Phoenotopia: Awakening Review

After playing for a few hours I realized that developer Cape Cosmic’s Phoenotopia: Awakening is exactly the type of game I like to play in my free time. It has a huge world with many locations you can explore. Each area opens up even more as you gain new weapons and abilities. There are a bunch of side activities, ranging from fishing and cooking to joining a treasure hunting club. It took me just as long to realize that this is not the type of game I like to play to review – there’s tons of stuff to do, to the point that you just get completely wrapped up in the game and spend hours and hours talking to characters to learn their stories and the lore of the land, as well as thoroughly exploring each area, looking for hidden items and encounters and trying to complete every side quest. Eventually, I realized I had to buckle down, ignore my typical gaming urges, and focus on the main plotline so I could actually write the review.

At its core, Phoenotopia: Awakening is a 2D action-adventure game with a splendid pixel art aesthetic, and as a whole, it is much more elaborate than a simple side-scrolling action platformer. It was originally created as a flash game which was released in 2014 and simply titled Phoenotopia. The extensive scope and scale of the game made more sense after learning that this game has been in the making for over six years. 

Phoenotopia: Awakening takes place in the nation of Castella, and begins in the small village of Pansela, the home of the main character Gail. The game starts with a short cutscene featuring beautifully drawn images and accompanying text that explains that long ago the Great War destroyed a once-great civilization and that only a fraction of the population survived by hiding underground. The current inhabitants of the land are descendants of those survivors. The setting is a combination of fantasy and sci-fi. Much of the early game has more of a fantasy sort of feel. It seems like the majority of the population gets by without any extra technology, but there are a few scientist-type characters and their houses are packed with tech. Eventually, you learn that the Peace Ministers have set limits on the use of technology and travel around enforcing this law.  As you play you’ll begin to stumble across more sci-fi type settings, like a hidden, underground monorail system, buildings with what looks like teleportation equipment, and a ruined city filled with rusty but deadly robots.

The game features a fair amount of quests, and unfortunately, there is no quest tab menu to help you keep track of them. Right at the start, Gail is tasked with rounding up all the other children for dinner. When you leave the village you’ll get your first taste of the overworld map and how it functions.. The majority of the game is in 2D side view, but the overworld map is top-down and zoomed out – Gail’s sprite is only a fraction of the regular size. You can move freely around the overworld map and look for new locations to enter. Most of them are easy to notice, like a house or a cave, but some are less obvious. Overall this setup reminded me a bit of classic JRPG’s, but perhaps the game it has the most in common with is Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. After you take a few steps in the overworld, small black enemy sprites will start spawning. They move up, down, left, and right, at a quick yet random pace; however, they usually aren’t particularly hard to avoid. Eventually, a red bat-like sprite spawns and homes in on you. If you touch any of these enemies you enter a battle encounter, which places you in the middle of a six or seven screen wide area where you can face off against a few monsters or you can book it to the left or right to exit the area. The system is essentially the same as the one featured in the aforementioned Zelda 2. It’s a neat idea, but it gets kind of old quickly. Luckily when you first appear on the map after exiting a location it takes a few seconds for the enemies to start spawning, so if the screen is overrun with monsters you can pop in somewhere, pop back out, and then continue on your way. One aspect of this feature that I thought was pretty cool is how the art and setting of the encounter area will match up with whatever tile you were standing on in the overworld. 

Having enemy encounters like this is a good way to add tension to the overworld traversal portion of the game, and I experienced a unique feeling that I used to get while playing some of those classic JRPG’s like the Final Fantasy series. While exploring the overworld map in those games, anytime I saw a city I would race towards it, and once I was safe inside a feeling of relief would wash over me. I would then explore every nook and cranny of that city, making the most of my time away from the dreaded RNG enemies. Luckily you can see the enemies in Phoenotopia, so it’s not quite as bad, but I felt that same wave of relief in each town. It also helped that most of the towns are pretty big, with dozens of buildings to enter, even more townsfolk to talk to, and plenty of secrets to discover. The insides of many of the buildings are also more intricate than I expected; most have extra rooms in the background and foreground that can be entered.

