Thursday, 8 November 2012

REVIEW - Giana Sisters : Twisted Dreams (XBLA / PC)

The Great Giana Sisters was a controversial game released for the Commodore 64 in 1987, its controversy not due to any explicit content or even lude packaging (see Barbarian and Vixen for examples of this), no, there was nothing there to get The Daily Mail hot and bothered this time. The controversy was down to the simple fact that the game was not just a clone of, but a full scale rip off of Nintendo's Super Mario Bros NES title. Stage 1-1 was even an exact replica of the plumber's domain. The game was ported to the Amiga and Atari ST a year later but after Nintendo threatened legal action the game was removed from shelves, making it an instant collectable and cult title in the process. The next time the plagiarising sisters would grace a video game would be, bizarrely, on the Nintendo DS in 2009, I guess Nintendo decided that imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery, either that or they just mellowed out with age. Giana Sisters DS was a nice retro platformer with cutesy graphics, twee music, and fun gameplay, it hardly set the world alight but it was a solid 2D platformer, fitting the handheld platform perfectly.
Both the original cult classic and its DS follow up clearly captured the imaginations of the guys and gals at Black Forest Games as we have now been granted a brand new Giana Sisters adventure on the PC, with XBLA and PSN versions to come in the new year.

The controversial Commodore 64 original

Originally known as Project Giana, Black Forest Games were well into development before fund started to dry up. Instead of washing dishes and working in call centres to raise the money, the team decided to use popular money spinner and dream maker Kickstarter to raise the capital, requesting a cool $150,000. The end date came and Black Forest Games found themselves $190,000 better off, and being decent folk they decided not to jet off to the Bahamas but to knuckle down and finish off what would become Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams.

The game tells the story of two sisters (obviously), Giana and Maria who, while sleeping one night, are awoken by a mysterious blue gem that transports them into the dream world. As if this wasn't worrying enough, Maria is then captured by a huge purple dragon who swallows her whole. Ever the optimist, Giana assumes sis to be fine and sets off to free her from the fat fire breather’s guts. What ensues is a wonderful homage to the platforming games of the 16-bit era, running right, collecting gems, and bouncing on baddies heads, but with added tricks and surprises up its sleeves.

The stages are exceptionally colourful and full of charm

The first thing that grabs your attention is the wonderful visual style. Simply put, they are breathtaking. From the moment you set foot in the first world with its vibrant colours, lush forest, blue skies and green hills, you will be smitten. Black Forest Games have clearly put their Kickstarter funds to good use. From haunted castles and dungeons, to charming toadstool forests, and volcanic lava worlds, each has a unique look, and all are stunning to behold, especially in terms of lighting and mood, running through the forest at dusk was a memorable highlight.

As Giana is in a dream world she can alternate at any time between two versions of herself, both with their own visual manifestation of the world she inhabits, one a cutesy blonde and the other a red haired punk chick. Strangely, blonde Giana inhabits the dark twisted world, and her punk persona the cutesy light world. I guess this is to reflect the young girl's conflicting personalities, or maybe she is severely schizophrenic, who knows? As a 2D platformer, I don't think that it is worth spending too much time thinking about. I'm just glad the dream world Giana is lost in doesn't contain boy bands and er... whatever it is young girls dream about.
Each time she switches the entire world around her transforms too, quaint mushroom houses become twisted ruined shacks, trees become lifeless and broken, skies darken, and rivers run dry, the enemies also morph from cute rotund owls into spikey demonic critters. The metamorphosis occurs seamlessly and never fails to impress. It isn't just cosmetic either, with the switch from light to dark changing the layout of the level, spikes disappear, portcullises open, and platforms begin to move, allowing access to areas otherwise impossible to reach.
The two incarnations of Giana also come with differing abilities with blondie able to twirl skywards, much like a double jump, and glide gracefully across the landscape or down large chasms, while punky can launch herself in any direction as a fireball, crashing through certain blocks, and rebounding off walls.

  Giana's two conflicted personas, cute and punk.

The music is also fantastic, with Chris Hulsbeck, producer of the original Great Giana Sisters soundtrack, back on audio duties alongside Swedish metal band Machinae Supremacy, and Fabian DelFriore the creator of the Nintendo DS game's music. We are treated to two distinct soundtracks, one for each of Giana's personas, blondie having a more electronic chiptune soundtrack, and punky's consisting of rock guitars and drums. Both are wonderful, and pay fitting tribute to the original tunes of the 1987 original. As with the visual style, the music switches each time you change between Gianas and is also seamless and unobtrusive. You can choose just one soundtrack to play in the options should you prefer but the constantly changing music adds to the game's charm.

