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Phoenotopia: Awakening Review

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A triumphant port

What a difference a few months and a new port makes! From humble yet hallowed beginnings as a Newgrounds flash game and an August 2020 Switch release to a mixed reception, the phoenix has risen. A pixel art puzzle platformer from Cape Cosmic Games, Phoenotopia: Awakening has made the leap from portable to PC with its release on Steam, and done so in fabulous fashion! Pixel art? Puzzles? You flirt, you! Naturally, I had to check it out.

You play as Gail, one of a number of orphaned youngsters living in a close-knit village community. When bringing a group of children home from the nearby woods, a mysterious alien vessel descends over the village and abducts all of the adults, leaving the children to fend for themselves. As the others try to keep the village together, Gail must set out on a journey of discovery and danger to find out the truth about what happened to the villagers and bring them home.

Two words immediately come to mind within a few mins of gameplay: Zelda II. The influences are proudly on display with its mix of side-scrolling action and top-down world map exploration. However, Phoenotopia manages to create its own unique experience through a wonderful blend of different genre aspects, with a huge dollop of personality thrown in. 

Exploration is the game’s main focus with a plethora of Metroidvania-style areas to explore and traverse, solving satisfying puzzles in order to progress further. Some of said areas require a certain tool or item like a flute to gain access, encouraging the player to delve deeper into every area they uncover. 

Crystals, but good

Gail can wield a variety of different weapons and tools to dispatch enemies and solve puzzles, as well as finding precious stones to increase her stats, upgrade her equipment or trade for other things. Using certain attacks and tools however requires stamina indicated by a green bar; when the bar dips below a certain point, Gail becomes exhausted and must wait for the bar to refill before she can perform them again. Aerial attacks and falling from a height can also leave you open to attack, so timing and positioning are crucial. Thankfully, Gail’s controls are smooth and responsive. The only minor gripes I came across were that some tools take a little more getting used to than they should – the slingshot trajectory is much lower than the crosshair suggests! – and crawling is a little clumsy to execute when controlling with the joystick.

Phoentopia really shines in its art style and score. The pixel art and animatoins are simply beautiful, and the soundtrack is superb: an exlecting range of soothing ambience, evocative piano, and so much more.

When injured, Gail can regain health by consuming food; this is enhanced with fishing and cooking minigames. The latter took me a little by surprise as you’re thrown into it without warning; it left me questioning my culinary skills afterwards. Even the game said it might be good for fertiliser! But I acquired the knack on the second attempt – cooking confidence restored! Food takes varying lengths of time to consume, depending on the type of food. Because of this, healing in the field can be a tricky endeavour; do you risk a fatal hit while trying to chow down or keep on the move? Which brings me to the aspect that divided players the most on initial release: difficulty.

The Switch release came under criticism for its punishing and often unfair combat difficulty which seemed very much at odds with the rest of the game. While it is still a considerable challenge – Dark Souls was a big inspiration – players have the option to choose a skill level which will have certain aspects enabled or removed. Added to this, an in-game accessibility menu has a variety of options to better tailor the experience to suit your preference. The stamina bar also originally affected every method of attack/tool use, even basic attacks, meaning Gail would be restricted to running and jumping until the bar refilled. Depending on the skill level chosen at the beginning, this has now been adjusted to include basic attacks too, helping take the sting out of some of the more gruelling segments.

So pretty

Where Phoenotopia really shines, however, is in its art style and score. The pixel art and animations are simply beautiful, brimming with vibrance, colour and detail – the character animations, in particular, are reminiscent of Moon Hunters in their fluidity. Every area has so many little flourishes, and details which are a delight to look at and characters are both likeable and believable, not to mention funny in places. A first encounter with a group of travelling musicians gave a surprise fit of giggles! Lighting is also used to wonderful effect, drawing you in to each area’s unique atmosphere. The soundtrack is simply superb: an eclectic range of soothing ambience, evocative piano, synth rock and so much more! Each piece reflects its setting wonderfully and is well worth a listen outside of gameplay. 

Overall, Phoenotopia: Awakening is a triumphant PC port that thoroughly polished its flaws and comes out shining. Chock full of charm and wonder, it’s a delight for any pixel art platformer enthusiast looking for a new adventure to throw themselves into and while away the hours with. 

Now, how do I get this moonstone?