Monday, May 27, 2013

Wake (Boss Baddie, 2010)

A decade ago I remember having a conversation about how games were getting so expensive to produce that studios couldn't take chances any more, and had to make sure their games were in "proven genres". Proven genre of course was an industry term for just copying whatever game was the best selling at the time. There wasn't a lot of originality in the market back then.

Fast forward ten years and the industry is a much different place. With every console offering downloadable content, mobile game sales on the rise, and PC services such as Steam offering discoverability and profit alongside the top high profile titles, this is a golden age for indie games. Sure, they might not have the scope and polish of the top AAA titles, but many of them more than make up for it with originality and imagination. One such game is Boss Baddie's retro styled Wake.

Wake is part of a growing trend of retro styled games, games that intentionally mimic the visual look of older generations. These days they are all over the place, but back in 2010, it was still a novel and daring approach. Wake, for the most part, imitates the look of SNES games of the early to mid 90s. I say for the most part because while its pixelated sprites and environments certainly hold that 16-bit charm, Wake tops it with a generous helping of modern video stylings such as particle generators and lighting effects.

Wake takes place on a large ship that is sinking in the ocean. You start the game by awakening at the bottom of the ship's hull, and must race the rising water to escape. The entire world slowly rotates as the ship rocks back and forth in the sea. The water level continually rises throughout the game revealing some imaginative mechanics. Certain objects throughout the ship are buoyant, and will change position as the rooms flood. Some paths are only accessible before the water reaches the area, while others are blocked until the entrances are submerged.

The gameplay of Wake at first resembles the Metroidvania genre. It's a 2D side view non-linear platform adventure game where you explore your surroundings across an intricate map of interconnected rooms and collect the tools you'll need to get to your final destination. It's the pacing that is the source of Wake's originality. While most Metroidvania titles take 10+ hours to complete, Wake's simple tale of escaping a sinking ship can be breezed through in about half an hour.

In Wake however, winning is the easy part. If you just escape from the ship and then move on, you haven't really experienced the game. There's a large ship to explore, with many secrets to uncover. The game doesn't force you into every nook and cranny as would be the case in most games of the genre, but instead rewards you for finding your way into these areas on your own. The game is full of collectibles that all add to your score, which is submitted to an online high score table. Then there is the question of why the ship is sinking in the first place. Wake isn't meant to be a game that you play once, it's meant to be played many times and experienced different ways. A much different approach than the typical linear narrative presented by most games.

As a retro console inspired game, I was delighted to see that it had gamepad support already implemented. I've read that some people find the keyboard controls to be a pain, but it handled great with an XBox 360 gamepad. And really, every PC gamer should own one of these, or at least a 3rd party knock off. Surprisingly, this is the first 2D side scrolling platformer I've played in which the left analog stick offered better control than the Dpad (both are simultaneously supported), especially while swimming, which you'll be doing a good amount of throughout the game.

The music in Wake offers a combination of electronic loops and lonely haunting piano. It's the type of track you could leave on in the background all day when you're feeling down. Visually, the game's unique look made me think that if I could take this back in time 20 years, it would be the greatest looking SNES game ever. I only wish it supported higher resolutions for full screen play, it tended to have a blurriness on my 1080p monitor.

I'll say that this is definitely not a game for everybody, but at only half an hour for a full playthrough, I think it's a game that anybody with even a fleeting interest in the genre should try at least once. As with most indie games, it doesn't cost very much, and it's good to support imaginative indie developers, for the sake of the future of gaming in general. The big irony I found in Wake, is that for a studio named Boss Baddie, there were no epic boss battles. Oh well, maybe next time.

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