After setting off to find the children, Gail is sort of funneled to the first dungeon area in the game, a forest with an ancient temple in the middle of it. The children like to play there, and you are given your first sub-weapon by one of them – a Slingshot. This is the first traversal expanding tool, as it allows you to hit switches that you couldn’t reach with a whack with your club. I was somewhat surprised at the complexity of the first dungeon area, it doesn’t help that you don’t have a map (you never get one), but the area does a good job of setting up the basic mechanics and gameplay loops: Exploration, Combat, and Puzzles. Once you emerge from the dungeon victorious, Gail and the rest of the children have a clear view of their hometown, Panselo, but as you look down on it a strange flying craft comes down out of the sky and shines a light onto the village. An unsettling feeling washes over the group and they hurry home, only to find that everyone in the town is gone! Gail is chosen to go out and try to find out what happened to the villagers; this is the start of the game’s main storyline and the goal for much of the game. Typing it out just now makes it sound pretty simple, but the writers do a great job adding tons of details and fantastic dialogue – the game is packed with humor. I can’t remember the last game that made me chuckle to myself this often. A strange aspect of the story is that there is no primary antagonist, which feels kind of odd. Eventually, you learn what happened to the townsfolk, and you have an enemy in mind, but for most of the game there isn’t a “Big Bad”, despite this I think the story and writing as a whole are very well done and kept me engaged.

I think it’s time for me to mention the game’s biggest flaws. I thought about leading with this, but I have been enjoying the game a lot and didn’t want to scare anyone off. In general, the controls are pretty complex and take a while to get used to. There are a lot of special moves Gail can do right from the start. There are the basics like running, crawling, and rolling. The harder stuff includes a running long jump where if you press the run button as you land you can continue running. When falling from a significant enough height you can press the run button right before landing to go into a roll to keep your momentum up; similarly, when you get hit by a heavy attack and are knocked in the air if you press the crawl button right before hitting the ground you will land gracefully otherwise you will bounce a few times. There’s actually a free-running enthusiast that will give you a reward if you can complete his course, letting you put all these moves to the test.

The biggest aspect that initially put me off to the game is the sub-par melee combat. Gail is equipped with a club, and I think she could win an award for the smallest swing arc in gaming, it’s pathetic. Honestly, it’s actually reminiscent of Link’s puny sword stab in Zelda 2, so maybe they were just borrowing another element from that game. The combat in this game can be tough, especially before you expand your secondary weapon arsenal. You have to get right up next to the enemies to make contact. Fortunately, most enemies don’t damage you on contact, they have to be doing an attack animation. You have a stamina bar that depletes with each swing, and consecutive swings do less damage. To make things even harder the developers implemented a real-time healing system where you have to wait to eat your food for it to heal you. There are at least fifty food items and they all have various “time to eat” values, ranging from a second all the way up to five or six. This can make combat very tricky as you have to wait for an opening to have time to scarf down your meal. I read that the developers took inspiration from Dark Souls for this, as it takes a few seconds to glug down a charge of your Estus flask when you use it. It’s an interesting concept but makes the game very tough. Luckily you can avoid a lot of battles by being nimble and running past the enemies. There are a fair amount of walled-off encounters where you have to defeat all the enemies to advance and they can be tough early on. The bosses are another element that cranks the difficulty way up; although most of them are well designed and have weaknesses built into their move sets.

