Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox
Nowadays, it's harder and harder to convince myself to pick up a new game to play. There are so many out there, and with the 18 million time commitments I have stacking up in my adulthood, I find it much easier, and safer, to just dive back into what I'm used to. Another playthrough of The Witcher here, a new Dragonborn in Skyrim there, and queueing up for another game of League of Legends when my friends all find the same scrap of free time. That's why, when a new game comes out that's nice and short, and won't require me to sink 40 hours of gameplay into it of concentration in trying to understand a new plot, there's a higher chance that I'll be able to check it out.
Arise: A Simple Story is one such game, with a short six-ish hour runtime and a low pickup cost of $20. There are so very many indie games out there now, especially with consoles like Nintendo Switch running out the red carpet for them more then ever before. It's hard to keep track of them, sure, but when you're trying to find your next virtual adventure, Arise definitely stands out from the pack. With such little risk of wasted time and money, though, there isn't much to lose anyway. Before this starts sounding like an infomercial, there are definitely a couple of things I wasn't too fond of when diving in. We'll get into those in a bit, though. First, let's talk about the story, because it's a heavy one.
Death, Separation, and Love
The story in Arise seems to be what was most important to the developers. Everything from level design to the marketing copy plastered on the game's website seems tied to and completely reliant on this story, so that story better be told well. Rest assured, it is.
We'll talk about this a little more as we describe the game's level design and pacing, but this isn't a very happy story, at least not for the most part. Without spoiling anything, a very large chunk of levels in the middle of the game are based on very relatable notions of being alone, the few connections you manage to make being pulled from you, anxiety, self-doubt, and, of course, death. The game starts out with death, as the whole purpose of the game is to see an elderly man into the afterlife, following his every step as he traverses memories both painful and relieving.
The game is all about time. Time spent with the people you care about. Time you wish you spent with the people you care about. The passage of time taking its toll on your body. And the list goes on. In each level, you can manipulate time to a certain degree that befits whatever the theme of that level is. In one level, you can move flowers, bees, and little forest critters around to take you from point to point spent frolicking with your companion, and in another, you can go forward and backward through the total destruction of a forest in a level that deals with separation and loneliness. The story is told without words or speech, aside from the single word used to label each level: Hope, Solace, Joy, Alone, Old, and so on (however, there's amazing music throughout the game). Despite that, it's a story that's told well, simply from the emotions portrayed by your faceless protagonist and those told through the design of each level.
The only issue I took with the story is that a few random moments throughout the game that were either frustrating or just totally ridiculous pulled me out of what a level or moment meant. And in a game like this, that's totally absorbed and focused on those moments, that's a pretty crucial misstep to avoid.
And speaking of those frustrating and ridiculous moments...
The Little Things
I catch a lot of flak for this one, but it's something that I just can't seem to be able to overlook. I don't hate or dislike indie games by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, some of the greatest games out there are indie titles—Stardew Valley, No Man's Sky (I'll fight you on this one), Celeste, Cuphead, and Hotline Miami, to name a few. But there's a problem that indie games have that only very few ever really manage to avoid, problems that seem more prone to indie titles. I like to call these little issues "manpower problems." Or, problems that probably wouldn't exist if they had the attention and team size to support and catch before they shipped the game live.
Arise: A Simple Story unfortunately isn't an exception to this pitfall. It's not as bogged down with them as some newer indie titles, like the new John Wick game, but they're nonetheless still there. And I'm not talking about bugs. Bugs happen in all games, no matter what studio develops them and no matter how big the QA team is behind it.
The issues I'm talking about are just little annoyances that you can tell aren't bugs or glitches, but are just little blips of shoddy game design. One such blip in Arise takes place in one of the game's middle levels, one about overcoming the grief of separation. There's a small part with a falling log, and you have to control the log to basically ride it up a cliff. Or, at least, that's what you think you're supposed to do. The upward path is the only lit part of the screen, so you can't really see any other options.
Unbeknownst to me, however, the log part was almost meaningless—a small detour meant to help you nab something called a "memory" which reveals a small picture of the protagonist's history. The real path was completely shaded in black shadow, and you could just keep walking straight past the cool log mechanic into this dark area to move on. Keep in mind, this wouldn't be an issue if this game was meant to fool you. It's a puzzle game, but not one that gives you false paths or tries to trick you at any point, so this strange shaded part felt very out of place and awkward, if nothing more than a minor and brief inconvenience.
