Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams
VERDICT: The Ikaruga of platformers. Perhaps the best PC platformer yet made. Tight controls, fantastic graphics, excellent soundtrack, well molded level design, this game reminds me more of Donkey Kong Country in its challenge and playstyle than anything else. Most remarkable is the sheer amount of vertical play we haven’t seen in a platformer since >Super Mario World or Sonic the Hedgehog. Levels that go on way too long, uneven difficulty, way-too-many-spikes, and some buggy elements (that are currently being patched) hold the game back. In all: this game is better than you’d expect.
Above: This game has an incredible soundtrack.
There is no multiplayer for this game.
While keyboard play is possible, I strongly, strongly recommend using a controller. The game recognized my Mayflash controller without me having to use Joy2Pad.
This game is hostile to Windows XP users due to the older version of Direct X. I only had a couple of crashes until I got more near the end of the game where it became a regular basis. However, I’m using the vanilla release. The game makers have released patches that have fixed many of the problems. As Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams heads to PSN and XBLA, more patches and bug fixes are expected. More modern PCs shouldn’t have any problem.
Due to the unique nature of the crashes, I was unable to grab screenshots. So I’ll use Black Forest’s screenshots for now.
WHAT IS IT?
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a platformer. The stage is an obstacle course you jump around, or enemies you dodge, in order to get to the goal. Along the way, there are gems you can collect as well as big gems that unlock non-gameplay things like concept art.
Above: No tutorials. Ingeniously, there are little signs at the start that SHOW, not tell, how to use a new mechanic. In the screen above, you can see such a sign on the left side of the screen. More games should go this route.
For those wondering, there is no ‘running’ in this game. You won’t have to hold down the ‘run’ button all the time like you do in Super Mario Brothers. The buttons are just jump, special jump, and switch personalities.
The killer feature in Giana Sisters is that the sister you control can switch personalities. The sweet blonde personality transforms into the redhead punk personality. The two share different special jumps. The blonde twirl jumps while slowly falling to the ground like Dixie Kong in Donkey Kong Country 2. The redhead turns into a fireball to either bounce off enemies or pinball through tight corridors smashing bricks like Sonic the Hedgehog.
Interestingly, there are massive aesthetic effects between the personalities. The sweet blonde inhabits a dreary dark world. The redhead lives in a cute, fluffy bunny, type atmosphere. As your character switches personalities, the entire landscape literally transforms around you. This change enables certain gems to be obtained, certain platforms to be able to be stood on, platforms start activating, and some enemies behave differently. Switching personalities also twists the music. Each stage has two soundtracks running, one for the blonde and one for the redhead. The blonde’s music is more traditional stage music. The redhead has heavy metal as her music. When the player switches, the music switches as well but keeps going without a pause. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this simultaneous music switching like this done in a video game before.
Above: These two screenshots are in the same exact spot in the game! When you change personalities, the entire stage twists and morphs as well.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams revolves around the two forms as well as MASSIVE stages that take forever to get through. We’re talking multiple waypoints. The game is also quite challenging.
Dying is interesting in this game. There are no lives. When you die, you immediately start at the last waypoint. You can die as many times as you want as there is no game over. However, the game is challenging so you could die forty times on a single stage and not realize it. I prefer this way of life and death instead of the ‘give player 100 free 1-ups’ method.
Above: The blonde personality uses a twirling spin jump that makes her glide in the air slowly. Note the skull signs saying that if you go that direction you will die. The open chest with the hand and flag represent a toggled waypoint. If the player above dies, the player will immediately restart at that chest.
No manual is included with this game.
The music is really well done. Here’s a sample:
These are actually two tracks. The cute track plays first followed by the dark track at 3:03.
This is the credits theme.
HOW THE STAR SYSTEM WORKS
The player will notice there are gems everywhere. What do the gems do?
The colors of the gems do not matter. All the color does is represent what phase the gem is in. The blue gems are in both the Cute and Dark World. The yellow gems are only obtained in the Dark World. The red gems are only obtained in the Cute World.
Above: The gems often serve as a guide as how to maneuver through a level. These yellow gems are indicating to the player how to jump across this pit.
