Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a visually pleasing 2-D platformer with an old-school mentality … is what I’d like to say if it wasn’t for the occasional section that strays from ‘challenging’ to ‘insanely difficult’. To put this into context, it took me ONE AND A HALF HOURS to beat the final boss and in doing so I died fifty-four times which the game whimsically informed me of on the level completion screen. Yet, this final boss aside, with most of the difficult sections I could feel myself improving each time and knew it was only a matter of time before I progressed – and the satisfaction when this happened was usually worth it. Usually.
For those that don’t know, Giana Sisters was originally a Commodore 64 game released in the late 1980s and is generally only remembered for its controversial similarities to Super Mario Bros. which had been released a few years earlier. Fast forward two decades and a new Giana Sisters game was released on the Nintendo DS and now in 2013 we have Twisted Dreams on the PC, PSN and XBLA – and while this reincarnation of the series does still have elements that are borrowed from other platforming series, it now clearly has it’s own identity. The main example of this is the ‘twist’ dynamic that forms the basis of the game, with a press of a button your character switches from ‘Cute Giana’ to ‘Punk Giana’ and more impressively the whole world switches around you too.
Cute Giana skips through a nightmarish world of darkness, twisted trees and demons while Punk Giana finds herself traversing through a garish land of colour, giant flowers and fluffy owls (presumably it’s a nightmare to her). Getting to the end of each level is the main aim, collecting as many gems as you can on the way, and it is often necessary to switch personas to progress. Both personas actually handle the same with only one unique skill each; Cute Giana can twirl after a jump to extend her reach or slow her descent while navigating chasms and caves, while Punk Giana can execute a fiery dash to smash through obstacles and extend her vertical reach. Similarly the landscapes of both worlds play the same, despite the visuals, but twisting can change the environment to your advantage – thorns retract, bridges form across chasms and moving platforms change direction.
The game looks gorgeous with vivid, detailed 3-D characters (on a 2-D plane) and beautifully drawn backgrounds. The ‘twist’ dynamic is implemented perfectly with one world landscape morphing smoothly into the other -and it needs to be seamless as you’ll often find yourself twisting the world back and forth repeatedly in order to progress and avoid the deadly traps. However the visuals can often be a drawback as well, as it’s sometimes hard to identify the hazard amongst the fancy graphics and there’s a tendency for objects in the foreground to get lost against the colourful backgrounds. Supplementing the visuals is the catchy music soundtracking each level which twists along with everything else into two different styles – a pop soundtrack for Cute Giana created by the composers of the original game (Chris Huelsbeck and Fabian Del Priore) and a rock version for Punk Giana by Swedish band Machinae Supremacy. Just like the visuals the twisting of the music is done seamlessly and both versions are easy to listen to. It would have been easy for the music to become irritating as you find yourself replaying certain sections repeatedly but to it’s credit the music is one aspect that never becomes frustrating.
And you will really find yourself having to replay parts of the game again and again. Levels may contain fairly regular checkpoints but this is still one of the more difficult games I’ve played for a while – those bright and cartoony graphics hide quite a hardcore challenge. Contact with enemies kills straight away – although you can of course dispatch them in the time-honoured tradition of bouncing on their heads. But large parts of each level are covered with deadly spikes or thorns and before long you’ll find yourself having to jump between moving platforms, twisting the world in mid-air while avoiding both enemies and obstacles. The uncompromising challenge can be quite refreshing, and there’s a real sense of satisfaction when you finally manage to conquer a particularly tricky section, but too often you’ll be halted by a sudden jump in difficulty that just results in frustration. Early on in the game I was making a concerted effort to collect all the gems on each level but by about half-way through the game my only concern was making it to the exit.
It’s at times like these that the kickstarter background of Twisted Dreams becomes apparent as a more thorough development process might have ironed out that irregular difficulty level. Although the challenging nature of the game does serve a purpose in hiding how brief the game is – there are only just over 20 levels, each of which can be completed very quickly once you’ve got the hang of the challenge. There’s also a disappointing lack of variety in the levels which are more or less the same apart from the boss levels – which are admittedly very fun (apart from the bastard at the very end). Extra longevity is hinted at with score and time attack modes, as well as the option to play without checkpoints for the truly hardcore players, but this isn’t enough to make up for the lack of content.
Ultimately the game is quite clearly a labour of love from the developers Black Forest Games (the involvement of the original composers being a very nice touch) and I do feel bad criticising a game clearly made for the fans who will likely relish the challenging difficulty. For others though it will be simply too unforgiving and this, along with the repetitive levels and a number of gameplay issues, means I’d struggle to recommend it too highly – despite the plus points.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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