Another example is the snowy mountain that you stand on between levels. To move into a new level, you have to walk up to a ripple in the snow and hit a button, and then you're magically teleported to a level. What does this snowy dream have to do with the story? What does crouching into the rippling snow mean? Why does it teleport you to places? At the end of the game, none of that seemed to answer itself, and the whole transition and animation of ducking into the snow felt very strange to me, like it was thrown in because the developer couldn't figure out a way to make moving between levels feel more natural or intuitive.
Both of these things might have been solved with a larger dev team. If 10 or 20 more people were added to the team, maybe two of them would have caught these weird out-of-place blips, and that would have been enough. But instead, we're left with some awkward moments in an otherwise very smooth and smart game that just throw off its rhythm. Overcoming these smaller mistakes and ironing out the little details is what makes a great indie game so great, and this game just couldn't reach that height.
"Pretty" indie games have become increasingly popular over the years. With the success of things like Ori and the Blind Forest, Limbo, and a few others, small game studios have learned that it's possible to make up for a game with massive length and ongoing support if it's pretty enough. That's not a bad thing, either. It's like turning your artistic vision into a game, and that being one of the game's focal points, and the result is sometimes spectacular. Arise certainly continues this trend.
It's sort of difficult to be memorable if you do take that direction, due to the over saturation of games now trying the same thing, but Arise doesn't suffer from that problem. It's one of the few indie titles that are so damn pretty that it's hard to get out of your head, even days after playing it. Unlike Ori or Limbo, though, each level in Arise looks totally different than the last. The game is an emotional journey through a man's life, and each level is meant to capture a certain emotion or event. And with that in mind, it would be hard to make an emotion or event seem important if one level looked too similar to the last. Arise dances around this problem with ease, taking you through a desecrated and lonely forest to show you loss of a loved one and into a field of gigantic sunflowers and comically large bumble bees to capture the joy of company and belonging.
The sunflower level, in my opinion, deserves its own award. One thing that the game does well, and I'll talk about this more when I dive into Arise's level design, is showcase the grandeur of each level. From the beginning of a level, you're able to see back into the rest of the level and look at things you'll be interacting with later. Everything feels connected, despite looking magnificent and humongous at first glance. There's probably a metaphor in there somewhere. The sunflower level has a part where you enter this field of giant sunflowers, stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see. It's absolutely beautiful, but it's more than just pretty. As you manipulate the map with your weird time control powers, the flowers move and transform all at once, all the way across the field. At first, I thought all the flowers moving, even those in the backdrop, was just for added effect, but it wasn't. By the end of the level, I had moved across this entire field of flowers, even the ones that seemed impossibly far away at the beginning, and it felt easy.
That sheer amount of splendor and grandios when looking at and traversing a game is something that I haven't felt or seen in a long, long time, and this game knocked it out of the park.
Something that's always bothered me is poor level design. Some of the biggest, most impressive games on the market, namely the Persona franchise, even suffer from horrible, terrible, very-not-good level design. So when I see an indie game jump that hurdle and surpass some of the greatest games around, at least in this specific field, it's hard not to take note. Arise: A Simple Story's level design is absolutely superb.
It all comes down to that art design. The fact that you can see off into the distance at the rest of the level and know that you're eventually going to have to deal with it, or cross that bridge, or jump that giant flower, even though it may look like just a pretty backdrop, is very cool. It feels satisfying to go through, too. In one level, you're walking into a giant mountainous ravine in the middle of a forest. The level starts out by a boulder way, way off in the distance bowling its way through the ravine and toward the beginning of the level, causing destruction in the mountain, knocking trees over, shifting ledges, and causing no limit of change to the earth around you.
The game's core mechanic is a simple time control power that lets you rewind time and push it forward. So in this level, you have to rewind to make the boulder go backwards, reversing damage caused by it and then letting it play out again to advance through the ravine, climbing rocks that are half fallen, riding a tree up into the sky as it reverses its falling trajectory, or standing atop a falling cliff as it takes you to the other side of a ledge you need to reach.
It all feels connected from the minute you drop into a level, and when you hit a point that you can remember seeing at the beginning, conquering that puzzle feels uniquely satisfying. It feels like you're making progress, though you're not even sure what you're progressing toward. The game is emotional, there's no doubt about that. It starts off with the protagonist dying, after all. In this strange, time-manipulated afterlife, you're tasked with facing down the regrets, memories, and dreams of a dead man, and the level design carries that weight, uncertainty, and even closure with it to the very end.
In other words, it's worth $20.