There has long been the debate about longer games meaning better games amongst players. For some, the best games available are the ones that stretch upon long lengths of time, upwards of 100 hours of content. The Witcher 3, Breath of the Wild, Ghost of Tsushima; all these and more are heralded as the best that gaming has to offer, and the common link is that they’re all long. To some degree, I believe this length is justified, but even short games can be just as impactful or rewarding as those long journeys—take Undertale or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. When it comes to adventures games, though, they should probably be long—enter Phoenotopia: Awakening.
Inspired by classics of the genre (had I a dollar for every game that used this tagline), this game contains a surprising amount of content to explore, spanning anywhere from 30-50 hours. As daunting as this might sound at first, the extended play time does end up working in its favor. Patience, build-up, and establishing tones and motivations are but a few things this understands with the genre. It’s great to go on a journey, but how much will you remember afterwards? This is the balance that this game attempts to perfect.
Story – A Delicate Reawakening
General adventure tropes include the following: a young hero; worldly stakes; a powerful nemesis; travel to places with stark geographical differences. The story to Phoenotopia: Awakening is little different, adhering to the standards that made former games work effectively enough. A young girl, through a series of events, gets thrust into saving the world from an unknown threat, whom seemingly abducted a majority of her family. Whether this currently works in present time now that we have the power of hindsight is another issue, but this world attempts to build itself in more ways than fairy-tale-esque exposition.
The Story Told Directly and Indirectly
Most prominently, the areas that the player inhabit all have history woven into the detail of their design. There is a lot of world-building through mood setting and visual evidence. Mysterious, abandoned zones found later on in the game are rife with ominous details, meticulously placed to give players the impression of what occurred in the past. Emphasis on rebirth, born from the story of the phoenix (which, I would assume, birthed Phoen-otopia), is an ongoing presence in much of the game’s story and visual make-up.
Describing the overall story here would be most adequately put as a “slow burn.” Initially, I wasn’t totally fond of the direction of the story, brazenly going through the motions of a standard epic. It took time for the pacing, the writing, and the variety of continuously strange occurrences to properly build into something truly engrossing. The more you pay attention to the details, the more rewarding it is to understand how the world came to be. That is what sets this apart from others, in my eyes.
In this same vein, characters make up a large portion of what players will see in Phoenotopia: Awakening. Unfortunately, I find them to be among the weaker aspects overall. The writing can be quite comical at times, with minor characters and recurring figures commonly used as the butt of jokes or self-aware meta humor. But what many suffer from are either being too one-note or bland in their characterization. What’s worse is that there are very few characters that one spends a lot of time with, meaning you get to know these characters through occasional revisits and progression dictated by the narrative. They aren’t really growing naturally with the player—rather they progress as dictated by the code, and it’s quite apparent.
I suppose this is in tune with the writing in general, which I feel tends to peak through visual storytelling and comedic sidequests. I am a lot more fond of Birdy and Zeke than Lisa and Alex, for example. The former is a pair that you mostly interact with through sidequests, while the latter are considered major recurring characters. And trying to analyze the phoenix-like details in the backgrounds of individual areas is more interesting than long, expository cutscenes.
Gameplay – Effectively Everything (Applicable)
Truthfully, there is a lot I could describe within this section, because there’s much to do. Main quest, sidequests, combat, collectibles, RPG elements, overworld exploration, fetch quests, mini-games, trade-ins, combat skills, musical tunes, metroidvania elements, cooking system, fishing, the “recycler” system… exhausted yet? Crammed into this 30-50-hour game is a sizeable main-to-side content ratio to rival games like Skyrim. For brevity’s sake, I will only touch on the most crucial aspects of gameplay that stood out to me.
Side content is occasionally seen as the “better” part of the adventure by players. Sure, saving the world is nice, but maybe you just want to chill with the locals or explore smaller-scale mysteries exclusive to specific cultures. Phoenotopia: Awakening allows you plenty of opportunity to do so, as side content is both totally optional and recommendable. You get a better picture of the world and the inhabitants within it—however brief—and become better equipped for the trials that lie ahead. Exploring off the grid will often reward you with a skill that makes adventuring easier or collectibles heart/energy containers that build you stronger. The types of side content resort to fetch quests often, which can be tiring, but personally, I never got to that point.
