Darkness before the Dawn
Aaru’s Awakening is an unrelenting challenge of a game, which places players in the world of Lumenox, a mystical land in a precarious state of balance between four deities who rule it, Dawn, Day, Dusk, and Night. Now that balance is being disrupted, as Dawn sends a faithful warrior, Aaru, to travel the domains of the other gods on a quest to remake the world.
Dark and twisted lands await.
Aaru’s Awakening (PC [Reviewed], PS3, PS4)
Developer: Lumenox Games
Publisher: Lumenox Games
Released: February 24, 2015
Players control Aaru, tasked by his master to destroy the temples devoted to the world’s other deities. His tale, told through a storybook narration, is one about the trappings of faith, subservience, and the necessity of questioning authority. The plot is unremarkable and straightforward, serving up enough to establish the world of Lumenox and the character of Aaru, but little else.
The game presents a 2D platforming style of play with an emphasis on challenging level design. Aaru can run left or right, jump, and employ an air-dash in any direction, but what makes him truly special is his teleportation ability. This is performed by firing a ball of light into the environment, acting as a targeting beacon Aaru can instantly move to. Like the air-dash, this teleportation ball can be fired at any angle and can also be charged up to increase its velocity. The ball is also a physical object that will bounce off surfaces and be destroyed by nearly anything which would also injure or kill Aaru.
These properties of the teleport ball open up vast possibilities that the game’s environments take full advantage of. To be successful, players will have to learn to use the ball in a variety of ways, such as firing it through tiny corridors Aaru is too large to pass, using it to keep aloft over lengthy stretches of deadly spikes, even applying it as a weapon by teleporting into enemies. By the mid-point of the game, maneuvers which require precise application of all three of Aaru’s abilities become commonplace with little room for error.
Controlling Aaru works well enough with a gamepad, but the better choice for most players will probably be to use keyboard and mouse. From an accuracy standpoint, aiming air-dashes and the teleport ball seems a touch easier with a mouse than an analog stick. The default controller scheme also binds the jump command to up on the left stick which makes it easy to accidentally jump at the wrong time, but the necessity of the right stick to aim effectively prohibits use of face buttons, so there aren’t a lot of options to work with.
Players will want that level of precision in the controls, too, as Aaru is not a hardy warrior. Most of the world’s surfaces are covered in spikes, thorns, or water, all of which will kill instantly. Hell, just about everything kills instantly, with the exception of some enemy projectiles and pockets of gas or flowing water that can be survived if further contact can be avoided during a brief healing period. Odds are, if it looks like it might kill you, it probably will, sending Aaru back to the last checkpoint reached in the stage. It’s likely players will die in excess of fifty times on their first attempt to navigate later levels. Thankfully, the game is generally liberal with checkpoints, though there are a few sequences which seem almost unreasonable in length, chaining together one difficult maneuver after another without any break.
If this proves to be too simple for players, an additional challenge can be found in attempting to clear stages within target times, rewarded with medals. This is totally optional and excruciatingly difficult to accomplish in most stages. There is satisfaction to be had from earning these medals, but some elements in many levels appear in a random fashion, which undermines the goal of achieving that flawless, fast run through repetition.
Aaru’s Awakening features nineteen standard stages and five boss encounters, which take the form of more environmental puzzles but with a non-linear twist. Each features glowing targets in a variety of colors which need to be teleported to. Clearing all the targets of a set will grant access to an adjoining room with a challenging sequence to complete, but each destroyed target also impacts the main room where the boss resides by provoking a special attack or adding more obstacles. The targets can be approached in any order, which gives some control over how difficult the main room becomes, but all will eventually have to be hit to clear the stage and defeat the boss.
This approach to boss design is excellent in the context of the game’s minimal combat mechanics. Much like standard stages, checkpoints are established often (with the clearing of every secondary room), cutting down on the frustration of having to retread old ground. Unfortunately, the targets have no distinguishing characteristics beyond their color. This can make it difficult to differentiate between them, which in turn makes it harder to establish an effective approach.
It’s especially a bummer when considering how much attention has been paid to other facets of the visuals in Aaru’s Awakening. The world of Lumenox is conveyed through a pencil drawing style which gives it a detailed, somewhat grungy look. Animations are smooth, particularly in the case of Aaru, as plenty of frames have been dedicated to animating him to reflect the changing angle of the targeting arrow.
Sound design hits and misses in equal measure. Ambient music tracks which play during stages set an appropriate mood and do a lot to enhance the experience, but sound effects are often a bit grating and there are instances where respawning after a death produces a sharp noise which borders on painful, especially when you’re likely to hear it fifty times or more over a few minutes.
A fine game which presents a grueling challenge, Aaru’s Awakening is perfect for the player who thinks 2D platform games today just aren’t difficult enough.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]