By Scott Ramage / August 17th, 2020
|Release Date||June 18th, 2020|
|Platform||PC (Steam), Xbox One|
|Age Rating||T for Teen|
It’s not often that I get to cover a game from a small independent developer that I knew about previously, but here we are! Iowa-based developer Jason Oda, who I remember from the sitcom-inspired Perfect Strangers: Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now browser game (a deep cut, I know), sought to make something that combined exploration, guided meditation, and stunning visuals. Waking is such an experience. It prominently warns that people with a history of depression, anxiety or self-harm should not play it, but warnings like that haven’t stopped me before!
Waking focuses on the mind of a patient in a coma. Said patient is barely clinging to life and, in their mind, being led toward the light by one being, and led away from it by another. What ensues is a struggle by the patient’s inner self to stay alive or lay to rest, all while exploring their best and worst aspects of their life and reconstructing their memories in a mind palace of sorts. I have to be a bit vague when describing parts of the game because some of it is influenced by player choice. It asks the player for a name, height and build (with only normal or husky being choices), then eventually asks about things like their pains and desires in life, hometown, place they’d go to be alone, and whether they had a pet dog or cat. Any names input for them become the names of attacks or abilities. It’s a charming way to personalize the experience, though it takes getting used to in some instances. Having a companion named after my pet is one thing, but hurling a projectile named after my hometown always felt an immersion-breaking level of weird.
It’s hard to describe how progression in Waking works because of how it’s structured. Generally speaking, it’s a third-person action game where the player takes down enemies by shooting, slashing, and throwing things at them. There are bosses to fight, nodes to power up, puzzles to solve, and questions to answer. However, about one hour in the objective of the game abruptly shifts to include a hub of sorts and a “world map” called the Mindscape. This has several nodes leading to several procedurally generated areas. Basically, you fight your way through a bunch of places to unlock memories, then use those the power of those memories to snap out of the coma. I like the concept, and the visuals do a lot to both help and hurt the motif. They help in that they’re effective at creating a lucid, dream-like atmosphere, and at times produce some quite striking imagery. They hurt in that most of the player character’s animations seem stilted and awkward, but the biggest problem is bloom. There is an excess of bloom in half the environments, hanging like a thick fog over the bulk of the game. This haziness can make it difficult to spot items or objectives, even with the occasional mini map showing colored objective markers. The other half have little to no light, making it hard to tell where important items are, where the edges of platforms are, particularly for indoor sections, or whether an area is a pit or solid ground.
There are a myriad of important numbers at work in Waking, each demanding varying levels of attention. Neurons act like magic points, being used not only to power certain abilities but also to do things like unlock or activate objects necessary to progression. Health is self-explanatory, but there are two other constantly fluctuating stats to worry about: hope and fear. Hope is gained primarily by defeating certain enemies, and it allows the player to open certain boxes or pick up certain special items. However, hope also resets to zero every time the player gets hit or falls into a pit. Considering this sometimes happens for reasons beyond the player’s control, it’s frustrating to get blindsided by something off screen or, just as an example, have an enemy shoot through a wall to hit me. The other stat is fear, which goes up when getting damaged by most attacks, opening new areas, or discovering new objectives. A higher fear count causes enemies to behave differently, namely by being able to shield certain attacks. While it sounds good on paper, I found that the fear count would tend to spiral upward way too often. Having it go up for ancillary things like getting a new objective seemed like overkill in practice. For reasons I’ll go into later, despite there being powerups to drain the fear count a bit, it usually wound up being the one stat I could do the least about. Neurons can also be drained by enemy attacks, effectively limiting what, if anything, the player can use to attack, often at the worst possible times. Of course, that’s assuming you’re playing on a higher difficulty. The default is “indie,” while the others consist of very easy, easy, medium and “souls.” Even with the explanations, I don’t understand the justification for some of these names.
Beyond those items, there are tons of other things to find and explore in Waking. Certain areas are specifically labeled as side quests, which I appreciate, and every area includes hidden doors to unlock or passages to find. Trials are in each stage, allowing the player to earn health, neurons or a fear reduction for completing a certain task. Wishes are a special item that function like currency, allowing stat boosts to certain attacks to be purchased. There are shrines that require special quest items, found throughout, which give further specific boosts (companion attack damage, lowering ability neuron costs, etc.). It’s nice to have all these extra avenues to go down, but can also feel disjointed. Between this, the more linear first hour, and the pace being broken up by some brief guided meditation sessions about the patient’s life, it sometimes feels like there are three different games fighting for screen time. It also doesn’t help that the guided meditation portions (you know, the parts where you’re supposed to relax) tend to show up almost immediately after boss fights. These might have worked much better if spaced out further from the loudest and most strenuous parts of the game.
