October 25th, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
Sometimes, great things come from strange, lowly origins. The original 80′s Great Giana Sisters back on the C64 & Amiga was rather infamous – it was exactly the sort of thing that draws irate headlines now; a shameless clone of Super Mario Bros with only the most superficial of cosmetic re-workings in order to avoid a lawsuit. Clearly not enough, as the game was on sale for all of about five minutes before Nintendo dropped the hammer on it. Despite this, it garnered a surprising number of fans, and there was more than enough scepticism to go round when Black Forest Games announced the kickstarter for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, a modern update of the franchise. Surely this was just cashing in on poorly grounded nostalgia, right?
Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a pleasant surprise to be sure – a straightforward 2D retro platformer with 3D graphics and a certain tightness and focus to the design that you don’t often see outside of Super Meat Boy and its ilk. While there’s a few visual and audio cues linking it to the original, there’s no way that this could be mistaken for a Mario clone anymore. The plot here is as threadbare as it always was – two young sisters sucked through a portal to a magical world, and one has to rescue the other, all presented wordlessly. It’s a hastily delivered excuse to run and jump through ~24 quite lengthy levels and collect a whole lot of shiny random MacGuffins (gems, in this case) for points.
Short and simple intro aside, this game makes a great first impression. While not quite as beautiful as Trine 2 – the high water-mark for 2.5d graphics, this is a luscious, bright and vibrant fantasy world. Detailed in both foreground and background, with a lot of subtle animations and atmospheric lighting effects. There’s a good range of tilesets and enemies, with the scenery changing every few levels. There’s effectively two full versions of each backdrop, too, given the core gimmick of the game – switching between ‘dream’ (spooky and Tim Burton-esque, populated by Giana’s cute side) and ‘nightmare’ (bright, bouncy and innocent, and linked with Giana’s darker, goth/punk side) worlds. Ice turns to lava, greenery turns to wasteland as you switch, and enemies change from cutesy cartoon owls to winged demons and vice versa, and the effect of it shifting from one to the other is smooth and seamless.
The whole game revolves around this simple world-flipping mechanic. At a press of a button at any time, you can shift between the worlds at will, and this will change the layout of obstacles, collectibles, moving mechanisms and platforms. Many challenges require you to rapidly shift between the two in order to pass safely through waves of hazards – perhaps a faint hint of Ikaruga in the design there. While in the Dream world, you can use a floaty spinning jump (reminiscent of Rayman’s hair-helicopter move) and while in the Nightmare world you can throw yourself as a bouncing projectile, capable of ricocheting endlessly off close-together walls, which reminds me of little-known Megadrive/Genesis platformer Pulseman. You’re faster and more combat-capable in the nightmare world, and platforming is safer and slower in the dream.
It’s a simple setup, and it’s really carried by the level design. Powerups are few and far between – most commonly just a simple one-hit shield item – with most of the gameplay focus being on exploring and navigating the world-shifting platforming challenges and puzzles along the way. Getting to secret areas (usually for points and concept art unlocks) often requires exploiting interesting quirks in the system, like the ability to world-shift in the middle of a spin-jump or an attack, continuing the attack through the transition. The stages are really quite creatively laid out, and while they can be tough at times, checkpoints are fairly generous and you have (at least in the default playmode – more are unlockable later) unlimited lives.
Still, if there’s one thing that stands out about this game, head and shoulders above everything else, it’s the music. Not only have they managed to rope in Chris Huelsbeck – composer for the original Giana Sisters, as well as countless famous soundtracks through the C64/Amiga era – to handle all the regular dream-world music, but shifting to the nightmare seamlessly transitions into a cover of the same track by nerd-metal outfit Machinae Supremacy. Both sound great. Huelsbeck builds an interesting new soundtrack on top of the original C64 version melodies, and the guitar-heavy alternate version adds an extra layer of energy and bounce on top of the retro chiptune sound. There’s even the option to use just the Dream or Nightmare world soundtrack exclusively, if you really have a strong preference.
While not the greatest 2D platformer released in recent years (Rayman: Origins probably wins that title), Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a beautiful, solid, well-engineered piece of fun with an astounding soundtrack. It’s not the tightest and most refined in the genre, with the hitboxes on some obstacles (especially crystal spikes) seeming a little wooly, but it’s still better than most, and the issues only really surface in a few particularly fiddly segments. The controls are tight and responsive, although I do highly recommend some kind of dual-analogue controller. As with most modern PC games, it has native Xbox 360 gamepad support, and the game has full analogue control for extra precision, so it’s a better choice than keyboard.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is out now for Windows PCs, and carries an RRP of around $15. You can grab the game from GOG, Steam and Gamersgate. As an interesting aside, in addition to being a Kickstarter success, this game was one of the first through Steam’s new Greenlight system, making it the poster child for the new generation of high-profile yet publisher-free indie titles.