This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I bought Alwa’s Awakening after reading a recommendation over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but I never got around to playing it. Now it already has a sequel, Alwa’s Legacy, so I decided it was time to take a look at the first game.

Alwa’s Awakening is an unashamedly retro-styled metroidvania platformer that doesn’t really have any particular standout feature. Players will guide protagonist Zoe (Alwa is actually the name of the land in which the game is set, not the name of the protagonist) as she explores an interconnected world, finds new magical powers that let her access previously inaccessible areas, and eventually challenges the nefarious Protectors and their overlord, the evil Vicar. All of this is familiar from countless other games. These days, indie platformers usually have some kind of hook, like an imaginative core mechanic or a particularly striking art style. Alwa’s Awakening does not; instead it it simply very good at traditional platforming, proving that sometimes great execution is all that’s needed to make a great game.

Alwa’s Awakening is a faithful homage to the 8-bit era, which included game consoles like the Famicom (AKA Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short). I’ve been writing about some games for those consoles in my History Lessons posts about early Japanese-style role-playing games, like Dragon Quest. Alwa’s Awakening features chunky pixel art using the limited color palette that characterized those games, and chiptune music made with FamiTracker to imitate the sound of the Famicom system, down to the limited number of voices (more on the music later). It’s hard not to look for specific influences: Zoe’s measured movement pace and close-range staff attack are reminiscent of the Castlevania games, but the ladders reminded me of Mega Man, while the interconnected single screen areas (without any scrolling) brought to mind platform games on PC in the 1980s, which often gave titles to each of their single screens (You Have To Win the Game is an homage to these classics).

Developers Elden Pixels, however, call out a game I’d never heard of as an inspiration: Battle Kid. This is a homebrew game released for the NES in 2010, long after the system had been retired, as something of an homage to the 8-bit era of games. Its gameplay takes much inspiration from I Wanna Be The Guy, featuring a protagonist who is killed in just one hit and environments filled with surprise hazards that require trial and error to pass. This is odd, because Alwa’s Awakening is not like that at all; the only real similarities to Battle Kid that I could see are the single screens navigated without scrolling, and the open world to explore. And, I suppose, the idea of an intentionally retro-styled game made by a hobbyist developer. Alwa’s Awakening is not a brutally challenging game, nor does it require memorizing patterns with trial and error in order to make progress. It actually has a gentle difficulty curve which builds up to tough but fair obstacles later on, and was something of a breath of fresh air among today’s crop of platformer games.

Alwa’s Awakening is a platform game that focuses on jumping. There are no wall jumps, double jumps, air dashes, or split-second special maneuvers to dodge deadly traps or pitfalls. Just jumping between platforms. Don’t get me wrong, those fancy moves can be great, but Alwa’s Awakening makes for a much more relaxed time, and I really enjoyed exploring and jumping and occasionally whacking an enemy. Zoe’s measured movement pace means that challenges are never about fast reflexes, but rather determining a sequence of jumps and then deliberately executing them. In fact, impatience was often my enemy in the most difficult sections, as I hurried forward when I should have waited until the opportune moment. Deaths send Zoe back to the most recent save point screen she’s visited, which can sometimes mean repeating a few screens, but the save points are distributed fairly throughout Alwa so I was rarely too frustrated by this.

Enemies are more navigational hazards than anything else, easy to defeat on their own but making for trickier jumping when placed just so on certain screens. Even the special magic spells that Zoe can acquire are mostly navigational aids, granting her new ways to jump between platforms as she explores. There are bosses to face off against, but they are simpler affairs than the gigantic, multi-stage bosses that are often found in similar games and which represent huge spikes in difficulty. In Alwa’s Awakening, a boss encounter must be overcome with the same jumping and magic casting that Zoe needed to reach that point, a nice final test rather than a completely different challenge altogether.

And for all its retro styling, Alwa’s Awakening includes a lot of modern polish. Zoe may not move that fast, but she does so smoothly, with responsive controls that never left me feeling that I couldn’t pull off the moves I wanted to perform. This, combined with its straightforward exploration and jumping, makes Alwa’s Awakening a joy to play. My only real complaint is that backtracking to find new things can be tedious. The world map shows areas that haven’t been explored yet, but does not say why, so I often traveled back to an earlier location hoping my new magic would let me access something exciting, only to find that the path was actually blocked by a locked door that could only be opened from the other side. Unless I remembered that, there was no way to tell that I’d be wasting my time heading back there. But I do like the way hidden treasures are handled. Most are orbs, and collecting enough of these will help in boss battles by reducing the boss’s health before the fight starts. It’s not a huge benefit — boss fights may just be a little more repetitive without orbs — but it’s cool to have a tangible reward for having gone back to collect hard to reach orbs with Zoe’s upgraded magic. Even if collecting them really is its own reward.

