Sunday, April 28, 2013

Game Review - Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams (XBLA, 2013)

Many of the most iconic classics of gaming are platformers (Mario, Sonic, Donkey Kong, and Mega Man, for example), so it’s not surprising that you’ll still find a great platformer on occasion, even in today’s market of deep role-playing games and competitive first-person shooters.

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is definitely one of those shining gems in the modern gaming landscape.

Twisted Dreams begins rather simply: two sisters a playing with a crystal on a bed (?) when one gets dragged through some magical portal and the other follows in an attempt to save her sibling.  You control Giana, the second of the sisters, as she explores a fantastic dream world in search of her sister.

And that’s it for the story.  But, then again, platformers have never been known for immersive stories.

The brilliance of Twisted Dreams lies in the simplicity of its gameplay and its overall presentation.  On the most basic level, the gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from a platformer: you progress through a series of stages, hopping from platform to platform, and occasionally bouncing off enemies’ heads.  Shortly into the game, however, you learn of a major deviation from this simple formula.  Giana can twirl, which allows her to glide for slower falls, and she can dash, giving her a chance to reach ledges she wouldn’t be able to catch using jumps alone.

Special abilities like those aren’t exactly exciting, as nearly all games these days have some sort of similar gimmick.  The beauty lies in the fact that these abilities are distributed between the two halves of Giana’s personality – “cute” Giana is able to twirl, while “punk” Giana gets to dash.  When executing one of these abilities, Giana’s appearance will change to be in line with the dominant part of her personality.

But the entire world changes with Giana’s personality, too.  Cute Giana lives in a nightmarish world with creepy tendrils, dead trees, demonic enemies, and a generally darker color palette; punk Giana brings a much happier world with all the whimsical setpieces you’d expect from a fantasy story.

Switching between the two personalities causes a transition in the environment, not a sudden change – trees slump over as they die, wells collapse, benches fold down into coffins, and owl enemies become demons.  These animations, combined with the already gorgeous visuals, make Twisted Dreams a real graphical treat, as it’s just cool to watch the complex landscape evolve time and time again.  To take it even further, the music changes too, going from a more classical interpretation of the themes in cute Giana’s world to guitar-laden rock styles on the punk side.  The audiovisual transitions are incredibly smooth, and my only complaint is that there aren’t more melodies and environments to experience.

Twisted Dreams doesn’t stop there.  It integrates the different worlds into the gameplay by opening or closing paths or changing the type of enemies you’ll encounter as you switch from one personality to the other.  It’s a really cool application of a simple gameplay mechanic, and it absolutely hits its mark.

On top of everything else, the platforming is just fun.  There’s a good balance of challenge (because many of the stunts throughout the game require precision) and exploration and discovery (there are hidden pathways and optional rooms for you to investigate to unlock bonus materials and get better ratings), but it also allows you to choose how much of a challenge you want.

“Adventure Mode,” while not easy, is pretty forgiving because there are checkpoints all over the place.  Completing stages in Adventure Mode unlocks score and time attack modes where you can compete for leaderboard glory.  If you get a good enough rating on boss stages, you’ll unlock levels for the “Hardcore” mode, which completely eliminates checkpoints, requiring you to start a stage from the beginning if you die.  Finally, completing every stage on Hardcore makes the “Über Hardcore” mode available – if you die in Über Hardcore, you’ll be sent back to the beginning of the first stage, giving by far the greatest challenge of them all.

Combined with the fun underlying gameplay, these additional modes are quite enticing.  These advanced challenges for dedicated gamers dramatically inflate the game’s replay value.

What we end up with is a stunning game with solid gameplay.  The way the graphics and sounds change in response to your actions gives Twisted Dreams a unique atmosphere, and the game’s world is a lot of fun to explore.  It’s a wonderfully challenging game, but it consistently feels like your failures are due to your mistakes, not poor design.  It would’ve been nice to have more diverse settings for the stages (or just more stages in general), but as it stands, Twisted Dreams is an all-around fantastic game.

My Rating: 9/10 – awesome.

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