Alwa’s Awakening

A game by Elden Pixels for PC, Mac, Linux, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and NES, originally released in 2017.
Alwa’s Awakening is a grand metroidvania adventure inspired by the classics of the NES era. The game stars Zoe, a girl summoned from another world to help the people of Alwa wrest themselves from the grip of an evil being known as Vicar. Vicar and his agents have enslaved the people and plunged the land into an age of despair that has lasted for hundreds of years. Only Zoe, equipped with a magical staff, can brave the dungeons, fight back this evil, and restore peace.

Alwa’s Awakening fully embraces its NES inspirations with a chiptune soundtrack, limited color palette, low sprite count, a small number of game mechanics that are slowly permuted upon, a steady growth in difficulty, and a general lack of handholding throughout the experience. The player has access to a map that outlines the basic structure of the game world - along with the locations of Vicar’s four agents - and there are a handful of NPC’s that offer general guidance, but overall, the player is left on his own to push to the edges of the known world, plunge into uncharted depths to overcome challenges and acquire powerups, and ultimately bring an end to Vicar’s reign.

While many modern developers are content to simply borrow the chunky low-rez visuals of the 8-bit era, few capture the minimalist visual designs that were once required when dealing with storage sizes measuring in kilobytes. These space limitations required efficiencies not only in the core design and visuals, but also in the total number of sprites and frames of animation available. At one time, creating a world filled with caves, forests, dungeons, and villages meant making decisions about which basic visual elements could best represent them, while eliminating all else. A well-known example of this sort of brutal efficiency is the case where clouds and bushes in Super Mario Bros. were actually recolored versions of the same sprite.

Alwa’s Awakening uses this minimal visual approach to create a variety of landscapes with just a few graphical setpieces overlaid on solid backgrounds, with stone columns and a few rocks to indicate caverns, silhouetted treelines with a smattering of individual trees to indicate forests, mountaintops to indicate mountain ranges, and the typical columns and bricks to represent dungeon walls. As with many NES games, palette-swapped versions of sprites are included to create different moods in each region, even though these areas are created from the same building blocks.

Zoe begins the game unarmed, but after a short ascent up a tower, she acquires a magical staff. With it, she can attack enemies to the left or right, as well as break through large stone blocks. She can also jump and attack, and she can duck, but she cannot attack while ducking. For much of the game, Zoe possesses only this melee attack and her 2x variable jump to see her way past enemies and obstacles, and her movement speed is slow.

Zoe is also able to climb ladders and she disconnects from them by pressing to the left or right, which is typical of many platformers; however, disconnecting from a ladder also occurs when the ladder is situated between solid objects, which is an atypical design. Players accustomed to pressing diagonally in order to begin walking as soon as they reach the top of a platform will need to keep pressing UP until Zoe disconnects from the ladder, lest they fall back down.

The world is made up of hundreds of interconnected single-screen environments, with a handful of warp points that allow for fast travel, and new routes open slowly as Zoe gains powerups for her staff. There are three basic upgrades, the first of which allows her to create a single green block that can be used to block projectiles and reach higher platforms; the second is a bubble that floats upward slowly (and bursts after a short time), and jumping on it allows for an even higher ascent; and the third is a powerful projectile that can be used to strike enemies at a distance and open certain doors, but it takes a long time to recharge.

These powers are doled out slowly, but the open design of the game world gives players a number of exploration options. Players may head straight for the next dungeon and work their way toward the boss, or use their newfound abilities to explore the depths where they may locate some new powerups and several optional items that grant new abilities. There are also blue orbs tucked all around the game world – 99 in all – and the more the player manages to pick up, the weaker each of the game’s bosses becomes.

Completionists may refer to the map for a count of how many orbs remain in each region, although there is little added reward in collecting them all, and many are hidden behind false walls or below fake spike pits. In fact, even some of the game’s required pickups are also hidden in this way, so players must always be on the lookout for suspicious points on the map or extraneous design elements that hint at secret passages.

In the early going, platforming and combat are very easy, and most enemies simply patrol back and forth without attacking. However, as the player gains new abilities and moves into more dangerous territory, enemies become somewhat more aggressive and begin firing projectiles. Zoe isn’t incredibly mobile, and she has only three units of health, so it can be difficult to dodge attacks, and there isn’t much room for error. On rare occasions, killed enemies will drop hearts that restore a single unit of health when picked up.

Health-restoring save points appear fairly frequently, and Zoe retains all pickups upon respawning, but it can be challenging to move deeper into dungeons, track down out-of-the-way orbs, and seek out some of the powerups, especially as later areas require the player to combine his special abilities. For instance, the player may need to spawn a green block and hop on it, wait a moment for the staff to recharge, then spawn a bubble and jump onto it, fire off a projectile, and finally perform a well-timed leap before the bubble pops. Some of the tougher challenges require the player to perform these actions over insta-kill bodies of water or spikes, and some areas feature turret-type blocks that aim in the player’s direction, and challenges may also be intermixed with moving platforms or falling blocks.

There is a decent variety in the boss encounters, but Zoe’s lack of mobility and offensive prowess in the early going prevent many of these encounters from being very complex. Players may simply avoid slow-moving attacks and then move in for a retaliatory strike, repeating this process until the boss creature falls. Once Zoe acquires the projectile attack, however, boss encounters become considerably more difficult, adding a steeper difficulty curve toward the end of the game.

Alwa’s Awakening was developed by Elden Pixels, and development began in 2014. The team is made up of designer Mikael Forslind, programmer Kevin Andersson, and artist Alexander Berggren, with a soundtrack composed by Robert Kreese. The studio went on to develop a sequel entitled Alwa's Legacy.