Waking is an action-RPG developed by Jason Oda and published by tinyBuild. It takes on the tale of someone in a coma on the verge of death and what that person might experience internally, within the subconscious. It was released on 18 Jun 20 and is currently available on GOG, Steam, and XBox One.
I’ll start in the same manner as the developer. Waking is an action-RPG that focuses on extremely personal aspects of the self. You are encouraged to use your own information and will answer sensitive questions about your self that might make some individuals uncomfortable. Answering honestly is not required, and it doesn not change the function of the game, but to experience Waking fully, I recommend you play it with a sense of veracity. The developer is clear from the start about the interpersonal and sensitive nature of the questions beings asked and how the information is used. In fact a brief disclaimer even states that the game may not be for everyone due to these elements.
Waking also uses nonconventional terms for your abilities and surroundings. The tutorial is fairly robust, which is a good thing given the amount of information thrown at you. Since many of the basic video game terms for common things are not used within Waking, it can at times lead to confusion. Thankfully, they provide an equally robust area within the palace dedicated to helping you master your skills and knowledge. In addition to this, many stages will also have reminders and when you die, the game will also attempt to advise you on what you aren’t taking advantage of in order to win.
The gameplay itself centers around the exploration of your personal mindscape. It represents the inner workings of your mind or psyche and is set up like a system of interconnected nodes. Each one of the nodes contains a memory, fear, personal demon, and/or other associated ideas. To make progress you will need to confront many of the issues that haunts you (or your character).
Since each node is procedurally generated, it will be different on each play-through or log out. This was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game for me but it could at times lead to frustration. Some stage setups could be very challenging to overcome. In one instance I experienced, I jumped out of the spawn point and I was shot at from four different directions simultaneously with no resources to fight back with. Thankfully, this type of occurrence was rare and for the most part, I really enjoyed the enhanced challenge that some of the stages presented.
While exploring the mindscape is fun, and you can tell a lot of thought went into it, the practicality of it was a touch unpolished. The double jump was on the oddly excessive side and there were times that the terrain would break you out of a sprint. This may not sound like a big deal, but getting hit once often depletes the whole of the resources you have to fight back with. While this could be okay if the platforming was flawless, getting hit because you got slowed by something you can’t see can be incredibly off-putting. That being said I still enjoyed the exploration bit and tried to work around the flaws.
While your goal during this exploration is to confront your antagonistic aspects, you aren’t alone. Some nodes will contain personal memories. These memories are abilities that help you in combat in different ways and take a variety of forms. They can be pets, people, or usable skills which grant one or more weapons.
These memories are customized from you via a line of questions and answers which are then usable from that point on. During the Q&A, you will go through a guided meditation sequence where the game asks you to close your eyes and listen. After the introspective section, you will answer questions based on the memory and it will then form into your personal weapon. It was a very interesting way to build a skill set and I thought the integrative aspect of it was fairly refreshing. Attacking enemies with your childhood pet, brother, or a specific memory like the beaches of your home town really sold the inner-workings aspect of the game.
I found the whole idea of a “personal dungeon” to be very intriguing and when combined with the meditative aspects it did create a world unique unto itself. As your building up your mental fortitude to embrace these challenges, things get a bit more difficult, but the process remains the same. What keeps the game dynamic is the randomness of the open areas. Some of these are straightforward while others have multiple exits, hidden areas, shops, and more. Some of these have their own side missions and goals such as traversing an area without being hit, being seen, or finding the correct exit.
The game is a little bit more dicey on the combat end. It takes a very unique approach in that you virtually have no weapons until confronted. You kill minor enemies by using a sort of telekinetic push to throw simple objects at them. Once a minor enemy dies it (hopefully) drops something that you can use either as a melee weapon, shield, or more damaging projectile. Those three aspects are the primary mode of doing damage to the games larger, more shielded, enemies. They come with ranges of emotional names such as comfort or anger which can be confusing, but the shape of the pickup is what helps you identify how each object is used. On some stages, you can also sometimes find enough neurons(a sort of MP) so that you can start with some abilities, but this isn’t always possible.
