I’ve reviewed a lot of games throughout the years, and while I’ve reviewed some pretty big ones, I think that Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams might be the first game I’ve reviewed that I’d call “history making.” Even if you ignore the history behind the franchise, dating as far back as 1987 on the Commodore 64 and through a number of unofficial sequels leading up to a 2009 Nintendo DS re-imagining, Twisted Dreams is a history making game for nothing else than for becoming the first Kickstarter funded game to ever appear on the Xbox Live Arcade. Of course, being first isn’t always a good thing, and with that in mind we have to ask: is Twisted Dreams Neil Armstrong, boldly becoming the first man to put his foot on the moon, or Marie Curie, boldly becoming the first woman to discover radium and subsequently dying after years of exposure to it?
Too soon? Well, that ending sentence may have been tasteless, but Twisted Dreams certainly isn’t. While the plot for Giana Sisters is definitely anemic as far as storytelling goes, what little plot there is features a parallel universe (or parallel dream) which translates into a dual world gameplay mechanic. At the start of the adventure, Giana and her sister Maria seem to be sitting on a bed sending text messages when a mysterious portal opens up and sucks Maria into a dream world. Giana follows behind her, intending to save her sister, and, well, that wraps up the plot summary.
A good platforming game doesn’t need a complex plot, though, and as far as the gameplay goes, Twisted Dreams isn’t just good, it’s fantastic. For a platformer, movement is really the key to a great experience, and in Giana Sisters, the movement feels both smooth and responsive. Platforms never feel as if they ended “too early,” as the jumping is intuitive and easy to pick up. Gaps and platforms aren’t spaced stupidly apart, and you’ll never really feel like you have to get a running jump, lean sideways, and wait until the very last second to press the A button to clear an impossible distance. This is a sign of good level design, as Twisted Dreams focuses more on timing and skill than some of its peers.
This is one area where the dual world gameplay really shines. Giana can control her dreams, transforming herself and the world around her. When she’s “Cute Giana” she can twirl to descend slowly and navigate trickier areas with relative ease – think of the raccoon tail from Mario. When she’s “Punk Giana” she can dash forward in a fireball and bounce off of walls or smash into enemies to knock them out – think of Sonic the Hedgehog’s spin attacks. Both personas can land on an enemy’s head to knock him out Mario style, but Cute Giana definitely has an edge there with her twirling, especially since it allows freedom of movement in the air instead of marrying you to a jump arc. This might jar some players a bit when they discover the presence of a dedicated, uncontrollable jumping arc – in other words, you can’t move back and forth in midair all willy-nilly like Mega Man – but once you adjust to it you won’t even notice it’s there and, as previously mentioned, twirling negates that “disadvantage” entirely.
When Giana changes the dream, the world shifts to change what bridges or doors are open, which kinds of collectibles are able to be picked up, and even enemy behavior. This can lead to some truly engaging moments where you’re riding a platform across a chasm or up a shaft and have to shift between dream worlds to make spikes or other hazards go away or change. Luckily, this is all handled easily with a pull of either of the Xbox 360 controller’s triggers, or by simply using Cute Giana’s twirl or Punk Giana’s dash attack. Since the abilities are mapped to Y and X respectively, using the ability of the other Giana will immediately twist worlds.
Unless, of course, you’re mid-twirl as Cute Giana and need to twist to Punk Giana to avoid a hazard or pick up a collectible gemstone. In the midst of a series of dashes, or while falling gracefully in a twirl, players can switch back and forth without canceling the ability in use. It’s remarkable how much depth this simple mechanic adds to the gameplay, but that isn’t the only trick up Twisted Dream’s sleeve.
Nearly every other level in the game seems to introduce a new gimmick or concept to the gameplay, keeping things fresh and interesting. One level might introduce springboards, another switches or wall jumping. Boss battles are few and far between, but they rely on clever use of world twisting instead of just dodging a few times and bopping a monster on the head.
The gameplay isn’t the only area where Twisted Dreams shines. The art direction for the game is really phenomenal, and took the opportunity that the dual world gameplay offered and ran with it. Both personas look pointedly out of place in their worlds, with Cute Giana’s dream world gothic with demons and skeletons, and Punk Giana’s dream world colorful and cheerful with owls and smiling balloons. The contrast is jarring in a good way, as it makes the player character stand out while simultaneously connecting the two worlds in their disconnectedness and emphasizing the world twisting even when you haven’t switched in a while.
As you twist each world, rather than simply replacing static images with other static images, the active and alive background imagery and gameplay areas morph and change shape before your eyes. Enemies shift and bridges grow together or split apart, switches become active and hazards grow or shrink out of the way. The levels are beautifully designed with some great special effects and some downright awesomely fast paced sections that will have Punk Giana careening around the level like a pinball, and overall there’s a real sense of style and flair unique to the game. Absolutely no one could confuse this game with any other platformer. This isn’t Mario, Rayman, Sonic the Hedgehog, or even Braid. This is an original, brilliantly creative art style that truly shows the hard work and dedication of its development team.
The music also deserves special mention. Like the aesthetic design, it’s absolutely phenomenal, captivating, and downright beautiful. Each level has two different musical tracks, an original score that plays as Cute Giana, and a more metallic score that plays for Punk Giana. What really makes the music stand out is the seamless transition between the two scores during the gameplay. Whenever the world twists, the music changes right along with it and it never misses a beat. It’s an absolutely flawless transition that works with all of the other elements to make the dual world gameplay flow perfectly.
Twisted Dreams has a great way of approaching difficulty, and that’s good, because the game can really show its teeth from time to time. Throughout the level are checkpoint boxes you simply pass by to open, which will be your starting point if you die. There are no lives, or limitations of the number of times you can use the checkpoint like Little Big Planet, making the game painless for platforming newbies or just people adjusting to the way the game plays. At the end of the level, however, you’re awarded stars based on your performance, and the more deaths you have, the lower your score will be. This makes the game instantly accessible without sacrificing challenge, and rewards players like me who grew up on platforming games and demand nothing short of personal perfection.
There are more than 20 levels and multiple games modes outside of just the adventure itself, including a score attack mode (with leaderboards), time attack mode, hardcore mode, and yes, an uber hardcore mode. Players can even find unlockable gallery items to look at concept art, which normally doesn’t impress me, but seeing it in a Kickstarter funded game makes it seem a lot cooler.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is an extremely well made, polished game, its only shortcoming in the form of long loading times for each level. However, when you consider that each level is absolutely enormous, it’s easy to forgive, and even easier to recommend. Twisted Dreams is a wonderful game, and serves not only as one small step for Kickstarter, but as one giant leap for Black Forest Games.
Score 9.5/10 – Review by Jared Brickey