It’s likely you’ve never heard of the Giana Sisters, despite the fact that they came into existence not too long after the birth of Mario and Luigi. Back in the day the sisters were considered too much a clone of Mario, with Nintendo not quite onboard with Spellbound Games’ sincerest form of flattery. Today, funded by Kickstarter and given the Greenlight by Steam, the sisters attempt to make their re-re-debut (as their 2009 DS release also didn’t fare quite so well). The question is whether or not the game will fly off the virtual shelves this time due to popularity, rather than the fear of legal action.
The answer is… well, how difficult do you like your platformers? Because this one is about as hard as they come. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams still plays like a darker reimagining of a Super Mario Brothers title, but apart from the sibling and general platform connection, current publisher Black Forest Games has done a good job of making this title distinct. Giana makes use of a shift mechanic that allows you to seamlessly change between the two different protagonists, while doing so alters not just your character but the world. In a lot of ways the game is very similar to the more recent Braid.
Giana renders its over twenty stages in beautiful colors and 3D elements while you navigate the world on a 2D plane. When you are the fiery red head the world around you is vibrant and innocent, with enemies resembling birds so fluffy they couldn’t possibly fly. When you turn to the dark side as the blonde sister the world becomes more sinister; mushrooms become toadstools, underwater coral becomes skeletal hands and enemies take on a demonic aspect.
Transitioning between characters not only lets you make use of different abilities unique to each girl, but it warps the world in different ways directly related to puzzle solving. Bridges move, portcullises raise or lower and the ground itself can dematerialize, allowing you access to another area or opening up a perilous fall to certain death. It’s more than just beautiful art that is reminiscent of Braid though – depending on which sister you are, moving platforms may even change direction suddenly. Granted, it isn’t a time shift, but the effects certainly feel the same. Giana even throws in a dash of Sonic the Hedgehog for good measure, providing springboards and pinball style bumpers to ricochet off.
As you make your way through the stages you’ll collect various colored gems, some of which can only be gathered by one particular sister or the other. The importance of these gems is later revealed when you finally come to your first boss stage, where unlocking the area requires a certain amount of crystals to have been gathered. In some ways this encourages players to explore their surroundings or try their hand at the stages in Time Attack or High Score modes, but in later stages this requirement becomes frustrating.
At first the game is easy enough and you won’t need to make use of the checkpoint system or your infinite lives. But once the game starts throwing un-killable enemies and trickier jumps your way, the controls begin to feel slightly imprecise and unfair. Granted, there are players that will love the Hardcore mode and the challenge of getting through a single stage without checkpoints, and it is almost guaranteed that someone at some point will be posting a speed run Youtube video of the Uber Hardcore mode where one fatal steps means you start the entire game over. For the majority of players though, the going may get a little tougher than the tough can manage to get going.
The difficulty comes not really from the fact that a keyboard isn’t the most precise tool – the game offers controller support to assist with this. The difficulty comes from requiring players to think on their toes while faced with jumps and logic puzzles that don’t always have a clear answer. At times you will find yourself in mid air, simply guessing as to what to do next before plummeting to your doom, where other times you’ll hit a wall (literally and figuratively) and you’ll have to stare at the screen for several minutes before the solution to overcome an obstacle finally dawns on you.
This level of challenge wouldn’t be so bad if your reward at the end of the stage wasn’t partially dependent upon how many times you died. It’s easy to milk all the possible stars out of the first few worlds, but come level 1-4 and 1-5 where you’re dying twenty or thirty times before finishing the level (those are actual death count figures from my playthrough), you’ll be lucky to earn one measly star, barely scraping by to open the boss’ world.
Certain people will enjoy the challenge offered by this game, just as certainly as the title isn’t for everybody. Although it has a cutesy artistic style to it, by no means is this platformer child friendly like any of Nintendo’s forays. If you own a wired controller, have patience and skill enough to overcome adversity, and don’t mind sitting and staring at the monitor every now and then while you work out the solution of how to get from A to B, then this is one of the better platformers to be released this year. But if the likes of ‘Splosion Man thwarted your every attempt at happiness, then when the Giana Sisters are in town you’d better steer clear.
FINAL SCORE: 6 out of 10
A copy of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams was provided to Pixel Related for review.