For those of you uninitiated with the Giana Sisters franchise, it is a fairly interesting story. You can find the full story elsewhere, but here are the key points. The Great Giana Sisters was a not-so-subtle clone of Super Mario Brothers. However, unlike many clones it was actually superior in many ways, with more upgrades, better graphics, decent music, and more platforms it could be played on… but it was still a blatant ripoff. Nintendo managed to pressure the developers into taking it off the shelves, and it quickly became the Honus Wagner of video games, both rare and sought after. The franchise has been batted around since then, and now it finally arrives with an official, current gen follow up, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. Let’s see how much of its Mario heritage endures. Just for fun, take a drink every time I compare it to Mario Brothers.
Giana Sisters is a polygonal game played on a 2D plane like New Mario Bros. (drink), and has some pretty decent visuals. One of the first, and certainly one of the most striking, things you’ll notice about the visuals is that there are two radically different versions of each level. If you are playing as the upbeat and bubbly Giana, your world is twisted and evil. If you are playing as the punky version of Giana, your world is cheerful and happy. Yes, this seems backwards. I’m chalking it up to intentional contrast. Also, it is kind of hilarious to see a firebrand of a protagonist blazing a trail through fluffy birds and goofy knights, then switch over to her cheery alter ego to duke it out with armored demons and bone-throwing skeletons that fall apart and reassemble like Dry Bones from Mario Bros. (drink). Similar to Quantum Conundrum, the shift from one sister to the other causes the visuals to shift right before your eyes, and the transition isn’t just a puff of smoke or a flash of light. The shapes visibly morph to their new orientations; mossy logs shifting with a jello-esque wobble into the bones of dinosaurs, portraits on the walls turn from haughty lords to evil creatures, etc, etc. It is actually a pretty cool effect, and more than once had me flipping a scene back and forth to see what sort of a new setting it world morph into. Since most of the visual flourishes tie in with the gameplay, let’s just move on to that now.
This is a platform game of the Mario School, so right there you’ve got a pretty good picture of the fundamentals. Jump on enemies heads to kill them, gather collectibles and powerups scattered throughout the map, and reach Point B (I don’t know, three drinks?). The antiquated “lives” system has been discarded in favor of a far more contemporary checkpoint system that awards you at the end of the level for completing with as few lost lives as possible, as well as how many of the collectibles you collected. The key difference between classic Mario (and for that matter, classic Giana Sisters) and Twisted Dreams is the two sided gameplay. You play as what I refer to as Peppy Giana and Punky Giana. Similar to the Light Word/Dark World dynamic of Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, the version of the level presented to each version of Giana is physically different as well as visually different. Gates and passages that are closed for one could be open for the other. Platforms that are ghostly and insubstantial for the peppy one are solid for the punky one. Thus, you’ll find yourself rapidly switching between the two to advance. Since the “dream crystals” you are trying to collect are available in three different colors (blue for both sides to collect, yellow for peppy to collect, red for punky to collect) you’ll likewise be switching to collect them.
In addition to changing the nature of the world, switching between your two sides also affords you different abilities. Peppy Giana can do a twirling double jump followed by a slow fall. Punky Giana can do a homing fireball dash reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog, though the ability to rebound off of walls brings to mind Sparkster the Rocket Knight. The fire dash can also break certain blocks and chain together attacks, but it is too fast to do precision platforming. Something I appreciate about this game is the thought they put into convenience and flow. They could have given you “switch types” button and a “power” button (or even just treated the power like a double jump) but instead they gave the twirl and the dash two separate buttons. Hitting the dash while you’re peppy automatically shifts you to punk, and vice versa for the twirl. You can still shift without doing a move, but doing it with the ability buttons allows you to string together complex interactions of the two sides without having to juggle a shift button into the mix. And trust me when I say that the interactions between the two abilities can get pretty complicated. You see, starting a dash and then shifting allows you to continue the dash for as long as you are rebounding, just as starting a twirl keeps it going even if you shift. The game quickly throws obstacles at you that can only be reached with one side’s power, but can only be passed while playing as the other side. It reminded me a little bit of stringing tricks together in Tony Hawk.
The game is broken up into a series of sub-levels leading to a harder level with a boss at the end, like Super Mario Bros. (drink). You get a score at the end of each level, and in order to advance to the boss stage you need to collect a minimum number of stars for your previous scores. I was quite impressed with the level design. Deadly hazards are clearly marked with skull signs, arrow signs and trails of dream crystals guide you forward, and for the particularly tricky maneuvers there are signs explicitly spelling out the required activity. Every maneuver or gameplay feature is introduced in an obvious way before it is needed to survive a pitfall or battle, and the hidden routes and hidden items are sneaky enough to make you feel like a genius for finding them but hinted at well enough that you don’t completely overlook them. Once you play the level, you can try it again in score attack or time attack mode, and eventually hardcore and super hardcore modes are unlocked to take away those modern conveniences like checkpoints.
If I have a complaint with the game, it is that the platforming can be a bit imprecise. Jumping and landing on a moving platform while running had a weird tendency to cause me to surge forward faster than I expected for a few steps, and narrow ledges are sometimes diabolically tricky to land on. The power-up that lets you take a hit before dying like the mushroom in Mario (drink) is only indicated as active by a minor glow, so many times I didn’t realize I didn’t still have it until I’d been killed. The boss fights are devilishly difficult, too, but that’s my problem, probably not yours.
The original Giana Sisters was known for its score, and Twisted Dreams has a soundtrack that was crafted by Chris Hülspeck and Machinae Supremacy. If you know who that is, you are more up on your musical knowledge than I am. The music is pretty good, but not so much that it is stuck in my head. I was actually a little weirded out by the voice work. Giana doesn’t speak, but you do get the occasional yawn or grunt of exertion. For the most part it is fine, but when she emerged from a dip in the water for the first time, the desperate gasp she made was so intense I thought maybe the game would have let her drown if I’d waited just a moment longer.
Okay, to be perfectly frank, I’m not 100% sure what the story of this game is. The game presents itself without dialog, so we are instead presented with a silhouetted animation of two little girls discovering a gem while in their bedroom. It opens a portal that sucks in one sister, and the other sister leaps in to save her. You, the namesake of your sibling pair, head out on a quest to rescue a woman who has been captured by a fire-breathing reptile. (DRINK) Okay, to be fair, it is a dragon rather than a turtle and it EATS your sister in its very first appearance. That’s okay though, because in something I’m calling “The Mario 2 Inversion,” (drink) it is indicated that the game is a dream (or at least a dream world) at the beginning, instead of the end. I’d like to take a moment here to point out that in a game called “Giana Sisters” you play only as Giana. Despite the fact that the gameplay calls for two visually distinct characters with different abilities, BOTH roles are actually Giana, with the other sister simply the damsel in distress. And you though Luigi got the short end of the stick. (Drink)
Much as I make fun of the clear Mario-roots that Giana Sisters grew from, there has been a clear departure and evolution since its clone days. The level design is top notch, and manages to layer both speed and exploration based gameplay in equal parts. The high difficulty and slippery platforming were a stumbling point for me, but overall I was impressed.
8.0 / 10: Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a clever, deep, and well made evolution of old-school platforming.