Waking Review

Waking is a difficult game to review, especially when the review is diminished to number scores at the end that people curious about the game often skip to without reading the review narrative. It’s doubly difficult because I’m pretty certain that this game isn’t going to do well on Metacritic or other aggregated review sites. 

I’ve always tried to review a game as a process of everything involved. Even when I’m not reviewing a game, knowing the history, the key players, and any other associations tied to the game’s development connects me to and enhances the experience. I think that all gamers do this to some extent, both positively and negatively. For example, most of us who played Witcher 3 can’t wait to play Cyberpunk 2077, achievement hunters tend to like Ratalaika games, or people gravitated towards Minecraft, Braid, or Axiom Verge because of the one man development teams and their well-publicized journey. I wonder if these solo developer titles would have been as successful if they were made by a team vs a solo developer or if that aspect of the game wasn’t so out front and leading the narrative.

On that note and getting back to the review, Waking was also created by a single person, Jason Oda, an indie developer (among other talents) going back a few decades with a couple of indie hits under his belt. His previous titles reflect intentions to create original games in terms of theme and gameplay, and as he states in one interview, he tries to make one game a year more to promote himself than for the money. As far as I know being a game developer isn’t Oda’s primary occupation. As a consequence he relied a lot on Microsoft’s ID@Xbox funding and on his publisher tinyBuild with help on porting Waking to the Xbox (it’s also on Steam).

Under these circumstances, with Jason Oda what you get is a person with the freedom to pursue a personal vision who’s hampered by the restrictions of resource shortfalls – money, time, singular expertise, etc. With information taken from both the game’s description and from interviews, what Oda was going for was a weighty and meditative experience focused on self-reflection, and was influenced by his own life. It even warns you at the start that it’s a personal experience and that it may trigger unpleasant memories. If this sounds different than most of what’s out there, that’s because it is. Not only is the premise atypical, so is the implementation. The control scheme, story-telling, flow, and gameplay – I almost want to put each of those in “air quotes” – is combined to make something unique.

“Unique” is a weighted word though. By default, unique means one-of-a-kind and different, but in gaming terms, it means risky and unproven, a unicorn or a smeagol. That makes reviewing and scoring Waking difficult. First, it’s hard to convey the experience. Personally, I didn’t find all of it enjoyable. For much of the game I didn’t understand the goal. Over time I eventually understood it to be me in a coma, torn between the light (life) and the dark (death), egged on by an enigmatic humanoid figure with a huge, antlered deer head. This choice between living and dying is played out by visiting short, samey levels and fighting enemies with emotions and memories as weapons (instead of actual “weapons” most players are experienced with). 

Second, combat was unnecessarily convoluted. I’d love to go into detail here, but even if I could convey it correctly, it would still be confusing, not only concept-wise, but also control-wise. You also learn abilities named after emotions which have no direct point of reference to anything that correlates to gameplay. It’s just that different.

Conclusion

Waking has almost convinced me that I’m not very good at reviewing games, because it is so difficult to convey what it’s about and how it plays. I’ve taken more time than I normally would thinking about this game and how I was going to explain and grade it. It’s definitely an unenviable, uncomfortable position that I find myself in because indie developers live or die by reviews. In the end I had to ask myself if I enjoyed playing it and the answer is that it wasn’t exactly fun, but it wasn’t exactly bad either because I got what Jason Oda was trying to do. The reality is though, if a developer creates a game meant to be personable, that’s a hard thing to nail down. It will only impact head-on with a sliver of players, and those on either side will like or dislike to varying degrees.

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This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.
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Good
  • Eye-catching imagery with otherworld depictions of anthropoids, large and nastic toothy plants, and juxtapositional architecture
  • Waking's broody atmosphere was consistent with its central meditative theme
  • Pets. I was able to resurrect my favorite cat Pumpkin and have him fight alongside me. He was actually better at it than I was
Bad
  • Obtuse and unnecessarily complex combat controls, and by extension, the combat itself
  • Requires buy-in by the player in terms of participating in the game's central tenet of self-reflection. Waking doesn't do a good job of keeping the player immersed, and once the spell is broken, the desire to continue investing in Waking wanes
  • Unskippable cutscenes, made particularly grievous when it was required more than once (say, after a death)
5
Average
Gameplay - 4.5
Graphics - 5.5
Audio - 5
Longevity - 5
Written by
I was gaming way before it was cool or accepted, when games were sold in ziplock bags and gaming clues required a letter and a SASE to the actual developer. I’m not saying that like it’s a credential or an odd badge of honor, but as a statement that video games can be fun and engaging independent of graphics, the number of player choices allowed, or game mechanics. I felt the same sense of joy and exhilaration with text-based games of yore as I do playing the most advanced games of today.

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