. To achieve this you have to use your magical abilities in creative ways, using a floating bubble as a temporary platform to get Zoe over a bigger gap for example.


There’s an elegant difficulty curve. While early sections demand just the use of one magical power, you’ll soon be juggling between the various magical spells to get to a new destination. These skills are all introduced so incrementally that ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ never feels overwhelming and there’s an undeniable sense of achievement when you string several different spells together to get to an area that once seemed out of reach.


The magic can be upgraded by exchanging blue orbs found scatted across the environment. Additionally peppered throughout the world of Alwa are new physical abilities that essentially make Zoe’s more dexterous. For example one new ability allows her to run over spikes for a limited time, others mean she can slow time or  alter gravity. Unlocking each makes the gameplay much easier and ultimately far less frustrating, while of course allowing Zoe access to new areas to explore.  However, these abilities work a bit differently to  magic. New abilities can't be upgraded and they don't have a refill bar. Instead you are only able to use one ability per screen unless you stop to recharge. Some sections are pretty forgiving but most later levels give you little room for error, and much of the fun in ‘Alwa’s Legacy’  comes from trying to figure out how to traverse over a screen with the new techniques you have at your disposal.  “All the upgrades you get unlock new ways forward, not new ways to kill stuff” says Forslind. “Fighting is not the primary focus but instead you play as this magician and you need to use your magic in creative and clever ways to progress.”

Despite Elden Pixels’ pacifistic claims, there is combat in ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ and sadly it’s not very well implemented.  For the first few hours of the game you have no ranged weapon, so the only way to defeat enemies is to hit them with your wand. Most take more than one hit, and too many inhabit very small platforms. This wouldn’t be such a problem if Zoe was stronger, but after three hits you’re sent back to an earlier checkpoint. Thankfully there is an assist mode that returns the player to the screen they died on. “I definitely think we made the right choice including this mode in our game” says Forslind. “I love challenging games myself and I take pride in finishing a game that’s really hard but I think it’s great if people can choose themselves how they want to experience our games”.


I would recommend everyone turns the assist mode on when they start up the game, as far too frequently death seems to be unavoidable. This is infuriating when it robs you of all progress since your last save. Shield wielding enemies shouldn’t spawn right in front of the player character when you enter a room especially as the can withstand hits from the front. However their starting proximity doesn’t give you enough chance to get over them to hit them from behind. The result is instant infuriating death. Each time Zoe dies you get to see an on screen death count. By the time I finished the game this was in triple digits. Most of these deaths came from the boss fights, which seem to have been designed by a sadist. Like a ‘Mega Man’ game they have set attack patterns, but to learn these it seems you have to die dozens of times. You can find rose petals throughout the game to increase Zoe’s health but, like the projectile weapon, these can only be gained a few hours into the game. Up until then, any moment of confrontation feels perilous and annoying. I’m all for creating a game without combat, but if you are going to reluctantly add any it needs to be fair.

 

At least the frustrations come from fighting and never from feeling overwhelmed by an impressively large map. There’s a great deal of signposting; non player characters will literally tell you where you should be going. As soon as you gain a new power you’ll be anxious to see what new paths have opened, but trial and error is removed by these being pointed out on a map. You can place warp tiles for quicker navigation and though Zoe may have to go over old ground occasionally, on a return visit she has so many new abilities that you’ll breeze through the puzzling sections that once felt so taxing. The world of Alwa is broken into several sections with five different thematic dungeons. These dungeon sections are naturally more intense and feature a variety of gameplay elements; one has changing gravity another uses a time-based system that enhances plant growth depending on the era you set it. Its quirks like these that keep ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ continually fresh and the puzzles varied. “We built more of a Zelda inspired world where the player can find temples they can tackle in any order, making the backtracking less of an issue since it’s not really required in that sense” Claims Forslind.

 

So, ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ is a ‘Metroidvania’ game that doesn’t always feel like a ‘Metroidvania’ game. And traversing the huge open world is pleasurable because it looks so attractive. Backgrounds are especially gorgeous and extremely colourful, character animations are smooth and elegant without hindering the responsive controls. “When most people see a game such as ‘Alwa’s Legacy’, they see a game that’s “retro” and they have their preconceived notions about what it means to play a game like that” laments Forslind.


“For us using pixel art does not automatically make it a retro game but since we’re building our game on a foundation of games from the past we still want to call it a retro game, but we want to throw in modern there as well. we’re using things like dynamic lighting, and modern effects. All of this combined we think makes a great modern retro experience.”  Inferior games may use pixelation as a crutch or a cheap gimmick but ‘Alwa’s Legacy’ celebrates the beauty of tiny digital dots. Zoe looks similar to the protagonist of ‘Magical Pop’n’, and while there’s visual flourishes all over the screen its always clear what can be leap to and what is simply decorative.

‘Alwa’s Legacy’ is a vibrant adventure that takes some of the best aspects of the genre yest still manages to put enough of a spin on it to set it apart. Using magic, puzzle solving and exploring the charming world of Alwa is a real joy. Yes combat isn’t good, but if you accept that you may well die a lot it doesn't take away too much from the overall experience. There may be dozens of ‘Metroidvania’ games overcrowding the eShop, but by taking a step back and not making a carbon copy of past successes, Elden Pixels has created a game that itself will likely be replicated in the future.

 

Where did I get this game from?

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher. They have not seen or had any influence on the content of this article prior to publication.  

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