by Dr Marker
Waking is an interesting hybrid of puzzle game, Souls style character action and character study narrative that, in all honesty, left me with a lot to think about and definitely wanting to dive deeper into it even after the writing of this review.
In Waking you play as…..well….you! You are on your death bed from unspecified causes and being called upon by mysterious and ominous figures to reflect upon your life and the memories you have of it, the things that drive you, your passions, your struggles, the places you’ve been, the people you knew in order to either come to terms with death and pass peacefully to the other side or to perhaps chase the promise of overcoming your situation and postponing the inevitable clutch of death for just a bit longer.
These themes of memories and reflection lead us to the first major thing Waking does to differentiate itself from other action titles, your various powers, abilities and items are not physical items or skills innate to your character but metaphysical representations of your beliefs, memories and emotions, tying the combat into the central theme of find peace and satisfaction in one’s life, now while this initially really drew me in as a very creative framing device that left me pondering things about myself for a lot longer than I’m comfortable admitting, reflection on this after putting the controller down did leave me with a bit of a realization similar to when I played the Stanley Parable (notably because it falls into a similar trap), all of the introspection and appeal to emotions and memories is ultimately very divorced from the game itself and, if I’m being brutal about it, amounts to taking a bunch of generic, pre-set abilities and slapping stickers with the names of your parents, pets and school friends on them, something that can very easily kneecap the replayability of Waking as the moment the artifice becomes apparent, a lot of the magic these moments of retrospection carry will be completely lost.
To give an example, early on you are asked to close your eyes and to recall a childhood pet, ideally a cat or a dog. I did all this, I won’t lie, recalling the dog I grew up with did fill me with a lot of emotions, I remember laughing because he looked funny with his fur shaved short in the summer, how comforting it would be to see him eagerly waiting for me when I’d wake up in the morning or come home from school, and how it still, admittedly, brings me to tears to remember the day when I had to say my final goodbyes to him and allowing him to pass on.
Seeing a little ghostly apparition that resembled him with his name running towards me was a powerful moment…that admittedly was somewhat cheapened when it dawned upon me that that same scene would have played out even if I’d just picked answers randomly and decided that I actually had a random cat rather than a dog and named it Jabberwocky just to be random, at this point, it is fair to ask whether the game can really take credit for the impact of the scene when it was entirely down to my own recollections as opposed to anything actually written, created or composed by the developers?
Similar to the likes of the Tell-Tale adventure games, this is a title which requires a degree of co-operation and willingness to roleplay and get immersed, for people who prefer a more mechanically focused approach to games the majority of this game will come off as so much meaningless fluff and navel-gazing that can if you’re being cynical, seem a bit pompous and pretentious while those who love to dissect and analyse a game (notably those who love pouring over the lore from Souls games) will find the paper-thin allusion to the importance of your inputs to be either something that ends up being more interesting in regards to game design and writing techniques at best or comical and lazy at worst.
Now, this reliance on player inputted prompts and information does lead me to an aside where I do express a bit of concern and caution, namely in regards to the subject of data protection and player safety. At numerous intervals in this game, you’re asked to provide answers to what can be some rather personal questions (such as your real name, the town you were born in, your height among others) in order to customize the abilities and items you’re given, the game does state that this data is not used or stored anywhere outside of your save game but all the same I would express caution that if data is stored it can naturally be accessed and while I’m sure the developers of Waking have no malicious intent with any of the information they could collect in this manner it is still something worth always keeping in mind (especially for people out there who are very sensitive about things like data security and privacy).
I’ve not talked much about the combat or mechanics of Waking and, in all honesty, there’s not an awful lot to say, they are functional and while lacking polish in some areas, enabled me to enjoy my progress enough to keep pressing forward from set-piece to set-piece. Some of the ambushes that enemies can set up do feel a bit unforgiving at times (especially with the ‘fear’ system making enemies and bosses harder for every hit you take, potentially turning into an infinite downward spiral where failure turns into more failure)
I found that Waking is generous enough with the resources and items it places at your disposal to allow for reasonably steady progress with tutorials that are thorough enough to ensure that from a very early point you’re generally well versed and prepared enough to be able to intelligently approach most situations confidently, with the rewards for amassing hope (a resource earned by defeating enemies without taking damage) encourages high skill play, emboldening the player and encouraging them to explore the maps even beyond the completion of objectives.
Visually Waking goes for a very ethereal and outlandish style, featuring very abstract landmasses and architecture and lighting that help sell an uncanny, dream-like atmosphere the game is hoping to achieve, some level geometry caused issues with navigation (with occasional random pitfalls in the first open-world area) but overall it resulted in a world that was both aesthetically pleasing, set a very enthralling tone and was also clear and easy to read on a mechanical level, resulting in few instances of getting lost of going in circles and wondering where I was supposed to go next.
Overall, Waking is a very interesting game that can be very rewarding and fascinating for those with the correct mindset, however, if you were to take those elements away you’re still left with a reasonably competent puzzle/action title with a very unique look and feel.