The sound in Waking is both its greatest success and one if its biggest shortcomings. The music consists mostly of haunting piano medleys, complemented by what sounds like either a small orchestra or a string quartet. The songs are very simple in composition, but effective at helping the dream-like world feel more alive. My one exception to this is the boss music, which sounds like someone took ten seconds of one of the piano parts and made a dubstep track. This misstep pales in comparison to the rest of the sound design. Audio balance is all over the place, as sometimes I would land a jump and barely hear the impact, while other times a massive thud would blare through my speakers. The longer the game went on, the more often sound effects would outright break and start looping until I left an area. Sometimes they wouldn’t break during gameplay, but if I opened my menu for any reason (which happens a lot since that’s where different attacks and abilities are equipped), it seemed like every sound from the past ten seconds would come back at once and form a ghoulish audio slurry. This goes on even longer than it should because the menu dumps everything into one giant list instead of easy-to-navigate pages. There were a few ways I was expecting my immersion to be broken, and that wasn’t one of them.
There’s not much in the way of enemy variety in Waking, to the point I saw most of what the game had to offer within the first hour. Not counting bosses, I can think of four, maybe five enemies, two of which are basically turrets and one of which is more or less the baby version of another turret-like enemy that looks like a desk lamp and the Metalocalypse logo had a baby. Bosses don’t offer much variety either, as they usually fall into one of two categories: guy animal thing that slowly walks toward you and sometimes attacks, and the supersized version of the aforementioned heavy metal desk lamp. Not since Contra: Rogue Corps have I seen the same bosses and the same enemies in the same or similar arenas recycled ad nauseam.
Actually attacking enemies in Waking is equal parts endearing and ridiculous. Later on you can do things like sick your pet or your friend on enemies to stun them, in addition to searching for secret areas. However, the bulk of the game is spent picking up objects, charging them, and throwing them at enemies. When I say objects, I mean things like polyhedrons or shields representing beliefs or feelings, as well as random junk that spawns randomly. This includes, but is not limited to, crates, barrels, oil drums, pipes, aluminum sheets, tires, lamps and vases. Because it’s sitting around on the ground, if two interactables are too close to each other, it’s easy to struggle to pick the right thing up. It’s also easy to not see this junk as it’s easily obscured by low light or tall grass, both of which this game has in spades. Considering the smaller enemies respawn after a while and the junk seemingly doesn’t, it’s easy to run out and hastily run toward an exit before fully exploring everything. This isn’t an issue in boss fights, but there the junk continually despawns and respawns in different locations. Aside from the frustration of items disappearing right as I’m about to pick them up, it’s amusing that the bosses sometimes involve tossing tires, barrels and drums at enemies. It works for Donkey Kong Country, but here it’s out of place.
Of course, every enemy in Waking is made more challenging than they ever should be thanks to the controls. While platforming is minimal, jumping and double jumping involve a violent, sudden ascent and an almost equally sudden drop. Movement seems to have a strange delay on it, to the point I needed to change directions almost half a second before I thought I should. The game includes a warning not to play on a keyboard, which I initially ignored because I play most PC games on it. However, Having F assigned to lock on and E assigned to abilities and some attacks means not being able to attack without either standing still or strafing left in most cases (when the lock on doesn’t go to the wrong enemy, at least). Having an option to rebind keys would have been far more effective than telling everyone to grab a controller which, even after I tried it, didn’t help much. Many enemy attacks force you to either stop moving or move very slowly for a few seconds. Since there aren’t any invulnerability frames, it’s way too easy to get stun locked when there are more than a couple enemies to deal with. A couple times I had this happen when the camera got stuck behind a wall and the audio glitched out, so I had no idea what was happening. Then I’d be able to see again and find a third of my life gone, all my hope gone, some of my neurons gone and the fear bar four times higher than it was before. Also, most areas don’t have checkpoints; if you die for any reason, you start the entire area over as a tips screen tells you what to do better, even if it involves things beyond your control.
Waking is a game at odds with itself. Like the patient struggling between life and death, it struggles to decide whether the action or the narrative drives it, and beyond that, what kind of action (stealth, combat, etc.) to focus on. Over the course of my 13 hours with it (which felt much longer), it tried doing too much and ended up not executing on most fronts. While it has strong visuals, music and themes, as well as a fair amount of content, the unwieldy controls, audio glitches, and repetitive nature of the gameplay drag it down. There is something decent here, but it keeps getting buried under the piles of mindscape junk. $20 is a bit much, unless you’re completely sold on the concept and positive you won’t get tired of tossing landfill fodder at the same handful of enemies for several hours.
Review copy provided by publisher.