The story of how Aaru’s Awakening came to be is like a fairy tale. What began as a school project picked up steam when it earned the top prize at the IGI Gamecreator competition, and the team of students formed Lumenox Games. Much like its development story, the game itself resembles the look and tone of one of Aesop’s Fables brought to life. The hand-drawn art style and story-book narration are reminiscent of classic bedtime stories that most of us heard as children. Even the title screen is visually striking and evokes a sense that this game is unlike most 2-D platformers.
After my 4-hour playthrough, my suspicions were confirmed: Aaru’s Awakening is very different from other platformers. Unfortunately, those differentiators aren't always positive.
Visuals: Artwork Awakening
It must be noted that everything you see on the screen in Aaru’s Awakening was drawn by hand. BY HUMAN HANDS. That feat alone makes this game worthy of recognition. The initial waves of orange and yellow give way to brightly painted scenery with some great uses of contrasting dark and light tones - especially in the Dusk and Night temples. Aaru’s graceful movements through the serene environments are almost dreamlike. The enemies look like something from a Guillermo Del Toro film: beautiful yet frightening.
The same can’t be said for the titular hero, however, as Aaru’s overly simple design doesn’t leave an impression. I wish the same level of creativity had been put into making the Servant of the Dawn pop off the screen a little more. Instead, what we’re left with is essentially a golden griffin with no wings.
Other than the artwork for Aaru himself, the game sports a unique visual style that fits perfectly with the narrative and gameplay. The artists at Lumenox deserve to be commended for their attention to detail and willingness to use bold colors in the environments.
Audio: Sounds Like A Dream
The music in Aaru’s Awakening provides a nice ambient backdrop for the dreamlike atmosphere. The brighter levels incorporated more tribal percussion, while the darker levels of night used soothing tones to create a strong reverb effect. The soundtrack didn’t strike me in the same way as the visuals did, but I like how it complimented the art style without distracting from it. The sound effects were equally fitting, as everything from jumping to teleporting and materializing enemies had a subtle sleepiness to it. The soft whispery sigh each time Aaru died was a nice touch, although I heard that sound effect during the final levels way more often than I’d like.
Story: Go Back To Sleep
The story of Aaru’s Awakening has promise at the outset. The mythology of Dawn, Dusk, Day, and Night keeping the world in balance make sense in terms of matching a narrative with the art style. The potential was squandered, though, as the game failed to convince me to care about any of the story beats or character motivations. By the 2nd “cut scene,” I was looking for a “Skip’ button.
The writing has a touch of elegance to it, and the localisation works fine. The narrator’s voice pulled me right out of the story, however, as I felt like I was listening to a high school girl read a book to a class of 2nd graders. As the game progresses, Aarus begins to question the reason for the quest, but I just couldn’t be convinced to care.
The good news here is that Aaru’s Awakening isn’t designed as a story-centric game, so the shortcomings in this area aren’t deal breakers. It’s a piece of art brought to life with some unique and challenging gameplay mechanics.
Gameplay: This is fun! Oh wait… nevermind, this is crazy hard.
The quintessential platforming gameplay mechanics belong to a certain mustachioed plumber. Countless other games have tried to match the precise controls of Mario games, and only a rare number of them come close. Aaru’s Awakening controls are more comparable to Donkey Kong Country, Super Meat Boy, or Little Big Planet than Mario. There’s a “floating” feeling to the movements, jumps, and landings in this game, but I quickly acclimated to the physics as the game eased me in with a few tutorial levels.
Some of the ideas that are introduced are innovative and fun to play. Jump is mapped to L1, which is an adjustment right off the bat. This change from the expected X = jump formula allows the game to use a “twin stick shooter” style of controls. In lieu of the standard face buttons for action inputs, Aaru is controlled with the two analog sticks and the shoulder buttons. While I appreciate what they are trying to accomplish with this configuration, it’s a challenging adjustment, and it doesn’t always work well. The later levels require instant precise movements to jump and dodge around enemies and obstacles, and this is made especially difficult with the way my brain is accustomed to playing platform games. I can’t tell you how many times I instinctively hit X to jump.
The biggest innovation that Aaru’s Awakening delivers is the ability to teleport. Pressing R1 causes Aaru to fire a ball of energy to bounce around the stage. At any point, Aaru can teleport to the ball’s location with a quick press of R2. This mechanic feels clunky at first, but by the time I faced the first boss battle, I was teleporting around the map with little difficulty. This mechanic also acts as the only real ‘attack’ in the game. Aaru’s method for defeating his foes is to send the teleport ball in their direction, and with the right timing, he can materialize within the enemy, causing them to completely disintegrate. The game begins to introduce some challenging platforming puzzles that can only be solved with a perfect combination of teleporting and dashing.
Unfortunately, the difficulty ramps up so quickly, my progress slowed in the Night temples came to a grinding halt in the final world. It reminded me of the extreme difficulty courses in games like Trials and OlliOlli2. I usually like creative challenges requiring every tool the game has put at your disposal, but when the game becomes unreasonably difficult, it’s a frustrating exercise that sucks the momentum and enjoyment out of the game. Yes, there are checkpoints that ease the pressure of the toughest sections, but a few of the platforming sections are so “throw your controller” challenging, that I often wondered if I’d be able to complete the game.
The boss battles at the end of each set of temples are much more successful at combining fun and difficulty. Although there were a few nearly impossible moments that required an insane combination of teleports and dashes, teleporting to that final orb was always very satisfying. The final boss is the only exception. That’s as close to impossible as it gets.
*Editor's Note: PS Plus subscribers can download Aaru’s Awakening for FREE during the month of April.