Is “cute” really the opposite of “punk”? Like up and down, black and white, and my mind should automatically connect “cute” and “punk” as natural antonyms? I asked myself that question multiple times as I retried a section in one of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams’s difficult levels for the umpteenth time.
I mean, those two words describe the game fairly well. Colorful, charming, and cute. Uneven, deeply frustrating, and I guess, punk. Too bad the two aren’t in greater harmony. The game’s ”punk” flaws completely overshadow almost of its cuteness.
The Giana Sisters series has a lot of history behind it—especially because it started as a Super Mario Bros. clone back in the 80s. Apparently, the series was dormant until 2009′s Giana Sisters DS. I knew none of that going in. I’d seen a couple of screenshots of the PC version of Twisted Dreams and figured I’d give the XBLA version a try.
Twisted Dreams has all the requisite modes you’d expect from a modern-day platformer: score attack, time trial, and of course the story, or adventure mode. It’s a simple affair—two sisters get sucked through a magic portal in their bedroom. A dragon eats one of them, and it’s up to the player’s character—Giana, I’m assuming because the game never tells you–to rescue her from this strange world. I don’t need the stories in my platformers to be Shakespeare or anything. If rescuing Peach worked for all those Mario games, then this works for me.
After a lengthy loading screen, you’re plopped into the first level, and right away you’ll notice how lush and colorful the environments in Twisted Dreams look. Things are bright, colorful, and genuinely charming. It’s sweet without being cloyingly saccharine and a refreshing change if you’ve just finished playing the current drab military shooter du jour.
But the candy-coated visuals are only one half of the story. See, early on, you’re introduced to Giana’s main puzzle-solving mechanic. Giana is able to transform from her “cute” blonde side to her “punk” pink-haired side. And when you swap everything changes—the backgrounds, the enemies, and even the music. It’s a fun twist that almost makes you forget that almost all the levels overstay their welcome.
Most of the levels involve some variation of switching back and forth between the different Gianas to traverse an assortment of puzzles, moving platforms, and enemies. When everything clicks, the game’s fairly fun. However, before long things go bad.
When Twisted Dreams hits a low point, it hits it hard. For me, the boss levels were some of the least enjoyable. Bosses aren’t given their own separate levels like in the Donkey Kong games. Instead, they’re located at the ends of regular levels. So if you get frustrated after, oh say, 45 minutes of trying to beat one boss, you can’t quit and come back later. You’re stuck having to beat the level before challenging the boss again.
The game is also hampered by some dodgy physics and hit detection for lack of a better term. I died multiple, multiple times because Giana touched an enemy or a crystal (no idea why those kill you) by mere pixels. (It’s not a pixel-y game, I know.) It’s only made worse by the fact that the stages are brutally difficult, requiring an almost trial and error approach until you have the layouts memorized. It’s not fun. It doesn’t feel challenging in a good way. For the amount of times you’re going to die on the later levels, the checkpoints need to be much closer together. There’s a reason games like Super Meat Boy have nearly instantaneous respawns and small levels.
I talked about the game’s lush visuals before, but they also come with a price. Because the environments are so busy, it can be difficult to discern what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background. You’ll leap for a rock or ledge, find out it’s just a piece of scenery, and then plummet to your death, thus keeping you locked in the trial and error loop.
In other challenging platformers, your number of deaths doesen’t impede your overall progress. It does in Twisted Dreams. You earn stars for collecting gems and limiting your number of deaths. The stars aren’t just for show; they’re required for unlocking boss levels. It made me want to throw my controller out the window when I’d die over 30 times on a single level and then be told I need to play it again before I could progress further in the game.
In fact, I stopped playing before beating the game because I couldn’t take it anymore. Out of the game’s 23 stages, I made it through 18 of them before I’d had enough. Based on everything I’d seen so far, I doubt those last few levels (and final boss) would somehow negate all the previous unhappy hours I’d already spent playing.
The entire experience of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams doesn’t come together in a cohesive whole often enough for it to be considered one of the great platformers, or even a really good one. Its frustrating lows, compounded by brutal difficulty spikes, don’t completely outweigh the occasional highs. A great soundtrack and bright colorful visuals certainly help, but they’re just set dressing.
This review is based off a downloadable copy of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams for XBLA.