For a game billing itself as a retro platformer, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams almost seems to go out of its way to break the mold that has formed out of such a rapidly populating genre. Shunning away from its restrictively minimalistic, outrageously challenging and graphically simplistic peers, it preserves and refines the classic platformer gameplay while giving it a modern facelift. Giana Sisters is one of the most visually impressive games the genre has ever seen, but it’s when you combined its looks with how well it plays that it becomes something really special.
Although I wouldn’t call minimalistic, Giana Sisters is certainly a pure platformer. The difference between the two which I feel is important to define, is that the former is intentionally designed to be basic to the largest degree possible, while the later takes the fundamental gameplay of the genre and doesn’t add extra systems or mechanics because it doesn’t need to be fun. This is one of Giana Sisters biggest strengths and one of the reason it feels like a classic platformer from the 8 and 16-bit days but with all the benefits of current technology, and not simply a game designed to emulate the era.
The one additional mechanic to the typical running, jumping and dodging of any platformer is the world switching of the two sisters. With the press of a button you can shift between them, going from the lighthearted and colorful environment of the first to the hellish nightmare of the second. Both the music and graphics drastically change between the two, an effect that is incredibly cool to witness, but alternating between worlds also plays into the gameplay with certain platformers and machines only appearing and functioning in one or the other, as well as certain objects reversing direction or their entire physical property. It sounds more complicated than it actually is and takes only moments to grasp when you see it in action, but is used intelligently in conjuncture with the other obstacles in the game to test your skills and reflexes without resulting to cheap level designs or traps.
I should probably point out that yes, this is a very difficult game, but it isn’t that way right from the start. The challenge is a gradual slope and it wasn’t until the last handful of levels that I felt it was seriously demanding. Checkpoints are plentiful and there is no penalty when you die, both of which make this a rather accessible game even for those usually scared off from supposedly “hardcore” platformers. If it proves too easy there are several additional difficulty levels some of which are quite frankly ridiculously brutal in design, and conversely if you find you can’t handle the normal levels an easy mode has since been patched in for those that want to enjoy the game without risking an aneurysm.
If there is one thing that sets Giana Sisters apart from everything else though, it would be the astounding presentation. The graphics are stunning, with textures bursting with detail and color, and impressive water and lighting effects complimenting the great aesthetic design (which is even more impressive when you consider there are technically two renditions of object, enemy and environment in the game, one for each of the sisters’ worlds). Animations are immaculate, especially the transitions when you swap sisters and have the world transform around you. The soundtrack jointly composed by Chris Hülsbeck and Swedish metal band Machinae Supremacy, each playing their own arrangement of the same track, is simply amazing and like everything else switches seamlessly as you swap sisters, creating a very memorable and original sound that is worth the price of admission by itself.
The only thing Giana Sisters manages to falter with is variety. While I enjoyed everything about the game it didn’t take very long before I felt like I was running in place, replaying the same level with a few minor tweaks that were hardly noticeable in the grand scheme of things. You are essentially dodging the same enemies and traps the entire game, with only the exact placement of them changing slightly from level to level. This problem is extrapolated by each level taking anywhere from 10-15 minutes to complete, a length that begins to drag after a point and had me wishing for more numerous but shorter levels that I could better apportion for prolongation consumption.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is perhaps the best example yet that the classic platformer is not dead but merely neglected and misunderstood. Although it doesn’t hold up well for extended play, for bite sized sessions it is still a great deal of fun. The soundtrack is marvelous (and I don’t even like metal traditionally) and everything polished to a degree that sets a new standard for indie developers. If my overly enthusiastic hyperbole hasn’t convinced you that this is worth your time I’m not sure what will, but just know that you’ll be missing out on a great game if you decide to pass this up.