Review – Waking
With video games becoming more and more prominent in society, many developers try to come up with new and inventive ways to entertain the masses. Sometimes a new idea will come out that revolutionizes the industry. Myst essentially invented the exploration/puzzle genre, Demon’s Souls showed us that punishingly hard gameplay can be thrilling, and then there’s the Castlevania and Metroid games that became so popular they created their own genre: the metroidvania. Waking, an ambitious project from Jason Oda, set out to do the same. Was he able to make his dream a reality or were we left with a waking nightmare?
Waking takes a completely different approach to how it presents itself. The protagonist is in a coma fighting for their life and caught in between this world and the next. What sets it apart from countless others, is that you are the protagonist. I don’t just mean that you’re playing as them or can give them you’re name and go on a epic adventure, either. Waking is actually built around you and your life, essentially putting you in the game.
At first it starts off with the usual choices: male or female, slight in frame or thicker, and of course your name. I didn’t really see anything remarkable at first. Sure it looked pretty fascinating, but so far I was just another faceless hero trying to find my way around and defeat enemies. In fact, the whole first thirty minutes to an hour is pretty uneventful.
Then you come to your first guided meditation. An angel by your bedside speaks to you and asks you to close your eyes. The screen goes black while she speaks to you, actually encouraging you to close your eyes and go with it. She starts to lead you along a journey through your own memories, asking you to focus on your first pet, be it a dog or a cat. She asks you to think about them, how you hugged them when you first brought them home, played with them throughout the years. How they would get excited to see you when you came home everyday, and how you held them and cried when you felt their life slip away.
I won’t lie, that actually got me. I’m not usually an overly emotional person, but that made me tear up a bit. Then she asks you to open your eyes and proceed inside a barn within the Mindscape. Inside, you’re asked more specifics about your pet. Was it a dog or a cat? Was it large or small? What was its name? Then you’re presented with a large variety of breeds to choose from. Once you’re done, your beloved pet manifests in front of you and joins you by your side as a constant companion in your quest.
It’s these moments that show the brilliance behind the concept of Waking. The guided meditations to invoke more personal responses and create weapons and buffs from your own memories, is an incredible premise. With each memory you restore, you get closer to waking within your mortal shell, instead of being lead astray by the guardians of the underworld, namely Somnus, the Emissary of Sleep.
This could have been a groundbreaking game. The idea behind it is so creative and unique, that it could very well have become something revolutionary. However, its genius in creating a cathartic experience is completely ruined by its gameplay. It is immediately apparent that Waking draws heavy inspiration from Souls-likes with regards to its combat. Unfortunately, It’s nowhere near as polished though.
At first, the combat mechanics are frustrating. The only weapon at your disposal is telekinesis, which you can use to lift objects as a shield or fire at threats. Later you’ll unlock other moves, like shooting energy blasts from your hands and acquiring melee weapons, but in the beginning it’s just you. The hit detection during the boss fights are all over the place too. Sometimes they’ll swing at you from halfway across the room and it will still register as a hit, while other times you’ll have to pretty much be inside them in order for your strikes to count.
While the idea of having things from your past aid you in battle sounds amazing, but it’s a bit underwhelming in actuality. Aside from your pet and some loved ones that you’ll eventually be able to conjure, nothing else really looks definitive. Weapons of Joy, Happiness, and Wonder are all shaped like pyramids, while other weapons are shaped like dodecahedrons. My geometry teacher would be so proud to know I still remember that one. The concept is great, but due to the budget restraints of the developer, creating individual avatars for each of these is unfeasible to say the least.
You also have certain stats and collectibles to consider. Getting struck by an enemy causes increased Fear levels, which can cause you to slow down, enemies to get stronger, and make access to certain items unavailable. It also takes away your Hope, which you need in order to gain more powerful weapons. So basically, if you get hit, you’re punished excessively.
Not to mention that each attack, other than your telekinesis, requires Neurons in order to power them. The problem is the relatively low cap of two hundred Neurons you can carry at a time. Each strike costs varying amounts of Neurons, so even if you go into a battle full, there’s a huge chance you’ll run out halfway through and be unable to do any sort of real damage. Sure you can fling the clutter lying about at them, but that’s about as effective as asking them nicely to stop attacking you. This inevitably results in you frantically running around hoping to find anything that might release a few more Neurons so you can finish the job.
