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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Shoot-'Em-Up
Publisher: Phoenixx
Developer: Neotro
Release Date: Sept. 28, 2022


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PC Review - 'NeverAwake'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 27, 2022 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

NeverAwake is a nightmarish twin-stick shooter with a unique worldview and original game rules.

The trailer for NeverAwake gives you a fair idea of what to expect. It's a twin-stick shooter where the player controls a character instead of a spacecraft. The art style seems like an equal mix of gothic and surreal, and the large bosses give off a strong bullet hell vibe. It's appealing enough based on the two-minute trailer alone, so players won't regret taking the plunge.

NeverAwake opens with a little girl who has a hole in her chest. She also has bracelets and anklets that seem like jewelry until she exclaims that she is awake but unable to move anything under her own power. You play the role of Rem, a mysterious spirit that seeks to help the little girl by battling the things she hates in hopes of finding a way to wake her up.

Narrative isn't something that gets much attention in shooters, so you can't help but applaud Neotro Inc., for putting in some effort in crafting a story. The thoughts of a little girl dealing with things she hates are an interesting way of telling the story, even though it has been done before. The larger narrative paints a grim picture that makes things less fanciful, and the inclusion of entries about school and her hatred of people can be questionable in the current environment. The one thing that isn't done so well is the fact that the unlocked journal entries rarely match up with the environment you're exploring, and they seem to unlock randomly, making the narrative harder to follow due to their scattershot nature.

As alluded to earlier, NeverAwake is a twin-stick shooter that adheres to the genre basics. The game automatically scrolls while you use one stick to move and another to shoot. The game features an option for auto-aim, but it never feels as intuitive as you aiming the shots for yourself. You have a smart bomb at your disposal to blow up every enemy around you and eradicate enemy fire, while a dash button lets you get through obstacles relatively unharmed. Those become quite useful, as there are times when the title adheres to bullet hell standards either by having bosses throw out a decent amount of firepower at once or have more enemies on-screen than expected. Souls are collected and used to buy different power-ups. Some are merely upgrades for existing powers, like boosts to your initial smart bomb special weapon; some are new, like having a shotgun-like burst or an umbrella to shield you from more enemy shots; and others are passive, like the ability to take on more hits before dying or having an increase in souls dropped by enemies.

The biggest change the developers have made to the formula is in the level progression. Normal shooters have you scrolling until the level ends, mostly capped off with miniboss or full boss fights. Here, levels only end when you capture enough souls to reach 100% of your meter. It changes the focus a bit, as you have to instantly decide which enemies you should focus on to beat the level in the fastest possible time. Do you go for the largest enemies in the hope that they produce a ton of souls to collect, or do you go after the multitude of smaller enemies to slowly (but surely) chip away at the percentage meter? It gives the game some strategy, which feels pretty neat in action.

The focus on souls also means that the basic design is much different from other shooters. The levels are short, but reaching the end without filling up that soul percentage meter means that you'll simply warp back to the start of the level for another loop until the meter is filled. It can sometimes create situations where the start of that loop is hopelessly crowded with enemies that take on a ton of damage before blowing up, and the enemies can also hide out due to the negative colors used during that transition, but the annoyance doesn't last long.

Some of the levels focus on shooting a large crystal to produce souls instead. Those also create some strategic situations, since the crystal can also block enemy fire, but it doesn't necessarily block the enemies themselves. Then there are the boss fights, which focus less on killing the boss and more on doing enough damage so that a smattering of crystals pop out. You do need to kill a boss outright, which poses an extra challenge for those who want to squeeze the most out of the game. It's something you'll be tasked with if you want more story content.

The levels are short even if you consider that it'll take more than one loop to max out your soul meter for the first time. One thing that might catch people off guard is how long the game is. Clocking in at roughly 80 levels, this is a very long shooter even if the levels feel short. Because a good chunk of the basic minions are used in every stage, it all starts to feel the same, and that feeling is further enforced when you see levels that seem like carbon copies but with different backdrops to fit the new world theme. If you can get over that, you'll find that the replayability comes from finding the different criteria needed to get the game's two endings. To get everything offered up by the game, players also need to return to boss levels and complete those challenges.

The presentation is arresting. Graphically, the hand drawn Tim Burton-esque character designs make even the most normal-looking things, such as vegetables and needles, appear menacing. The backdrops also sport the same hand-drawn twisted look, but there are times when it can be difficult to tell where there are solid parts of the environment that can't be passed through. The few times the game slows down are all intentional, so it doesn't take much to have this running at a solid frame rate no matter how many bullets are on-screen. Sound-wise, the music is the standout, as it provides a good mix of creepy and whimsical tones. The effects are good enough to make up for the lack of voices during cut scenes and journal entries.

Like a good number of games that came out in the past few months, the performance of NeverAwake on the Steam Deck is ideal. There are only a few graphical options to work with, and the game defaults to 1920x1080 with no 16:10 options to choose from. Despite this, the game always runs at a solid 60fps, except for the intentional slowdown when using your special weapon in a crowded area. The game can run a good 4-5 hours on a full charge. One thing that will disappoint users, though, is the lack of cloud saves, so those starting on the Steam Deck or vice versa can't just pick up their progress on a different device; this decision might sway some from picking this up until that feature is implemented.

Twin-stick shooter fans will certainly have some fun with NeverAwake. The short levels make it perfect for quick, on-the-go bursts of shooting, while the actual shooting and power-ups make for a fun and challenging experience. It looks and sounds great, while the presence of two different endings gives the game some replayability. That said, the story isn't all that compelling considering that we've seen it used before, and the game can start to feel like it's running on for too long due to the sameness in some levels.

Score: 7.5/10

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