Above: The big crystals unlock concept art and count as ten gems. But since there are no ‘lives’, what do all these gems do?
I was confused by this and so were many other people. On the official forum, one of the Black Forest developers explained the process:
Hello everybody, here is how the star system currently works:
- The color of the gems doesn’t matter for the final count. Only the amount does.
- Master gems add 10 gems to your count, but don’t affect your score otherwise.
- The amount of gems you collect gives you up to three stars. The thresholds vary from level to level and are determined by us counting and subjectively determining trivial and nontrivial gems. Trivial gems are on the main path and mainly serve to show the way; they are easy to collect. Nontrivial gems either require some risk or skill to reach, or are hidden and require you to spot the hints. Note that trivial and nontrivial gems aren’t flagged – they are simply gem amounts.
- Collecting an amount of gems equal to 90% of the amount of trivial gems in a level awards one star.
- Collecting an amount of gems equal to 100% of the amount of trivial gems plus 35% of the amount of nontrivial gems awards two stars.
- Collecting an amount of gems equal to 100% of the amount of trivial gems plus 70% of the amount of nontrivial gems awards three stars.
- Depending on gem quantity and distribution, this roughly requires you to collect between 20% and 55% of the total gems in a level for one star, between 50% and 75% of the gems for two stars, and between 75% and 90% of the gems for three stars. Basically, the easier the gems are to collect in a level, the more you need to collect for a higher rating.
- Keeping your death count low awards up to two stars.
- If you die between 6 and 20 times, you get one star.
- If you die between 0 and 5 times, you get two stars.
- Dying does not affect the amount of stars you gain for collecting gems.
- You need an average of 3 stars per non-boss level to unlock a boss level. This does not carry over between worlds.
Purple stars are awarded in boss levels. They serve to unlock hardcore mode and don’t influence the star count in the next world.
- You don’t need to reach three stars in each level. If you five-star a level, you can one-star another.
- This average will be lowered to 2.5 stars per level (rounded down) in the next patch so that you don’t need to collect gems like crazy if you die a lot.
- The thresholds are a little more generous since the last patch (e.g. it used to be up to 3 and 10 deaths instead of 5 and 20), so you may have observed different results if you experimented before the patch.
So two stars depend on how often you die in a stage. This might explain why it is common to get three stars even if you got every gem (despite dying a ton).
A GAME OF SECRETS
One of the things I enjoy most about the classic Super Mario Brothers games and other platformers were the secrets. The game wasn’t just an obstacle course. You examined walls and passageways to discover new chambers and parts of the stage. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams refreshingly embraces secrets which differentiates the game from the ‘frustration platformers’ that are common on the PC.
Above: The two screenshots above are a great example of a ‘secret’ in the very early stages. The gems point down indicating there is something there. But how do you get below the bridge? By switching personalities, the bridge opens up and you can explore what is below. Most secrets aren’t as easy to spot as this.
These secrets are so much fun that I find myself replaying levels just to hunt for all the gems. It is a neat feeling to have completed a stage several times only to discover a secret passage you missed all those times. Since there is no time limit, you are free to explore at your leisure.
Platformers where you constantly move horizontally aren’t that interesting as it is easy to see everything in the game. When the platformers started embracing vertical action, such as Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, or Metroid, did it feel like you were lost in a gigantic world.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams successfully embraces vertical action. There is a TON of moving up and down. If you get the feeling you might be missing chunks of the stage because you are ‘above’ or ‘below’ it, you’re probably right. The screenshots don’t truly show off how gigantic these stages are.
Above: There is an incredible amount of vertical action in this game.
Above: Ahh, look! The player has wandered into a secret cavern where, down below in the water, a giant gem awaits.
CHALLENGE IS IN THE TIMING
Some say that Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a very difficult game. I don’t think it is. Unlike games like Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World, and the early Mega Man games that allowed you different options to get past a stage or obstacle (e.g. use Number 2 rocket to get past the blocks in Heat Man’s stage), this game doesn’t offer that. What the game does do is offer infinite lives and numerous waypoints. This game never felt ‘cheap’ in its challenge as did, say, Mega Man 9.