Each weapon will of course be more or less useful in different situations. Shields are typically best when surrounded or when you are shot at rapidly or from multiple angles. They actually reflect the damage they take back at the attacker and can sometimes result in very quick victories. Telekinesis of powerful emotions does the most damage in a single charged shot but they don’t always drop regularly. Melee emotions grant you a specific number or melee swings. Once you make contact a specific number of times with any of these weapons, you are left weaponless once again until you can either wry some from enemies, find pickups, or produce more with neurons.
Now, how well you use these combat emotions affects you in several important ways. Flawless combat is rewarded with more neurons, which allow you use abilities. The abilities are the memories you’ve constructed while exploring, so this can be anything from summoning a companion to help, or for example summoning a set of enhanced combat emotions. You also gain something called hope, which allows you access to more enhancements on the particular stage you are striving for. This can include enhanced damage, reducing the bosses damage output, or gaining specific weapons.
Less than flawless combat is, however, punishable by increased difficulty. Each hit you take results in not only less health, but more fear and resets your hope level to zero. Since hope is required to power yourself up, it also acts as a gateway to restrict the buffs you have. Fear on the other hand, increases the speed, strength, and overall difficulty of the enemies you encounter. Finally you lose a significant portion, if not all, of your neurons, which are required to defend yourself and use abilities. What this roughly translates into, is that every hit you take reduces your overall chances of completing a level. In some cases, this is recoverable with the right strategy and player skill. In other cases one hit can pretty much place you in an almost unrecoverable situation.
If that whole process sounds a bit confusing, it is at the start. But once you get a feel for the ebb and flow of combat, the action portions do become a little more natural. There are other factors that play in as well such as stealth, seeking cover, and the ability to interact with the local area such as shops and buffs.
At its core, Waking is very much an action RPG and the progression of leveling up is also embedded in the game. By confronting fears and demons, you can acquire parts of yourself that are needed to unlock more permanent upgrades. These upgrades are typically statistical in nature and allow things like increased damage more HP and the like. These are pretty much your only source of growing persistently stronger since acquired abilities require in-game drops or resources to be available and have limited uses.
Many of these effects can be “purchased” by using parts of yourself within one of the games many areas. Others, for example, take the form of wishes, which are also an acquired resource. While the mechanic isn’t too different from other games at the core, the implementation and practicality certainly makes it different.
Difficulty and Replayability
There are several difficulties within the game though the default difficulty is plenty challenging. If its inherent hardcore approach is troublesome, you have five total options to help you deal with the difficulty curve. Most people will probably adjust it at some point because the default “Indie” difficulty, can have extremely difficulty spikes. As someone who loves hardcore games I did find myself annoyed periodically that the controls and mechanics didn’t really seem to support the difficulty. There is also a degree of replayability due to the procedural generation, but selecting new choices won’t really change the core of the game and how you deal with threats.
As an individual in a coma, the plot of Waking focuses on a journey on the boundaries of the afterlife. From the beginning you are beckoned by release. You are told from one entity to embrace the light of death and from another entity to not follow it. As you decide to rail against dying, embrace your past, retrieve the missing pages of the book of Somnus, and fight against the death councilors.
Unlike many other RPGs, the story here isn’t really overarching and it follows a fairly direct line. Instead it presents itself as a sort of guided meditation and contemplative story line. Rather than telling a story outright, it asks you to be introspective and to direct questions to yourself regarding personal development, relationships, and conflict. Your confrontations with the past and how you use them to battle your internal demons is what Waking is really about.
I would rate the game as a roughly 25 to 35 hour adventure based on skill and selected difficulty. This will of course vary from person to person.