The developers listened to player feedback and implemented a few accessibility settings. There’s one that lets you eat food from the menu screen, one that increases stamina recharge, another that makes it so regular attacks don’t deplete your stamina, and also one that makes it so subsequent attacks do the same amount of damage. There are a few other ones as well that make fishing and cooking easier. After playing the game for a bit I ended up turning all of them on (except the cooking assist, I guess that’s my forte) and I started to enjoy the game much more; it doesn’t make the game easy by any means – there’s no god mode – they just make the game more manageable. I value my time when playing games; many aspects of Phoenotopia seem extremely well crafted but the basic combat is not, and I don’t want to bang my head against the wall if it isn’t necessary. Also, there are some sub-weapons that make the combat much easier and more enjoyable such as the spear, crossbow, and bomb. Later on you can upgrade some of your items and they become even more powerful, like the Sonic Spear, which is essentially a bomb spear (heck yeah!). There are also a large number of heart rubies (50+) that you can find which will increase your health by four with each one you find. Plus there are 30+ energy gems that increase your stamina. Finding a lot of these will certainly make things easier for you.

The art style in Phoenotopia: Awakening is superb. It reminds me of a higher-end SNES title, or perhaps an evolved version of one of those games where everything is a little more detailed. The game definitely has its own unique aesthetic. The environments all look fantastic with tons of detail for a pixel art game. All of the outdoor areas have multiple layers of parallax scrolling which always gives games that extra oomph in the art department. Some of the characters could use a little more detail, Gail’s hair not having any shading is the biggest example. One aspect of the graphical design that really stood out was the simplicity of the user interface. A lot of the sub-weapons/tools have their own unique interface that pops on screen when using them (cooking, fishing, flute) but they were all easy to figure out. If you’re having trouble with any of them there are a number of NPC’s that can give you advice and tips, which I thought was a cool way to teach the player the mechanics.

The sound design in the game is top-notch. There is a fantastic variety in the music, from happy upbeat tunes to melancholic, sombre tracks. I don’t think I could pick a favorite one because so many of them are great, but I really like the electronic, ominous music that started playing near the end of EDEN, a futuristic-looking area.. The sound effects also stand out and help immerse you into the game. Gail makes distinctly different sounds when walking and running and I lost count of how many different surfaces there are, all with what sounds like their own specific audio effect. At one point I found a secret entrance because that portion of the ground made a hollow noise as I ran over it. The enemies make a lot of interesting noises as well, I think my favorite is the spear knights who yell loudly every time they charge at you. One more aspect that the game borrowed from the Zelda series is giving the main character the ability to use a musical instrument. In this case it’s a simple flute, and just like in Zelda you can learn songs that will open up new areas. There are also dozens of one-off songs that you can decipher to open up secret rooms. It’s been a long time since I felt the need to bust out a pad of paper and a pen to take notes, but doing so in this game will help you out immensely.

Conclusion

Despite the slow start and the weak melee combat, I will go out of my way to recommend Phoenotopia: Awakening. The developers went above and beyond building a captivating world that will suck you in. There are funny characters, interesting locations, unique puzzles, and satisfying platforming. What are you waiting for? Grab your fishing rod, frying pan, bomb sack, spear, and dust off your flute, and prepare for an adventure.

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This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Huge world to explore with lots of interesting locations
  • So many things to do: Quests, fishing, cooking, cat petting
  • Writing is great, especially the dialogue (over a hundred characters to talk to)
  • Level design makes exploring fun, puzzle design is clever with lots of variety
Bad
  • Melee combat is not fun, feels clunky
  • Achievement list feels uninspired - too many cumulative achievements
  • NO minimap or menu map, and no quest log
8.5
Great
Gameplay - 7.6
Graphics - 8.5
Audio - 9.5
Longevity - 8.5
Written by
I started my gaming odyssey playing 8-bit console and arcade games. My first Xbox was the 360 and I immediately fell in love with achievement hunting and the overall ecosystem. That love was cemented with my purchase of an Xbox One. I play a bit of everything, but I usually end up playing fast paced games that remind me of my days spent in dark, smoky arcades spending quarter after quarter, telling myself "one more try!". Gamertag: Morbid237.

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