Waking Review

Coma chameleon.

It often feels like there is nothing new in games anymore. With a release schedule filled with remasters, remakes, sequels and blatant clones, it often feels like you need to five into less celebrated games to find genuinely new ideas. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of all bigger budget titles – I enjoy a glossy setpiece as much as the next player – but I’m always looking out for something that I haven’t seen before.

Waking, a strange hybrid of Souls-esque third person combat and guided meditation, certainly promises to deliver on this front, with the real selling point being a game that becomes specifically tailored to your own identity. The result is certainly interesting, but not without its flaws.

In age old coma narrative tradition, you play as a faceless entity trapped within the unconscious mind of a bed-ridden patient, their mind becoming a space for exploration and conflict, combining memory palace with dungeon. At first, your surroundings are dark and featureless, but the procedurally generated areas begin to take on more character as you progress. They never really become memorable though, an unfortunate result of the reliance on randomness. I appreciate the appeal of this design as a selling point for a game’s longevity, but I will always prefer a carefully and deliberately designed level over a mishmash of parts.

Waking can often look quite bland. There are some interesting enemy designs, but I never really got the weird juxtaposition of bright geometric shapes and animal-headed humans. They genuinely felt and looked like they came from two different genres, let alone different games. The creepy folk horror aspects of the demon-like adversaries are effective and focusing on these may have made for a more cohesive aesthetic choice.

It is the combat in Waking that really let the game down for me. You have no attacks to begin with, and must use a combination of telekinetic abilities and unlocked melee abilities to battle enemies. Flinging trash at enemies using your telekinesis stuns them so that they then drop items which you absorb to add limited charges to your melee or shield abilities. Alongside the sluggish movement, it’s a cumbersome and overly complicated combat system.

Entering a new area generally means beginning with nothing whilst you desperately start a new cycle of building up some powers, but while I understand the metaphorical nature of being powerless, it just didn’t work for me as a game mechanic. Add in a dizzying array of abilities, with fragments, memories, feelings, knowledge, beliefs etc and I was just overwhelmed at first. Even once I got the hang of all of this, the clunky menu system in which you switched between these skills proved a pain in the butt.

The random dungeons provide one of the game’s main obstacles, as some levels are unfairly difficult, presenting you with almost bullet hell openings and no way of fighting back. Getting hit causes you to lose Hope – yet another stat to keep track of – and many boxes are only able to be opened when you have a certain amount. There is also a currency called neurons, which is used to activate the quest objectives and some of your more powerful skills.

Levels contain guardians who protect special items and must be defeated without being hit. However, due to the random setups, I often found items and upgrades locked as soon as I started an area. This becomes doubly annoying as these upgrades make the eventual boss fights noticeably easier, so an unlucky beginning feels like multiple punishments.

There is simply too much crammed into these systems. Perhaps it may have worked if they were introduced slowly or unlocked as you progress. Even having a weak default melee attack to resort to would have made more sense – hell, I would have been fine with it just being able to destroy boxes but having to scrounge around in order to do anything felt like a step too far. Juggling the various different sorts of attack all being mapped to one button is also an unnecessary tricky. Too often fights resulted in dull menu management rather than meaningful action.

It is a shame that so much of this review has been spent pointing out my frustrations with the action part of the game, overshadowing the more innovative aspects. The promised guided meditation is a powerful mechanic that fits in really well after some fun boss fights. Seeing a mysterious angel standing over your bedbound body is a striking image, and the soothing voice that instructs you to close your eyes and remember specific aspects of your past fits in well with the narrative core of fighting against your own mind in a coma. These memories become uniquely reflected in your skills too, as abilities become named after the place you grew up and companions are shaped around the details you give about a first pet or loved one. This tailoring of the mental environment deserves to be explored further, but the clunkiness of the central game continually gets in the way.

Summary
Waking is a fascinating experiment that tries, but ultimately fails, to combine two radically different ideas together. Less would certainly have been more here, as the clunky and overly confusing action parts get in the way of the interesting narrative and psychological aspects. While I was drawn in by the central conceit and the use of meditation, the end result is more likely to leave you in a coma than drag you into the light.
Good
  • Unique combination of styles
  • Some interesting visual design
  • Fascinating idea of moulding the game to your identity
Bad
  • Controls are clunky
  • Combat is confusing
  • Just all a bit dull
5
Written by
Just your average old gamer with a doctorate in Renaissance literature. I can mostly be found playing RPGs, horror games, and oodles of indie titles. Responsible for many reviews and the regular Dr Steve's Game Clinic. Just don't ask me to play a driving game.