Review: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams (XBLA)
For those not aware of the microcomputer craze in Europe that dominated the late 80s, the name “Giana Sisters” may not mean much. By the time the NES came out in Europe many had already invested in a microcomputer and parents were not eager to purchase a new console, so having games on popular computers like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 was essential. The Great Giana Sisters was a widespread clone of Super Mario Bros. that provided a great side-scrolling platformer alternative to Nintendo’s classic. Unfortunately due to its highly similar content, including an opening level that literally cloned 1-1 from Super Mario Bros., Nintendo’s legal involvement got the game pulled off store shelves. Since then it has lived on as a rare holy grail for some gamers and having played it myself I must admit that it doesn’t steal as much from Super Mario Bros. as the initial level would suggest. Now the Giana Sisters are reborn in one of the first Kickstarter projects to benefit and release from the crowd-funding program and it is clear that Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is anything but a clone. In fact, Super Mario Bros. could learn a thing or two from this gorgeous modern platformer.
Twisted Dreams is a sequel to this controversial original, which did see a legal re-imagining on the DS in 2009, and picks up an original story that thankfully does not require knowledge of the original. Maria, Giana’s sister, has been kidnapped by an evil dragon and it’s up to Giana to enter the dream world and rescue her. Now a teenager, Giana is capable of utilizing the power of her two personalities – an interesting take on the changes one experiences in those awkward teenage years – allowing her to transform between a bright “Cute” persona and a rebellious “Punk” persona at will. Most interesting about this transformation is that it comes not only with new powers, but the entire world changes on the fly along with her. This dichotomy of not only the play style, but also the aesthetic of the entire game, creates a unique formula for each level. It allows the platformer to escape the confines of relying on level design and instead allows small simple spaces to become obstacle courses that will challenge your mind and reflexes. It’s not about dodging the pit and jumping on the enemy anymore, you need to think and think fast to make it in Twisted Dreams.
I can’t explain enough how gorgeous this game is and even after spending more than 10 hours with it I’m still delighted at the feel of each level. Without any knowledge of the technical side of development, I’m guessing the game loads both versions of each level and has transition effects built in that can be accessed at your whim. You control whether you want to be Cute or Punk and you can even do dynamic things like swap personas mid-jump or initiate a special attack with one persona and change to the other instantly, allowing the attack to affect the other persona’s world. It sounds a bit complicated on paper, but trust me it makes perfect sense in-game. As you may expect, Cute persona has a bright and vibrant world, along with her signature spin jump that allows you to float while spinning in the air. Punk’s darker demon-like world includes her signature move of a blast ball that has a ricochet effect, an interesting reflection of another popular platforming franchise, requiring fast-paced movements and twitch reflexes. Each work fine alone, but it isn’t long before you are required not only to master each persona’s movements, but also to mix them on the fly in order to get through the levels. In addition the gem collecting mechanic from the original returns as a secondary objective to completing levels.
This is where the challenge of Twisted Dreams shows its true colors. With each new world, the number of levels increases and the challenge goes from innovative to downright brutal. European games from the microcomputer days are universally known to be aggressive, difficult tests of patience and Twisted Dreams honors those days. It’s not impossible, mind you, and with mid-level checkpoints and unlimited lives you will eventually be able to get through any level albeit at the cost of your score. Upon completion of any level you are scored based on how many gems you found and how many times you died; you can earn up to 3 stars for gems collected and up to 2 stars for minimal lives lost. I was pleased to see that you can get all 5 stars without a perfect run, so feel free to test the waters from time to time or let those impossible gems go. On the flip side, you must get at least half of all possible stars in a world to unlock the boss, so it may be necessary to repeat a level or be more explorative and cautious at times. All of these factors best explain why this game is ideal in the format its downloadable package suggests: small doses. I completed a level here and there some nights, always took a break after each fierce boss battle, and enjoyed the game in stride so as not to give those rushed reviewer impressions. If you make this game a chore it will become just that, so do yourself a favor and take the time to enjoy each dazzling level. For the hardcore that are scoffing at every word I’ve written, fear not, there’s a hardcore mode that removes checkpoints and an über hardcore that makes you start over from the beginning if you die. Just unlocking these modes is a challenge – hardcore’s unlock requires you complete each boss level with at least 4 stars and über hardcore wants 5 stars in all levels in hardcore mode. Needless to say this is a game that has the potential for addicts to play for the rest of their lives. All of these intense modes put a focus on precision that I wasn’t all that pleased with on the awkward Xbox 360 d-pad. Thankfully third-party controllers and the demo of the game on Steam put my concerns at ease as this is a hardware issue and not a programming one.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and I must admit that the 2D platformer aspect and historical context prepared me for yet another cash-in clone of New Super Mario Bros. What I got was a unique title that was a treat for the eyes, a joy for some of the most intense platforming in years (and I beat BloodRayne Betrayal), and a hybrid soundtrack from original composer Chris Hülsbeck and Swedish heavy metal band Machinae Supremacy that was fantastic. If you are a retro fan or a platforming enthusiast, especially one that’s been disappointed with the recent glut of New Super Mario Bros. games, then Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is the breath of fresh air you’ve been waiting for.
This title is available on Steam and Xbox Live Arcade for $15 with a PS3/PSN and WiiU version is due out soon. It was provided to our site as a review copy and took approximately 8 hours to complete with a total of 12 hours put in for review purposes.