There are even some bigger secrets to find, for players who enjoy searching for such things. I do, and was pleased to find that I could work almost all of them out myself, reminding me of the secrets in Guacamelee!. Those don’t have any gameplay impact though, so don’t worry if you’d rather just get on with the game.

I don’t have much else to say. Alwa’s Awakening doesn’t offer anything particularly new, it’s just a very good example of a classic metroidvania platformer. The world design is great, with plenty of places that are impassable at first but open up once Zoe has the right magic or special items, and shortcuts between locations are unlocked at just the right rate to keep exploration from becoming tedious. I also like the slight air of mystery surrounding everything. The story is simple, as was common in 8-bit games, but left me pondering a few questions. Before battle, the Protectors ask why Alwa is trying to kill them, and I found myself wondering the same thing. Zoe isn’t from Alwa herself, so where does she come from? And why is she so determined to save this world? The strange ending only doubles down on this, leaving a lot open for interpretation.

So, if the idea of a traditional but very well made platformer full of exploration appeals, I can heartily recommend Alwa’s Awakening. Players who remember 8-bit games from their youth will also get a nostalgic kick out of it, and for those who don’t, it’s a great example of why those games appealed. I’m intrigued to check out the sequel, and whatever Elden Pixels will make next.

The Score:

The chiptune soundtrack for Alwa’s Awakening, composed by Robert Kreese (with one guest track from Professor Sakamoto), is really good. Good enough that I tracked it down after playing, pleased to find that it’s available on Bandcamp for whatever price one chooses. It features 25 tracks spanning an hour and fifteen minutes, although the time is a little misleading: all of the music in Alwa’s Awakening is designed to loop, and the versions on the soundtrack have been looped a few times, making them longer. This is most noticeable in the first track, “Theme of Zoe”, which plays on the game’s title screen and is one of the shorter pieces of music in the score. On the soundtrack it’s stretched out to nearly three minutes through repeated loops, which I feel is a touch too long. The other tracks, however, are looped without becoming too repetitive, and remain highly memorable and evocative of the areas they accompanied in the game.

Kreese composed these tracks using FamiTracker, as noted above, which means they faithfully emulate the limitations of the NES sound chip. That means there can only be a maximum of five voices playing simultaneously, and each is locked to a specific type of sound: there are two square wave channels, a triangle wave channel (typically used for basslines), a “noise” channel that often was used for sound effects or crunchy percussion, and a seldom-used “sample” channel that could play basic sampled sounds. I believe that last channel is used on occasion for some drum tones in the Alwa’s Awakening soundtrack, but many of the tracks lack percussion, instead just employing a bassline, melody, and counter-melody. For these pieces, the noise channel occasionally adds a splash of sound akin to a cymbal crash to emphasize a transition point in the music, while elsewhere it’s used for drum parts. Delay effects with volume fades produce an admirable emulation of reverb, and subtle pitch modulation adds just the right amount of tremolo to melodies.

Those melodies are simple but memorable. The jaunty tune that plays in the Central Alwa area often stuck with me after my play session was finished, and the melancholy musical accompaniments to Gloom Lake and the Shrine of Sea Monk are surprisingly haunting for compositions that seem so simple at first. These tracks are my favorites, but the quality is high throughout the soundtrack, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a single next favorite from the many compositions included here. Most pieces range from slow to mid-tempo, but the boss themes ramp up the intensity with fast, tense compositions appropriate for these final challenges. These are nice changes of pace in the soundtrack, but the final battle against Vicar is made particularly climactic through a guest composition from Professor Sakamoto. This is noticeably different in style to Kreese’s pieces (see what I did there?), full of fast arpeggios and percussive breaks in which all of the voices participate in rapid-fire hits, but it doesn’t feel out of place as a score for the ultimate challenge in the game.

I find that I often enjoy a game’s chiptune music while playing, but only a few chiptune scores impress me enough that I would listen to them on their own. In my case, this includes the soundtracks for VVVVVV (which I wrote about here) and Super Hexagon (which I wrote about here), and I’m now happy to add Alwa’s Awakening to the list. If you’re interested, check it out on Bandcamp and pay whatever you think it’s worth to get a copy yourself.