Developer: Black Forest Games
The Great Giana Sisters became little more than a small footnote in the history of videogames when it released back in 1987. "The brothers are history," it bullishly boasted, referring to the Super Mario Bros from whom it cheekily pinched gameplay, art style and its entire first level. As you might expect, Nintendo threatened the developers with all manner of legal nastiness if they didn't voluntarily remove it from shelves, quickly turning it into a collector's piece that was subsequently forgotten about by all but the most ardent of C64 and Amiga owners.
So when a Giana Sisters reboot appeared on Kickstarter, my first impulse was to laugh it off as "the reboot literally nobody wanted."
I've rarely been so happy to admit I was wrong. Painfully, stupidly wrong. Enough people wanted it for the Kickstarter campaign to meet its target, allowing Black Forest Games to make good on their vision of a completely different experience. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a far cry from the original rip-off: a gorgeous, tough and cerebral platformer that lets players effortlessly swap between two worlds to solve exciting execution-based challenges. Reality bends to your whim as the levels shift at your command, the visuals and even the sensational soundtrack morphing into exciting new forms.
In fact, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams might have finally lived up to its predecessor's boast. Thanks to Black Forest's sensationally innovative approach, the Mario Brothers frequently feel like ancient history.
After the titular Giana sisters abscond into a bizarre fantasy realm and end up separated into two distinct worlds, you'll lead them back to reality through some lusciously detailed 2.5D levels. The retro pretensions are plain from the offing: platforms need to be jumped on. Enemies are dispatched by leaping on their heads. Gems need collecting. Twisted Dreams starts out as an unapologetic nod to the good old platforming days, showcasing responsive controls and native gamepad support.
However, both sisters present a small selection of unique abilities. 'Cute' Giana' can spin through the air, gliding across the screen and gaining vertical lift in the process. She's an utterly adorable little tot, though her world is jarringly gloomy and dark, full of demons and decay. An upbeat, if somewhat muted, chiptune and electronica accompaniment compliments this beautifully.
In contrast, 'Punky' Giana frolics in a bright and vibrant playground of primary colours, facing off against cuddly critters amidst the cartoony scenery. As a more aggressive protagonist, she's capable of flooring enemies with a powerful kick, smashing scenery and using her momentum to bounce through tunnels like an insane flaming pinball. Her soundtrack comprises a gleefully raucous selection of metal tracks, all wailing guitars and intricate noodly solos. Awesome. As the campaign evolves, the level design quickly ramps up with a selection of progressively more brutal challenges, requiring you to use both sisters' skills to advantage.
So far so good, but here's where things get seriously twisted. Instead of offering two separate campaigns, you'll control both sisters in both worlds simultaneously.
In fact, it's more accurate to say that both sisters occupy different versions of the same world, occupying the same space at the same time. You'll change between them with a quick stab of the right trigger and access their different abilities with the face buttons (using the other sister's skill changes character automatically). The twin sisters are effectively a single protagonist with a split personality, while the world dynamically morphs between light and dark as you flick between them. Rather than starkly snapping between realities like flicking on a light switch, the levels organically morph between the two polarities.
Foliage blooms and decays, enemies shift from plump birds into hellish devils and everything reacts to your actions. Even better, the music seamlessly changes between electronica and metal at a moment's notice, without a single skipped beat. The legendary Chris Hülsbeck and Machinae Supremacy are on fine form, offering many a brain worm and tasty riff.
Many games have tried to offer a light and dark world to explore, but none have ever managed to pull it off with such flair and immediate visual feedback. All at the touch of a button.
Brilliantly, this world-warping conceit isn't just a cosmetic choice. Though broadly similar in terms of geometry, the two overlapping levels are subtly different, featuring unique arrangements of platforms, moving traps and collectibles depending on which sister you're using. You'll therefore need to frequently change between them in order to raise bridges, remove spikes or change water levels, all while handling the demanding platforming manoeuvres. It adds a welcome and frequently taxing puzzle dimension to the platforming action. What's more, it also demonstrates a degree of fearless innovation that puts any number of competing developers to shame.
Black Forest Games have managed to match polished quality with a serious amount of quantity and value. The lengthy campaign will take you many hours to complete, at which point score runs, speed runs and harder difficulties become available for hardcore players to strut their stuff. Each level hides a deceptive number of diamonds to collect in subsequent playthroughs, not to mention difficult-to-reach concept artwork scattered around the more hazardous areas.
Besides the occasional collision detection issue (usually centred around 'Punky' Giana's kick, which sometimes fails to register when it hits an enemy), the only real issues facing Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams tend to come with the territory. Namely: difficulty and repetition. We'll tackle each in turn.
Twisted Dreams is retro-tough; demanding split-second reflexes and punishing any failure with instant death. Sparse checkpoints will frequently force you to play through vast swathes of gameplay several times over just to reach the section you died on, though at least any diamonds you've collected stay collected. Many gamers will probably find it incredibly frustrating (to screen-shouting, controller-throwing extremes), but it's the wholesome, good form of frustration that keeps you motivated long enough to prove yourself worthy. I'm rarely willing to mark a game down for providing a stiff challenge, so since most deaths come from human inadequacy rather than unfair level design, I won't mark it down.
Repetition, sadly, is a real problem. After the first few levels, you'll face much the same challenges - only harder. Without much of a storyline or context pulling you forward, only besting the tough challenges and achieving 100% completion will really compel you to keep grafting through its levels, meaning that it's all too tempting to quit out halfway through. Perhaps just for a sandwich. Maybe to play something else - if only for a bit. But going back is another matter entirely. For some of us, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams could become yet another game that we didn't quite get around to finishing.
Ultimately, considering the quality and value on offer, you should find that out for yourself.
- Enjoyable, tough and responsive platforming
- Intricate worlds dynamically 'twist' at the touch of a button
- Gorgeous graphics, outstanding double soundtrack
- Can get repetitive, exacerbated by lack of strong story or context
- Sparse checkpoint locations will annoy and frustrate (as will the difficulty curve - in a good way)
- Occasional collision detection issues
The Short Version: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a beautiful, innovative and retro-cruel indie gem cunningly disguised as a reboot. An utter joy, if an occasionally frustrating one.