Combat and Controls
Phoenotopia: Awakening is a 2D sidescroller with generally fast-paced action that encourages players to memorize patterns. Sure, you can continuously beat enemies by spamming one button, but that isn’t always the most viable option. Avoiding attacks and learning patterns will prove useful long-term, as health will only replenish upon consuming food items or resting in beds (a third option appears after a while). Combat serves as the “meat and potatoes” of the game outside standard exploration and collecting.
I’ve seen some complain about the short reach of the standard combat weapon early on, but I actually disagree. Never was it an issue for me to gauge the length between landing a hit on an enemy and an enemy landing a hit on me. This is somewhat alleviated by the fact that you can actually touch enemies without them harming you. It’s when they begin their attack animations that they can harm you. This isn’t true for everything, though it aids in training one’s combat prowess without fear of unnecessarily depleting HP.
Where my criticism lies is in the volatility of the controls. For the most part, controls are fairly fluid and tight enough to get well-adjusted to. When it comes to the faster-paced aspects of combat and platforming, however, it can be fairly frustrating. One of my biggest gripes is that the sprint button cannot just be held down continuously until one’s energy depletes—it cancels out upon additional actions. This threw me off a fair number of times and always irked my sense of flow within the game. Being precise with fishing and/or the crossbow also proves infuriating, as the cursor seems to favor either cardinal or diagonal directions; all else it fights off like a scourge. Not being able to play to one’s full potential can prove to be too much for some.
An interesting thing to note is that Phoenotopia: Awakening takes one’s skill level into account. One can choose their skill level at the start of the adventure, as well as change it at any point in the options menu. Ranging between one-heart and five-hearts (going from least to most difficult), one will gain combat benefits to further ease them into the gameplay. I play on the four-heart difficulty, with the only benefit being that food items will replenish HP instantly in the menu, and the game didn’t feel too cumbersome despite it.
The review title is not to be taken lightly: This adventure will involve many shiny stones. Heart Rubies, Energy Gems, Moonstones; these three collectible items will be your best friend as you progress. Each provide convenience and strength to the player in terms of overall health, overall energy, and activating devices/upgrading items. Many of these things are hidden behind secrets that one must have the necessary equipment for, which require backtracking and a keen eye. This type of exploration helps encourage other aspects to further immersion, like the aforementioned visual storytelling.
To be transparent, metroidvania is among my favorite genres (subgenres?) of video games out there. Growing up adoring the Metroid franchise, the prospect of starting weak and growing stronger through rewarded exploration is something I almost always enjoy. All of that minute detail is delightfully replicated in Phoenotopia: Awakening. Experimenting with new items, traveling back and forth between areas, exploding walls and crawling through suspicious indents in the wall; everything feels right at home. It hits every positive note and then some.
Graphics & Audio – Show, Don’t Tell
The cozy, old-fashioned village comprised of a small population old and new. Hostile desert regions hiding away an underground clan. A bustling town full of merriment and impressive windmills. Wastelands of debris and structural decomposition. All sorts of areas are established in this world for the player to explore. Not everything will have practical meaning, but it serves to set the tone for perceiving the present with the context of the past. Different cultures present different people, each with their own perception of history and the world around them. The visual display shows more of this than the people themselves, though that shouldn’t detract from pixel art laden with detail.
To immediately counteract that, characters designs aren’t up to par. The biggest strength of Phoenotopia: Awakening‘s visuals lie in the environments and the animated whimsy relevant to the mood. Characters are rather simplified, with one-tone colors and large eyes, punctuated by how little space they take up onscreen. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that the developers worked on character models first, than everything else.
What helps tremendously with establishing each area is the soundtrack, which, like the story, gets better as the game unfolds. It plays with all sorts of emotions: giddiness, anticipation, suspense, dread, goofiness; you name it. Amazingly enough, it even does something I think a lot of other mood-setting stories should do more often: incorporate silence. Nothing is more unnerving than exploring a dark, cavernous region of space in complete silence, with the sound of one’s actions being the only respite. This said, the soundtrack isn’t only a boost for ambience, but also a solid source for catchy tunes. Generally stronger as ambience, though there are some great tracks in store regardless.
Phoenotopia: Awakening was reviewed on PC via Steam. A review key was provided by Cape Cosmic.