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Wot I Think - Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Contrast, y'see.

One of the first of the wave of Kickstarter-funded games has been released today. Crowd-funded as Project Giana, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a 2D platformer inspired by 80s and 90s gaming, but certainly looking like something from this year. But how does it fare? I've been playing it for a couple of days, and am no longer in two minds about telling you wot I think:

I have shouted "NO!" at my computer on so many occasions in the last two days that my poor cat has developed an insecurity complex. The loud objection is usually reserved for when he claws at the carpet, and hearing the same tone emerge while he's innocently curled up on a chair behind me is troubling him greatly. But the admonishment is being aimed at the computer screen. And is mostly undeserved.

Giana Sisters is difficult. It's a 2D, side-scrolling platformer, presented as cutesy as you could imagine, but it's damned tough. Many sections require precision use of the game's many tricks and moves, and failure is instantly punished. Such that when I make a tiny mistake, a minuscule misstep, I instantly decide that the game's being unfair and yell at it. And then do it again, and again, and again, until I get it right, at which point I decide that I'm incredibly clever and talented. In other words, in many ways it's a platformer like they used to be.

Which is of course appropriate, since this is in some loose way a sequel to an infamous platformer from 1987, The Great Giana Sisters. An unashamed direct rip-off of Super Mario Bros., it was so very similar to Nintendo's flagship title that lawyers soon saw it stripped from the shelves and pulped. So it seems the strangest of licenses to revive, especially since the resulting game bears almost nothing significant in common with the Mario series, other than jumping on enemies' heads can kill them.

This is also, of course, one of the first of the recent waves of successful Kickstarted games to reach sale. As Project Giana, a goal of $150,000 was exceeded, eventually hauling in an impressive $186,158. So has it gone to good use?

Yes. I'm pleased to say, yes. Giana isn't a perfect platformer, and it certainly has some issues, but the result is exactly what was pitched - a fresh, yet traditional platform game, gorgeous-looking, and difficult enough to remind you of the olden days. And make you shout obscenities that scare your pets.

Two sisters, who I'm going to assume are surnamed Giana, get pulled into some sort of vortex. That's as much story as you'll get, and as much as you'll need. They appear in a fantasy realm, populated by monsters, and littered with diamonds. And for reasons only the aeons can tell us, they inexorably need to move toward the right. However, they don't appear in the same version of the realm. Here you have a classic dark/light contrast, switching back and forth between the two at will, but here also switching character as you do so. They both occupy the same time and space, so advance one is to advance the other, but they never co-exist in the same, er, dimension? And from thence the puzzles arise.

What's most immediately striking about the game is just how bloody brilliant it is when you switch realms. Rather than just blinking from the bight, cheerful green-and-blue sunlight world to a the dark, dying and morbid alternative, just about everything on screen gorgeously morphs from one to the other. That would be a nice enough gimmick if it happened at set points on a level, but here you can switch absolutely anywhere, and the level twists itself back and forth beautifully. A gnarled, cruel-looking bare tree will transform into an ebullient, green and bushy specimen, while buildings morph from pretty, fairy-tale homes into scary, haunted old ruins. And the monsters shift too, either cutesy animals that look eminently huggable, to nasty undead beasts. Naturally the sister in the dark realm is all flowers and sunshine, while the light world is inhabited by the gothy, grumpy girl. Contrast, y'see.

Each sister has unique abilities. Gothy can fire herself violently in any direction as a fireball, letting her zip past obstacles, leap up to higher areas, or most entertainingly, ping back and forth against narrow walls at enormous speed, destroying everything in her path. Sunshine (these are my own names for them - the game made no attempt to tell me what they actually are) can twirl in the air, letting her descend slowly and glide over obstacles and dangers. And then the two can be combined. This is thanks to what I at first thought was the game's big failing, before realising I was wrong. Each sisters' special ability is on a different button - and that's damned confusing at first. It means you have changing dimensions on one button, and then using special abilities on two others. However, using the special ability of one sister while controlling the other, will also automatically switch realms. And it's because of this that you need them separated. It's also because of this that for a while you'll infuriatingly press the wrong one and do exactly the opposite move you intended.

Get used to it, however, and you'll realise how essential it is. It means that you can perform very quick switches on the fly, and in doing so manoeuvre your way through the trickiest sections of the game. While you can only fire one special move during a single jump, additional uses can be added if you kill any enemy. So this means leaping up as a fireball to collide with a passing fluffy owl lets you propel yourself once again, taking out a nearby bunny, and in doing so let you switch over the Sunshine and spin your way between some mean spikes and over the heads of what are now horrid skeletal demons. The most complicated and convoluted of these moves are generally saved for reaching each level's many secret areas, but you'll be needing to do some tricky combos just to progress through.

Levels are judged on how many diamonds you collect, how many bonus giant diamonds you find, how many times you die, and of course how long it took you. And there lies the replay value, as levels are extremely good at hiding loads. On completing areas I'm certain I'd seen every part of, I'd be astonished to see I'd missed literally 200 of 600 diamonds, and a couple of secrets. There's much to go back for, and much I simply gave up on because it was too difficult.

The game's biggest weakness is, unfortunately, its repetitiveness. While it certainly gets trickier as it goes along, by the end of the second of three worlds you've seen just two distinct themes. There's the overground world that while absolutely gorgeous, and beautifully put together, really doesn't change much. And there's the subterranean dungeons, which are duller, and equally similar throughout. While what you do in these levels certainly gets more involved, it's a shame that more themes couldn't be implemented. Although the art and effort that must have gone into making those that are there so elegantly morph on the fly likely means adding more would be an arduous task, and likely another Kickstarter.

The result is a very decent platformer, and a very tricky one. One hit kills are pretty much the case throughout, and - well - I'm not entirely sure how I feel about them. While it demands much better play from you, it's also extremely punishing when a checkpoint is too far behind a simpler section you're forced to trudge through multiple times until you master the difficult bit. As per usual, smarter checkpointing is likely the solution for this, and here it certainly could do with improvement. It's that age-old mistake of forgetting that making me replay the same dreary bit before the bit where you insta-kill me in about seventeen different ways, isn't an enormous amount of fun.

But much of the game is a good amount of fun, and getting good at it is extremely satisfying. Successfully stringing together a series of special moves and neat kills, and being rewarded with reaching a bonus area, makes you feel like the King of Town, and this game delivers that in spades. So expect to shout yourself hoarse, and your cat into a nervous disposition, but expect to have a decent time doing it. Not a varied time, sadly, and having not quite completed the game, I'm now kind of wondering how much pull there is to do so. But I've had a good two days of jumping and bouncing with it, and often that's precisely what you want.

Project Giana is out today on Steam, GOG and GamersGate. There's also a demo here.

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