Like the classic platformers, Twisted Dreams bases much of it on the timing and rhythm. Take a look at some of the examples below.
Above: The next platform is phased out. Oh no! However, if the player switches to the red head, the platform comes into existence. However, the platform the player is currently standing on vanishes. The player must twist the world in between jumps.
Above: The owl moves up and down blocking the path. The player could fireball into the owl. However, the evil spike-like vines on the next platform remain. The vines vanish when the world is twisted. The player must twist the world, while dodging the owl, and do it in midair as the platform Giana is standing on vanishes when the personalities switch.
Above: Yes! Rotating platforms! They alter directions when the player twists the world. Hopping on moving platforms is always problematic let alone altering the platform movement directions. As the game gets harder, it will throw in enemies and other nasties at you as well.
Above: The game does a twist on the ghosts in platformers. In Super Mario Brothers 3, the ‘boos’ would chase you but freeze when the player turned to face them. Here, the ghosts give chase but freeze when the player twists the world. Of course, the game likes to twist out the platform you’re standing on when you do that.
TOO MANY SPIKES?
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams reminds me of those Wily Castle stages in the classic Mega Man games. There are spikes all over the place. After a time, you get tired of seeing so many spikes. This game is like endless Wily Castle mode. Spikes are numerous and only multiply the further you go in the game.
Above: If you like spikes, this is your game.
DEVELOPERS ARE ADDING MORE STAGES
This game keeps being updated. Aside from level tweaks, bug eliminations, and optimizing engine performance, the developers have added more levels. For Halloween, they added a fiery, hell like stage. For Christmas, they recently added a winter wonderland stage. I’m not sure what their plans are for the future, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more stages came.
JUSTIFICATION FOR THE RATING
Indie games have the reputation of being junk typically having low production values and relying on nostalgic gameplay elements from the 80s or 90s. Indie games were so bad that a special category was made for them called ‘Indie’ as no one wants to trash these scrappy developers in comparison to the big industry games. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams indicates to me that these indie games are on the verge of overthrowing the mainline games. They’re not there yet, but the trajectory is there.
The best compliment I can give to Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is that it never feels like an indie game. It feels like a big third party game you’d see on the NES, SNES, or Genesis back in the early 90s. The game actually is ambitious. It seems that the limits on the game were imposed by time and money instead of lack of skill or will. I’m curious what Black Forest studios will do next.
First off, the game’s visuals dazzle and sometimes overwhelm. When the world twists, incredibly it shows the animations of the world morphing and shifting. The big industry companies wouldn’t bother spending money or time on something like that. I know Nintendo certainly wouldn’t. The game’s graphics are so strong that they will crush low end PCs. When was the last time you heard that said of an indie game?
Second, the sound is top notch. I never *thought* about the sound effects because everything was sounding as they should. The sound track really helps. It being dual soundtrack is also something the big industry companies would never do. If a game is going to spend their budget on something, let it be music and sound. The phenomenal score makes the game pop out of the rest of the games stack not unlike how games like Mega Man did back in a sea of platformers in the 80s.
Above: Rock solid controls.
Third, the control is phenomenal. Control makes or breaks platformers. I never felt I died due to a control issue. They are rock solid which is a good thing as there are so many precision jumps and tricky timings. The pinballing, enemy-bouncing, and directional-jumps of the red head fireball move are consistently fun and feel fantastic.
Above: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams knows that vertical movement is as important as horizontal movement. Even Mega Man 2 did excellent vertical movement.
Fourth, the game has very well done level design. What I love seeing is vertical action (finally!) in a platformer again. I like how the game keeps Giana small but shows the massive world around her. Many platformers make the mistake of making the character large and detailed and making the world small.
Finally, the gem collecting gives reason to replay stages. It is so much fun to discover a secret labyrinth or area you missed the first time around. I haven’t gotten to the point of doing ‘hardcore’ mode, but I imagine if people keep playing the game consistently they will get to that point. Woe to anyone doing Uber Hardcore.
Above: It is fun searching for all the gems.
Despite all these wonderful things, there are things that holding back Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. I think these things are preventing the game from erupting into a mainstream hit.