Though they became more tolerable after some time, the controls were my least favorite aspect of Waking. The character movement had a sort of uncomfortable feeling about it. Getting interrupted by uneven terrain and some clipping issues made some encounters more frustrating then they should have been. During direct platforming stages, such as specific boss encounters, the jumping worked fine. On other stages such as open exploration ones, it could be erratic at times. The stage map interface was also less than optimal and I feel like it would have either benefited more with a good legend or to simply dismiss the stage maps altogether. The node maps however, worked well and I liked the projection method they used from the central chambers.
The default controls could at times be mildly awkward and unintuitive as well. Thankfully, the game supports a full remapping of the layout which I did to be able to do multiple things at once without feeling like I was playing finger twister. I highly recommend doing this from the start so that combat is as enjoyable as possible. Other motions such as camera movement were smooth and provided no problems.
Additionally Waking advises not to use KBM, and I agree, but it only has partial controller support for some of the more popular controllers on Steam. I finally settled on a solid Logitech, but PS4 was my first choice and I couldn’t use it without jumping through a few technical hoops first. This may or may not affect you but it merits discussion. Prior to the fix methods, the game would experience excessive analog drift which made the game unplayable while it occurred.
On the upside, Waking does have a lot of interface options. Selections like the field guide help with in game knowledge. Others are more thoughtful, such as content creator options which changes the audio so that you can monetize gaming videos without trouble.
The look and feel of Waking hits right where it should. It’s simultaneously bleak and beautiful. It has a certain furtive quality that really captures the imagination and prods the ”what if?” in your mind. The textures of the backgrounds and surrounding terrain in each stage felt well thought out and I had no trouble buying the scenery.
There was the occasional graphical anomaly such as shields not rotating with you. This gave you the illusion that you might not be protected when turning. In reality the hit box was where it should be, but it did cause me to panic jump more than once. Since most of the monsters had very abstract designs, they all appeared fine. I do think it would have been nice to see a greater variety of nightmarish creatures given the scope of the game.
The sound effects were of high quality and many of the prompts and audio cues were right on point. In fact I highly recommended good headphones for Waking due to the atmospheric efforts put into the game. You can hear as lesser enemies appear around you in a series of whispers and you’ll need these cues to also know when an enemy is about to attack you.
The voice acting was solid all around. The actor for the guided meditation had a perfect voice for the role and it gave off a very heartfelt vibe to it. I had no trouble getting into the interactive meditation portions of the game and listening to the monstrous language portions was very enjoyable. Overall, the sound design was a very vibrant and immersive experience deserving of accolades.
The music was another high point in the game. Every track seemed to be selected with care and was drawn from a very diverse artist list. Regardless of the artist or track, each song seemed destined to be exactly where it was. The music was definitely a great part of the experience in Waking and seemed to set the right tone for the theme.
All things considered, Waking is a intriguing idea and while I enjoyed my play-through, the game does suffer from a certain lack of polish in the gameplay department. The look and feel, meditative portions, interactive portions, and audio all support the conceptual elements of the game. Unfortunately, the unrefined controls and platforming coupled with a default difficulty that doesn’t synergetically support the framework takes a great deal of enjoyment out of what could have been a very impressive execution.
Original or new ideas in the gaming world are becoming more of a rarity and I was elated to try this one out. Hopefully, the developer doesn’t call it quits here because I could see a great many good things coming out of this line with a bit more work. At the time of this writing, I would recommend Waking to anyone who enjoys gaming with psychological aspects, or who has an interest in paranatural, philosophical ideas, or more open minded and introspective individuals. You can always tune down the difficulty and enjoy the ride. Action RPG enthusiasts or platformers may pass on this due to the control/balance issues, but I found the journey to worth taking after some adjustments.
I am an objective-styled reviewer who tends to complete games to provide a more in depth and factual reporting of the titles I write about. Our Alpha Nerds Guild uses a terrible-bad-good-great-amazing rating system, and within that system this game falls within the Good category rated both on its own merits, and against other titles in the genre. Many things could be done to improve this experience however, and I hope to see more ideas by Jason Oda with a little more emphasis on gameplay and control.