Later levels include some breathtaking backdrops

The changing landscape mechanic and the two personas' individual abilities lend the game a slight puzzle feeling to proceedings, levels requiring you to make the switch often, sometimes multiple times on the move as certain platforms only appear 'solid' in either light or dark world. You will need to possess the ability to look one step ahead, combined with sharp reflexes if you are to survive further than the first few easy levels. Giana Sisters, while not as hardcore as games like Spelunky and Super Meat Boy, is a tough challenge and will have you grinding your teeth now and then.

Luckily the gameplay is hugely enjoyable and is a great throwback to the 16-bit era, only this time with spellbinding graphics at super high resolution of course. The controls are tight and responsive and the jumping feels spot-on. I recommend you use an Xbox 360 controller with it as it is perfectly suited for this and is far superior to using keys. Moving the two personas around and using their abilities are both fun and satisfying to pull off, twirling through the air, descending into a large pit while avoiding spikes, or rebounding off multiple walls in order to reach a high point, are all executed with style and are a joy to use. Hitting enemies with punk Giana's fireball is also a noteworthy feature as doing so sends her skywards, allowing you to chain attack multiple foes, much like Sonic in his later 3D iterations, and granting you access to high up secret areas you would otherwise be unable to reach.

The spooky castle simply oozes atmosphere

As well as simply reaching the exit, the game is all about collecting gems, hundreds and hundreds of gems. It isn't just your standard 'collect 100 for a 1up' either, collecting gems counts towards the final star rating of each level, and many of them are in hidden areas, so exploration is encouraged and rewarded. While blue gems can be collected by both personas, yellow gems can only be collected by blondie, and red by punky, which leads to more tactical switching as you try to nab all the gems you come across. There are also a small number of huge blue crystals dotted around each level that require some neat tricks and a keen eye to locate.
In Giana's world you are rated based on how many gems you collect, how many times you die, and how many of the secret crystals you find along the way. Stages are then unlocked by these stars, meaning you must not only finish the levels preceding them, but finish them well. Once you get two thirds of the way through the game, you will need good ratings on all the levels to be able to access the next stages. This can lead to replaying multiple levels in order to raise your star rating and, while a good excuse to play though a level again, can lead to frustration, especially on boss stages. The levels are often massive, but are very well designed and, due to all the gems and hidden crystals, you will want to scour every inch of each stage. Swimming through lakes to find underwater coves full of gems, and hitting flying enemies to reach a large crystal feels very rewarding and are worth the backtracking. The few bosses that do appear are challenging and fun to tackle, often requiring the use of the environment in order to dispatch them. They can prove annoying, but they do break up the worlds nicely, and look great.

Young girls shouldn't go walking in forests at night. Haven't 
horror movies taught the sisters anything?

I really enjoyed Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams, it is an unpretentious 2D platformer that pays fitting tribute to its original titles, as well as games of that time. The visuals really show that a 2D platformer can hold its own in 2012, in fact I would rate it almost as highly as the beautiful Rayman Origins, or the 2D sections of Sonic Generations, which is a huge achievement considering Twisted Dreams was made by a small team on a kickstarter budget. The music is wonderful, and the game exudes bags of charm and character. The all important gameplay is solid and very enjoyable, with the switching mechanic really adding to the experience. It is challenging, and encourages players to explore the levels thoroughly to repeat the rewards. There are extra game modes unlocked by completing the game, but to be honest, I think one playthrough is enough. Once you are viewing the end credits, there is little to bring you back for more, especially as you will probably have played the levels several times in order to achieve enough stars to progress. This doesn't take away from the fact that the one playthrough is highly enjoyable and well worth the asking price.

Cutesy Giana takes in her sombre surroundings

As a retro gamer, I love the fact that we are still treated to games that are pure 16-bit, 90's games at heart but with a modern visual makeover. Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams is a fabulous reminder that the genre is as relevant and popular as ever, and that Kickstarter is a wonderful tool for bringing indie games to life that otherwise may have never seen the light of day, or even if they had, certainly not with this level of polish and flair. It is a wonderful game in its own right, but for fans of the Giana Sister franchise, I don't think you could possibly have hoped for a better game to carry on the game's legacy.

The Good:

  • Wonderful graphics that bring the world to life
  • Great double soundtrack
  • Switching mechanic is well implemented and lots of fun
  • Enjoyable platforming action coupled with a stiff challenge

The Bad:

  • Sometimes it can be hard to see which platforms you can land on
  • Stars to unlock levels require some stages to be replayed several times

Developer : Black Forest Games
System Reviewed : PC & XBLA
Also Available On : PSN, Wii-U
Price : £12.99 / 1200 points