First, the bugs. Black Forest has put out patches to optimize performance. I’ve been gaming on PCs throughout the 80s and 90s and ambitious games have always run into optimization issues. This game is not low end PC friendly, but I don’t see that as an issue. Years from now, people won’t have those low end PCs. What matters is the game being optimized on hardware today and is solid going into the future. The developers may not think it, but people could still be playing this game decades from now. (Hell, they’re on GOG which is full of decades old games.)
The second issue that is hurting is that it is difficult to play the game in bite sized pieces. I’m not talking handheld gaming here. When someone has a job or a family, they want to get in and out of the game fairly fast. The stages are so monstrous at times and since you restart at waypoints, it can take a while to mow through a stage. And when a player is stuck halfway in the stage, they don’t want to start over especially after collecting all those gems. Look at the size of stages from a game like Super Mario World.
Above: Enormous levels. Sometimes, too enormous.
A third issue commonly stated is the level variety. The classic platformers like the Marios and Mega Mans became famous in large part due to their level variety. Mega Man relied on the Robot Master themes for the stages. Mario relied on elements such as sky, underwater, underground, and so on. Twisted Dreams offers great overworld, underground, and castle, but not much else. How about a level in the sky? How about a card themed level as that would be from Alice in Wonderland?
All those things mentioned aren’t core issues. The core of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is very, very good and well made. There is only a major core issue that I think is suffocating the game. I keep feeling the game wants to break out but this issue is like chains holding the game from soaring. The issue is forcing all the gameplay into a ‘speed run’ skill ceiling.
There is a modern notion that platformers should be played like race car games and that the skilled platform player is the race car. Is it? That may be one form of skill, but why are the other ones denied? The original Super Mario Brothers and Mega Man even had scores which represented a different type of skill instead of racing to the end of the level without dying.
Above: Needs more emphasis on mechanics other than ‘speed run’.
The speed run mentality is what is causing the same-ness problem in the game. As the player goes through the game, he or she gets hit with the “samey” fatigue. While some different locations instead of ground, underground, and castle would help, none of it would solve the underlying issue. The game has great gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, the gameplay mechanics run out of gas before the game runs out of content. Simply focusing on ‘speed runs’ isn’t enough to keep things interesting.
What I would do is de-emphasize spikes (as there are too many of them already in the game) and create more monsters. Monsters have personality. Spikes do not. I would allow the player different options of going through these monsters. Mario has different power-ups. Mega Man has different weapons. What does Giana have? Nothing aside from the two personalities. I’m not saying put in power-ups, but there should be something that makes the gameplay more game-like and less of a military exercise. Imagine forcing everyone to play Super Mario Brothers as only small Mario or Mega Man with only the mega buster. That is where I think Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is now. The gameplay mechanics are great. But as the difficulty ramps up and the stage length grows, the game feels less ‘gamey’ and more of a chore. Giving the players more toys would help. Players love having toys. I also think this is the central reason why players don’t finish the game. All they see before them is more ‘military exercise’. Where is the gamey stuff? In Super Mario Brothers 3, you had things in the later levels you’d never imagine seeing such as Kuribo’s shoe or the hammer brothers suit. Adding in these ‘toys’ would not detract from the ‘speed run’ expert runs the game wants to promote. It would, however, add to the game to those who are playing just for fun (around 95% of the player base).
Above: Fantastic underground detail. A shame there aren’t more environments.
No recent game would ever get my coveted Metroid or Tanooki scores as those are only given to games that have proven their worth over years. This game is no Battletoads as there never was a brick wall of difficulty where I wanted to stop. This game is definitely not average. Unlike Gradius, I keep finding myself wanting to come back to this game and even replay some of the stages I’ve already beaten.
I think this game is of Mega Man value. Everything is well designed, however there is nothing that would insist me to tell people to get this game immediately. It’s no Zelda value. (But what games are?) I’ll return to this game months from now and see how it ages as well as any patches improving optimization to see if the score moves up.
This is a phenomenal score given to a brand new platformer. If you like platformers, you should buy this game. Good work, Black Forest. I’ll be watching you closely.