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‘Waking’ is a Deeply Personal Journey Worth Taking Despite Its Flaws

Waking succeeds as an intensely personal experience that’s worth trying despite its mechanical and technical shortcomings.

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Waking Indie Snippet

In an industry full of genre bloat and trend-chasing, a game with a completely original premise is a godsend. Not only is Waking wholly unique, but it also goes out of its way to distort and reimagine traditional adventure game mechanics in a way that aligns with Jason Oda’s goal of creating the most personal game ever made. And while the gameplay experience doesn’t always hit the mark, it’s undeniable that Waking pushes the boundaries of what characterization can look like in a video game.

The entirety of Waking takes place in the player’s mind. You’re in a coma, and as you’re dreaming, you’re forced to wrestle with either going towards the light and giving up or holding onto memories and loved ones and continuing to fight for your life. The catch? Players will literally use their own cherished memories, keepsakes, and beliefs to fight off nightmarish foes.

When the game begins players are asked a few basic questions about themselves to help shape the main character in their likeness. This is just the tip of the iceberg; throughout the introduction and after every quest players will be asked a series of questions and encouraged to share a bit more about their lives. Everything the player mentions is subsequently added as a skill, power, or summon, allowing them to put parts of their lives into the game (albeit in name only).

Waking

Waking is a fantastical action/adventure game, but only by the lightest of classifications. In order to revitalize their body and mind, players undergo a series of missions in the procedurally generated “Mindscape” to clear out blockage and defeat monsters of the mind. However, it quickly becomes clear that the Mindscape would’ve benefited from a more hands-on approach to world design; exploration is often confusing and monotonous. even after the mini-map is unlocked an hour or so in. Waking’s hazy environments contribute to the dreamlike aesthetic the game is going for, but it can also make navigation a struggle. The saminess of the visuals and lack of on-screen indicators makes the tiny mini-map in the corner of the screen a necessity rather than an aide.

These UI issues extend to the menus as well. While the prospect of equipping memories and beliefs as weapons feels exciting at first, the actual implementation of this system isn’t especially user-friendly. Instead of having a quick wheel to choose attacks from, Waking requires players to go into a long, barren menu and remap attacks whenever they want to change things up. The constant pausing this required resulted in me rarely shifting from my primary weapons of choice unless I had to, which is a shame considering how much more impactful the combat could’ve been.

Waking’s combat system is a fascinating dance of push and pull that never quite reaches its full potential. The basics of most encounters boil down to picking up debris (oil barrels, planks, etc.), throwing them at enemies to stun them, and then moving in to finish them off via melee attacks. Special barriers can be used to reflect projectiles back at enemies, and there are devastating energy (or “pulse”) moves as well, but it’s clear that combat wasn’t the main focus here. This is made worse by a frustrating tutorial that’s accessible after the opening hour of the game and that can be unbeatable under certain conditions, forcing you to exit out to the main menu.

So, taken at face value, Waking isn’t an especially great game. Exploring feels tedious, the user interface is needlessly cumbersome, combat feels decently engaging but samey, and the entire experience is hampered by long load times, glitches, and stuttering. Despite all of these issues, however, I continuously found myself drawn back to the dreamscape Jason Oda had created.

Putting so much of my real-world self into my in-game character naturally compelled me to see how I’d overcome my internal struggle and come back to life. There’s something novel about summoning a cherished childhood possession (even if they’re just represented by boxes and cylinders) and fending off hostile creatures. I couldn’t help but smile the first time I summoned my best friend into the game only for him to immediately give me a hug. And every time I was asked to close my eyes and reflect after completing a mission, it actually calmed me down and made me feel refreshed.

Waking

Waking is definitely a grower, but no matter its individual faults, it succeeds as a holistic experience. The more you put into Waking, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s the most personal video game I’ve ever played, and, at its best, it’s an impactful journey of self-reflection. I just wish the ride would’ve been smoother.

Brent fell head over heels for writing at the ripe age of seven and hasn't looked back since. His first love is the JRPG, but he can enjoy anything with a good hook and a pop of color. When he isn't writing about the latest indie release or binging gaming coverage on YouTube, you can find Brent watching and critiquing all manner of anime. Send him recommendations or ask to visit his island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons @CreamBasics on Twitter.

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