As if the unreliable combat isn’t enough, navigating in general is a headache. Most of the levels are procedurally generated; pretty much everything outside of the main hub is random. This means that backtracking for things you missed is impossible. There’s no indicator as to what will make you fully leave the level, either. Some doorways lead you to trials, some to secret level-up caches, and others will take you to the next area entirely. It’s a total crapshoot.
Then when you want to revisit something from earlier not only unable to find what you missed you must repeat the original objectives. The same goes for when you turn the game off and come back to it later. The autosaving mechanic is highly irregular and there’s no option for manual saves. I learned this the hard way after getting a good play session in before calling it a night. The next morning I was dismayed to discover I would have to repeat nearly everything I had done the night before.
I wish I could say that was the only time I had to replay entire sections, but it wasn’t. I have had to restart my game and replay whole areas over again from the start numerous times. Why? This game is absolutely riddled with bugs and glitches. My first encounter was against an early level boss who disappeared and respawned outside of the locked gates. I was trapped inside with the battle music blaring and no way to get to it, so I had to restart. Fortunately with that one, I only had to repeat a smaller portion of the level, but I had that boss glitch out of existence four times before I finally beat it by accident.
There was another area where I got stuck within a wall, with no way to free myself and I had to start over. Later, I was going through a trial section, only to have the area that was presumably suppose to hold a doorway, lead to a plain wall instead. I was trapped inside with no other enemies to vanquish, so I had to exit to the main hub. I then realized that doing so caused me to lose the last hour and a half of progress I had made. As you can probably guess, I raged quit and called it a day.
Aesthetically, Waking has a visual style that fits its theme, even if its not the best looking game out there. Everything has a gritty and surreal look, largely due to its heavy bloom effects. This creates an aura of mystery and otherworldliness, but it can make objects difficult to see as well. It also suffers from drastic framerate drops and horrendous screen tearing, although not as bad as those found in Goosebumps Dead of Night. Some of the animations are stiff and stilted, while at the same time floaty. However, since this is suppose to take place in your mind, the floatiness is somewhat forgivable.
The sound design is by far the strongest aspect of the game. The underworld deities sound imposing and the voice of the angel that guides you through your meditations is clear and well articulated. Her soothing voice pairs well with the serene piano music to create a relaxing experience. The music is all around hauntingly beautiful. The songs range from subtly somber to hopeful and uplifting, except for the boss battle theme which is strangely electronic. It feels a little out of place from the rest of them. There’s also not a huge variety in the tracks, so you’ll hear the same melodies repeatedly.
I’m honestly disappointed by the missed potential of Waking. The concept is outstanding and I wanted to love it, I really did. Aside from the numerous issues I’ve already mentioned, the biggest downfall is that it just didn’t know what kind of game it wanted to be. I’d say it’s a classic case of “too many cooks in the kitchen”, but it was developed by only one person. The peaceful reflective nature of the premise is in stark contrast to the faulty action game it tries to be at other times. I’m impressed with how much Jason Oda was able to create on his own, but in this current state, the core concept is lost. It’s such a shame because with a bigger budget and a clearer idea of what sort of experience he wanted to present to us, Waking could have been something truly special.
The overall look is gritty and surreal, which perfectly sets the stage for the experience. However, the animations can be stiff and floaty, there are drastic framerate drops, and horrible screen tearing.
Waking is a combination of Souls-like combat with sections of guided meditation. These two vastly different styles don’t work well together and it is rife with bugs and glitches.
The voice acting of the underworld gods as well as the woman guiding your meditations, is wonderful. The sound track fits the game well, but only has a few different tracks.
The idea is incredible, but it fails in its execution. The guided meditation clashes with the combat big time. Terrible framerate issues, long loading screens, numerous bugs and glitches, and faulty combat mechanics take all the fun out of the game.
Final Verdict: 4.5
Waking is available now on Xbox One and PC.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
A copy of Waking was provided by the publisher.