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Indie Game of the Week 271: Alwa's Legacy

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I occasionally use this self-inflicted weekly writing exercise as an excuse to find and chronicle a game that sits a little outside of my comfort zone, perhaps one that offers a distinct gameplay model or takes on an underutilized thematic genre. Conversely, I might spend a whole month playing ancient Mega Drive RPGs and want something that's absolutely inside my comfort zone that I can curl up with like a bug that is snug in a rug. Hence, we're back in explormer county with Alwa's Legacy, a 2020 sequel to previous IGotW entry Alwa's Awakening (IGotW #48) which very much got lost in the shuffle releasing as it did in the overly-busy year of 2017.

Alwa's storyline concerns a courageous young witch named Zoe who finds herself at odds with some dangerous customers as she explores her world, eventually leading to a final confrontation that sends her hurtling through dimensions (or possibly time) to a new and mysterious land where she collapses at the entrance to a mighty fortress before the credits roll. The game represents this switch in venue as moving from the 8-bit visuals of Zoe's original homeland to the 16-bit visuals of this strange new world, which is where Alwa's Legacy immediately picks up the baton.

The game is filled with NPCs to talk to, which also gives the world a little more liveliness. I say that, but there sure are a lot of undead wandering around.
The game is filled with NPCs to talk to, which also gives the world a little more liveliness. I say that, but there sure are a lot of undead wandering around.

The deal with the Alwa games is that you acquire and use magic spells to make progress, filling in for the Chozo tech of Metroid or the conspicuously-placed orbs of vampiric might found throughout Castlevania. In Alwa's Legacy you get all three of the basic spells almost from the get-go: a green block that can be used to push down switches or reach higher platforms; a blue bubble that does an even better job of the latter; and a lightning bolt that works well against enemies and can burn down wooden barricades. Each can be upgraded further by finding blue orbs, the game's most populous collectible, with the first few upgrades of each only improving their combat efficiency but eventually expanding their traversal potential and opening up some avenues for sequence-breaking: since you can spend collectibles on any of the three spells in any order, you might choose to mainline one skill tree (the bubble's tree, for instance) and use its fully upgraded state to help collect the remaining orbs needed to unlock the rest. The game also has green tear gems that can turn any save point into a warp point - it's down to the player's discretion which save points they refashion first, though I should make it clear that even after the transformation these points can still save the game too - and red rose petals that can be exchanged for extra health.

Alwa's Legacy is keen to keep itself a little open: while, strictly speaking, there's a linear order to its four dungeons each with specific puzzles and bosses to overcome, after the first is conquered the game lets the player wander around and figure out the rest of this order themselves. It might mean exploring until they come across a necessary upgrade or key item and poking at the boundaries of regions that can't yet be investigated more thoroughly or has a big ol' obstacle they can't move past, until they find their way to an accessible new location and the dungeon that lies beyond. To ameliorate the amount of confused roving back and forth involved, if so desired, there are NPCs that drop hints about where to go next or where vital treasures might be found; the game's accessibility options, too, include an option to highlight every important item on the map whether they've visited that part of the world or not. This doesn't include collectibles like the orbs or tears, but covers everything you might need to progress the game if you're stuck. Where optional collectibles are concerned, the game helpfully gives you a completion percentage for each of the game's regions: this includes map coverage along with collectibles found, as far as I can tell.

This is probably about two-thirds of the whole map? So... pretty lengthy. Green flames are save points while the winged ones are warp points: I'm not yet sure if there's enough tears to transform them all, but it seems like you should be fine if you space them out a bit.
This is probably about two-thirds of the whole map? So... pretty lengthy. Green flames are save points while the winged ones are warp points: I'm not yet sure if there's enough tears to transform them all, but it seems like you should be fine if you space them out a bit.

The chief strength of Alwa's Legacy is evident almost as soon as you boot it up: it's a gorgeous-looking game, taking what were some impressively detailed 16-bit-inspired visuals to hammer home Alwa's Awakening's big end-game twist of Zoe finding herself in a lush "advanced" world and managing to maintain that high pixel art quality throughout. The music offers a decent selection of chiptune bops, though nothing that stands out particularly, and the interface and map are as intuitive as they need to be without necessarily being so transparent that they reveal too many secrets ahead of time. The gameplay is only a little weaker in comparison; while Zoe controls well and the spells have clear limitations to their utility that are evident enough to grasp and factor into your exploration, there's some annoying enemy hit detection that seems a bit too generous on their behalf and there are some enemy projectiles (and bosses in particular) that tend to move incredibly quick. The latter might be a result of how each screen feels enormous: the detailed sprites of Zoe, NPCs, and enemies occupy a very small percentage of screen real estate, in part to create hard limitations on how far across the screen your jumps and spells can get you to minimize sequence breaking - a horizontal gap that covers almost the whole screen is not something you'll be leaping over any time soon. Thus, many projectiles zip across the screen almost faster than the eye can see because if they were any slower they'd be too easy to anticipate and dodge. It's not a dealbreaker by any stretch, but this game will regularly test your reflexes like few others of its kind; something makes the early game particularly challenging as you only have the three HP to start with (though, again, there's an accessibility option to help out if you're struggling). Outside of combat, though, the game's platforming is far more palatable and rewarding due to how often you'll be using your spells to get ahead: switching between the block and the bubble for longer and higher jumps becomes second-nature in no time, and every important upgrade to either makes a meaningful difference to how you'll approach the game's many platforming challenges.

I remarked back in 2017 that Alwa's Awakening felt like a very competent game made by fans of the format who evidently knew what they were doing, opting to inject a bit of the older NES puzzle-platformer format seen in games like Solomon's Key where summoned blocks doubled as both useful tools for combat and traversal alike. Beyond those positives, however, the game didn't feel like it was all that interested in pushing the envelope and finding some new edge that a legion of similar Indie explormers hadn't already mined for themselves. Alwa's Legacy has the same sort of insouciance to the genre's continued evolution; it's more about making the best explormer that they can rather than one that can blaze a new trail for the format. A perfectly reasonable approach, especially with the high quality production values presented here, but one I feel might not work for a third Alwa game in a row. You eventually run into the Shantae or IGAvania problem where an ongoing lack of originality can slowly sap player retention, and that's doubly ruinous in a packed marketplace where so many rival Indie explormers are jostling for attention. Alwa's Legacy is certainly one of the better-looking explormers I've covered on here, but I'm going to struggle to remember much about it once it's over.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Post-Playthrough Edit: In retrospect I may have been a little harsh with the "lack of ingenuity" angle as some of the dungeons had some pretty interesting gimmicks. You have the requisite water-level-changing dungeon (which probably did my impression of the game more harm than good, honestly) but also one where you switched between time eras - which offered different obstacles depending on the period, overgrown vines for the present and active laser barriers for the past - and another with alternating gravity. All been done before, of course, but the variety was welcome. I'd put Alwa's Legacy in the same tier as something like a Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom: visually stunning, quite substantial in size, a bit more on the challenging side, and only a few mild annoyances to bring it down a skosh.

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