Arise: A Simple Story Review

From time to time a game will land in my lap that genuinely surprises me. Whether it’s plunging hidden depths, encountering unexpected twists along the road or simply smiling at the sudden elevation of expectations, it is always to be savoured.

Welcome to Arise: A Simple Story, a game that simply floored me.

Arise: A Simple Story marks the debut excursion into the video game landscape for Piccolo Studio and my only real concern for them is that they’ve peaked too early and pushed the bar so high for themselves it will take gargantuan effort to replicate the utter joy I personally experienced playing their game. Hats off to them, as Arise is a little bit special.

Let us go on a journey…

The game opens with a ceremony to mark our passing into the realm of the dead. It is a brief affair culminating in the lighting of the funeral pyre before we take control of our grizzled, long white-bearded protagonist in a place somewhere between life and death, between earth and heaven – or maybe, based upon his looks and impressive bearskin cloak, Valhalla.

Within moments control is ours, no long-narrated introduction to the story, no overblown cut-scenes to contend with while frantically mashing in search of a skip option. Instead, we begin our journey in a simple one foot in front of the other method with an open mind and burgeoning curiosity. Moments later, I was drenched in wonderful awe at what began to unfold.

The heart that beats at the centre of Arise: A Simple Story plays to the rhythms of life. It allows us to follow one man’s personal journey through his own moments of love and loss, riding waves of hope, moving on the tides of joy and despair as the ticking clock carries him from birth to death, and beyond. It is quite honestly one of the most beautifully understated yet emotional experiences I’ve experienced in over three decades as someone with a taste for playing games. And as I write that I still question whether my words can do justice to this magical little game?

Before I return to the impact of playing, let me first go over a few of the nuts and bolts that power the engine. Arise: A Simple Story is a puzzle-platformer with a hefty dose of great ideas. Whilst there are plenty of opportunities to leap from platforms, swing on ropes and clamber up walls in that classic style video games do so well, as players, we also have some serious power to wield. In Arise the key to traversing the many flavoured lands comes from some good old-fashioned manipulation of time and space. Each level allows players to shift time forwards or backwards and in doing so affect the area around them. This power will open up potential routes forward or stave off the threat of the shadowy bright-eyed creatures that stalk us on our path – more on them in a moment.

The ability to shift time is brilliantly done. In some levels it will see the earth itself move as mountains rumble and fall, in others it is the changing seasons as snow melts and falls at the will of our hero, or perhaps we prefer the shifting of light and dark as shadows spill then retreat across the screen, or so many other fantastic variations on the theme. The power never gets old as each level holds a new way it will react with the environment.

Back for a moment to the shadowy things that stalk us. Along the journey we occasionally come across hordes of these slow-moving yet dedicated creatures, intent on making us one of them. I imagine they are the souls of previous departed who failed to find the path to their own personal harp and a seat on the clouds, but whatever their actual role, they are wonderfully creepy. Pleasingly, they can be rendered invisible and ineffective by light and offer a very nice element of threat and careful planning to the whole experience. I hated them, but loved them too, if you know what I mean?

Each level in Arise: A Simple Story opens a chapter in our hero’s life. I keep using the word hero, but our man isn’t really the traditional heroic type. Instead, we have someone trying to travel the many twisting lanes of life in as best a way as he can. Pretty much like we all do in our own lives. His story holds many of the tropes of a life well-lived; love, separation, hope, solace, death, grief, family, the stuff that fuels us, puts fire in our bellies and at times threatens to unravel us too. What really struck a chord with me was how each level perfectly captured the emotion it was trying to purvey. This sees players leaping across a field of oversized flowers and dancing across the moonlit air one moment, then clamouring for air against the acrid smoke lost in the dark of claustrophobic tangled vines the next. And so much more in-between. One particular favourite of mine comes later in the game and saw me crossing a wintery landscape constantly seeking the next heat source as the cold threatened to end my journey prematurely. Having said that, it was a level among other magnificent levels. There are no weak chapters in the story of our man’s life.

Visually, Arise: A Simple Story is stunning. Levels feel like living, breathing places. The use of light is utterly astounding in its beauty. The attention to detail as our hero walks through different depths of snowfall, the way light and dark are used to such impressive effect, or how imagination has run wild and delivered sights to behold throughout the entire game should be shouted and celebrated from the highest rooftops. And yet, despite so many impressive views, the whole thing is delivered with such a gentle, welcoming palette that never has eyes straining – even my old, tired ones.

The music treads a path between a gentle summer’s day and a roaring winter’s storm perfectly, always finding the right notes for the occasion. At times perfectly heart-rending and understated, at others raising us up on the wings of overblown orchestral magnificence, this is a soundtrack to get lost in. On the flip-side the actual spoken words in the game number one; one solitary word that, in context, is one of the most powerful words I’ve yet encountered in a game. The word is simply, arise, and when it lands it does so with the power of a heavyweight.

But, there must be some faults with the game, surely? And, true to the belief that nothing is ever perfect, Arise: A Simple Story did leave me with a couple of niggles to discuss. The first, and most prominent from my time with the game, is one of control. At times I found the controls a little fiddly. It didn’t happen too often and may be in some part down to the isometric viewpoint, but there were moments making that jump, or walking along the narrow path saw my character plummet to a second, and more untimely death. It proved a mild frustration now and then but happened enough that it was worth a mention here (However, it may be just as much down to my own failing ability as a player). My only other minor gripe was that in a couple of levels I became lost. The route forward having become less than obvious, I did at one point have to hit the internet for a way to progress. I only needed help from the web once but again it was worth a mention (Also, see above brackets for a possible reasons for this).

The game can be played through to completion of the story in around three to four hours or so, but there are collectable memories to be found that will see you returning if you have to scratch that completist itch. Besides that, the game is so good I see myself paying, fairly frequent visits just to relive some of the magic.

All in all, Arise: A Simple Story is a stunning debut. So, where are we?

Conclusion

What we have here is a game that is life-affirming, heart-breaking and utterly wonderful. Arise: A Simple Story does exactly what it sets out to, it tells us a simple story. It is the one we can all relate to, it is a tale about life. Where some games hit heights of gameplay or emotion as their main selling point, Arise finds a rich middle ground where it scales the dizzying heights of both. It holds just one solitary word, yet is deafeningly beautiful. The manipulation of time and space works like a dream, the soundtrack and effects are truly brilliant and the visuals are sumptuous throughout.

Despite very slight niggles over control and getting myself lost, the reality is that Piccolo Studio have delivered an incredible debut full of rich storytelling, tear-filled beauty and unforgettable moments. Their own attention to detail and the obvious love they have poured into this game lift it far beyond the heavens their hero seeks. Whether a debut outing or otherwise, the game is outstanding. They may have also just delivered my game of the year.

This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.
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Good
  • Clever use of time manipulation
  • Emotional, rewarding and rich storytelling
  • Fantastic looks
  • Incredible attention to detail shines from every corner
Bad
  • Moments of twitchy controls
  • Potential to completely lose my way
8.6
Great
Gameplay - 9
Graphics - 10
Audio - 8.5
Longevity - 7
Written by
Double-jumping, coin-collecting, joystick-twiddling, medic-calling, lag-blaming, jump-scare-screaming, video game devotee. Old enough to remember the Vic 20. Enjoys long walks through Skyrim, long waits to respawn and propping up leaderboards.

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