Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams PC Review

Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams header

It should be safe to say that not many gamers have heard of the Giana Sisters, though their story is certainly an interesting one; originally debuting in 1987 on the Commodore 64, Amiga, MSX2 and other platforms, The Great Giana Sisters was notable for its more-than-coincidental resemblance to Super Mario Bros., to the point that Nintendo’s legal lawsuits allegedly led to the game’s prompt removal from store shelves. Ironically, it was on the Nintendo DS where the Giana Sisters made their return to the gaming scene, though this time under a less plagiarized identity.

Yet the duo of platforming sisters seemed forever doomed to gaming obscurity, as the patriarchal pair of plumbers continued to thrive on. Thanks to the latest Kickstarter phase, however, developer Black Forest Games was able to drum up support from donations and bring the Giana Sisters back onto the gaming scene with a third new makeover. As one of the first projects featured in Steam’s Greenlight program, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams features a familiar 2D platforming adventure that’s not too familiar for copyright infringement, while featuring a radical new style that bears little resemblance to its previous titles.

The story in Twisted Dreams features the titular Giana embarking on a magical journey to rescue her sister Maria, who has been kidnapped by a massive dragon and held prisoner deep within the Dream World. Though she may be riding solo in this adventure, Giana now possesses the ability to freely switch between two personas: Cute Giana and Punk Giana. This ability isn’t just a metaphor for Giana’s transition into a teenager, but also results in a cosmetic transformation for herself and the world around her; background objects, enemies, platforms and many other stage environments come in two flavors, depending on which of the two personas is onscreen. Oddly enough, Cute Giana’s world typically features bleak, desolate areas and dilapidated colors, while Punk Giana’s world tends to feature richer colors and vibrant worlds teeming with life. This flip-flopping of aesthetics brings to mind the Light and Dark Worlds featured in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, though in truth it more closely resembles the psychedelic Source mod Flipside.

Obviously, there’s a strategic element behind the world flipping; as a platformer that is heavily puzzle-based in nature, Twisted Dreams requires players to switch between worlds in order to navigate through each stage by transforming the environment to suit their needs. For example, certain platforms are invisible in one world but visible in another; some paths are blocked by structures that vanish when switching to the next world, while moving platforms and switches may move on one direction but turn the opposite way depending which sister is on-screen; even enemies change completely depending on the world, which also plays a role in finding the right path forward.

Each of Giana’s personas also carry a unique ability: Cute Giana has a whirlwind jump that allows her to dramatically slow her descent in the air, while Punk Giana has a directional fire attack that has her perform a rolling, flaming dash that can also act as a double jump in the air. Performing either ability, regardless of which Giana is on-screen, will instantly transform into that persona, but the game allows you to instantly switch between personas even as the ability is still occurring. This too plays a crucial role in navigating the obstacle-filled areas, and also showcases the emphasis on how crucial players must learn to time their persona-switching effectively. Fortunately, the game’s learning curve is much simpler in practice than it is in paper. It only takes a couple of introductory levels to learn how to bounce off an enemy with a fire roll, jump into a whirlwind to descend down a thorny path, and switch back and forth between personas in order to open up blocked pathways, or to collect the pesky amount of crystals per area (only Cute Giana can collect yellow crystals, and Punk Giana can only collect red).

But don’t expect Twisted Dreams to keep the training wheels on for very long; before you know it, the game’s difficulty ramps up unexpectedly, and it only gets harder from there, to the point that it nearly reaches Super Meat Boy levels of frustration. Fortunately, each level features several checkpoints mercifully spaced out in addition to unlimited lives. You’ll certainly feel the fatigue as you continue to respawn in said checkpoints over and over and over, as even the slightest miscalculated jumped can lead to an instant death. For the most part, the controls hold up to the task of jumping, ducking, and world-switching, but jumping on enemies isn’t nearly as tight as the Nintendo franchise the series allegedly emulated, and the swimming feels even stiffer – though thankfully not as frequent.  Even rarer are stages featuring a boss to battle, but you’ll bemoan their appearances regardless, as not only are you required to endure a boss’ animation pattern until the opportunity to strike comes, but losing at any point forces you to start the fight from the beginning. The occasionally spotty hit detection also works against you, as certain seemingly safe jumps can result in death even if it looked like you should be safe for another inch or two.

Visually, the 3D-on-2D style of Giana Sisters holds up impressively. Though not quite reaching the inspiring visuals of Trine 2, Black Forest Games deserves credit for their rendering skills, especially how each area smoothly transitions between the two worlds while also adding in exclusive background details and animations. The game’s music also features the return of the composer of the original game, and each track bounces between “cute” and “punk” variations to coincide with the constant level switching. Admittedly, the game could have used a more varied soundtrack, as there are far more stages then there are tracks.

Much like Serious Sam, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a game that meticulously follows the classic design formula of older games, for all the good and bad that is associated with it. Hardcore platformer enthusiasts will be quite busy finishing each stage (some can last an hour, depending on deaths), and collecting every gem as well as the hidden large gems (which unlock artwork and other bonus features). For those craving even greater challenges, there is a Score Attack and Time Attack mode, in addition to increasingly difficult campaign runs including a Hardcore Mode (no checkpoints in any area) and Uber Hardcore Mode (dying once at any point brings you back to the first level). It is questionable if there is anyone truly insane enough to want to torment themselves in such a way, but the modes are there if you’re masochistic enough.

With just an extra bit of tweaking on the controls and a more balanced difficulty curve, Twisted Dreams would have stood as one of the biggest must-have indie games created in the last few years. Though it slightly misses that mark, this is still one adventurous journey that is worth the few bumps along the road.

7/10

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Version tested: PC

Also available on: XBLA, PSN

Developer: Black Forest Games

Publisher: Black Forest Games

Genre: Platformer, Puzzle