- Good visual style
- Effective use of level design to tell the story
- David Garcia's sweeping score highlights several sequences
- Manipulating time is fun
- Co-op mode is a simple, yet intriguing way to play
- Imprecise controls make platforming frustrating
- The story isn't rich enough to support the emotional journey
- The main character has little personality
- An older-style checkpoint system ruins the pacing
- Uncharted-esque climbing mechanics feel out of place
Arise has good ideas and executes some of them in interesting ways. However, it can't get out of its own way to provide the emotional experience it's aiming for. If you want to play it all, try the co-op mode.
MAKE ME FEEL
In a sea of games looking to consume your time, Arise: A Simple Story has two components that help it stand out. One is its time manipulation mechanic, which allows players to alter the world around them as they proceed through levels. The other is the occasional moment when its attempts to connect with the player through emotions actually works. These two components are proof that Piccolo, the new studio behind the game, has talent and room to grow as they chase further projects, but they’re not enough to make this game all it could be.
Arise is an interesting mix between a platformer and an adventure game. It tells the story of a dead, nameless man who relives his life one stage at a time. Literally – each level reflects his general mood and stage of life through a mix of environmental storytelling, weather effects, and more, while single-frame illustrations surface his memories to the audience. Most of the challenge comes from puzzles that utilize time manipulation in different ways. Sometimes, this means jumping on a rock as it falls and reversing time to get to a higher platform, and other times it means freezing time to let a lightning strike illuminate the level. There are few enemies and, thankfully, few opportunities to get lost.
However, whether the gameplay is the true focus is hard to say. Arise seems like an experiential game from the outset, or one that’s more focused on affecting the player in a certain way than caring about deep gameplay systems. For a game like this to work, what gameplay there is has to feel so natural and intuitive, that it’s practically invisible. Arise never feels invisible. It constantly battles with the player, forcing them to deal with annoyances of all kinds, getting in the way of whatever emotions they’re supposed to feel.
One of the biggest problems is the camera. It stays away from the main character, giving a bird’s eye view reminiscent of 16-bit RPGs, while also swooping in for one of the many side-scrolling segments. In a 3D platformer, having the camera so far from the main character can be used to show off gorgeous backgrounds, which this game has in spades, but it doesn’t help when it comes to precision jumps. I died numerous times because the character was aimed slightly the wrong way and fell into a pit, or dropped to a lower platform and died anyway because of one-hit kill fall damage.
On their own, these two problems might work out if the checkpoint system was generous. Letting players instantly respawn, or rewind time to take a jump over would be ways for Arise to impose challenge without being overbearing. Yet, Arise doesn’t do this. It chooses to start players over at the beginning of a puzzle and asks them to try again. Bogging players down like this in a game suggests that more attention should be plaid to the gameplay, but it’s just not solid enough to stand on its own. The camera, fall damage, and checkpoints are all aggravating details that masquerade as a challenge.
If the gameplay really isn’t the point then, and just a means for players to move through the environment to experience the larger story, then the story should justify this approach. The thing is, Arise‘s story feels like an emotional husk. It has some interesting ideas, but the story of this man, who lives in a kind of vague, Viking culture, is as simple as can be. He’s a loner child. He falls in love. He doesn’t get the girl right away, but eventually gets married. He suffers lots of loss later in life before finding peace in old age. These beats are told through illustrations and gestures, but there’s no focus on making any of it relatable on a personal level. Instead, the game externalizes all of these emotions through the way the player interacts with the game.
A strong wind carries the main character along when he’s in love. When he’s uncertain and anxious, dark figures creep in to fill him with darkness until he dies. His world is ashen when he’s at his lowest point. These scenes sound like they have great potential to connect with the audience, but my problem is that these emotions are rarely reflected in the main character himself. There’s one point, when the character is so distraught at the beginning of the level that moving the left stick causes him to fall over and cry, and I genuinely felt for him. It’s one of the few times I felt a sense of personality from the man and I wish there was more of it.
There’s a context that’s missing. Imagine if someone you loved were to create a fantasy world of the things they loved and invited you to visit it. Except, instead of running around and showing you what’s most important to them, they just shrug and say, “yeah, that’s pretty cool.” That’s what Arise is. It offers the opportunity to explore the rich interior life of a character, but makes that character devoid of personality. He doesn’t even have a name. All the game can do is give you the stages of his life like bullet points and try to make you feel a certain way about them. Meanwhile, the subject himself is only chiming in every blue moon, like a ghostwriter pulling teeth from a disinterested celebrity to get something more interesting for their autobiography than “I was pretty bummed when my wife died.”
The appearance of sad events don’t automatically make the audience sad. Context and character are needed to fill in the blanks. Without them, Arise is a story-driven game without much of a story. It’s also a platformer with imprecise controls and an unhelpful camera. The best way to play it is likely through its co-op mode, where the duties of controlling the character and manipulating time are split between two people. This way, players can focus on specific tasks and helping each other while ignoring the whys and hows of what they’re doing. The less they think about it, the better.
I don’t think Arise is bad. Not by a long shot. David Garcia’s (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice) soundtrack swells like an old-fasioned romantic drama, and the visual style has a lot of flair. I also like the idea of exploring a person’s life as the topic of a game, and the way it integrates time manipulation feels natural. However, the story needs to be more specific and focused on its main character, while the gameplay needs to be tightened and made simpler to serve the story. It’s a good way for Piccolo Studio to make a statement about who they are, but I hope their follow up improves on these ideas so we can see what they’re really about.
Platform: PS4 | Publisher: Techland Publishing | Developer: Piccolo Studio
Release Date: 12/3/19 | Rating: E for Everyone
This review was conducted on a PS4 Pro using a digital download I bought on the Playstation Network. It’s also available on Xbox One and PC. If you’d like to contact me, you can leave a comment below or email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios(dot)com. I also have a Twitter!