Aspire: Ina’s Tale Review


The proliferation of “story-rich” as a game descriptor should be welcome news to folks who love narrative-driven games, but these days it has as much meaning as an advertisement for a gluten-free egg. Initial impressions of Aspire: Ina’s Tale were that it’s pretty, offers moments of engaging puzzle-solving, and has the earnest makings of a story, but even after several hours into the game, it’s all too generic to make much of an impact.

It reminds me a little of my experience with Hoa – a similar sort of 2D platformer that was lauded for its gorgeous hand-painted scenery – nice to look at, but ultimately it doesn’t pull off the kind of nuanced, understated storytelling it aspires (sorry) to. Ina, in line with the current trend of spindly-legged waifish protagonists who Naruto-run from platform to platform (think Gris, Hoa, and sort of Minute of Islands), wakes up in a mysterious Tower that feeds off her dreams, and she has to figure out how to leave and get home to her role as the enigmatic “Keeper of Kamiura.” She’s also the Heart of the Tower, washing the whole experience with a “chosen one” flavour as she interacts with NPCs and enemies along the way. It seems that the Tower – built by an Architect – was crafted for Ina to maintain.

This is familiar

Going through the first few areas, Ina is perplexed as to why the Tower’s builders would celebrate monsters and demons in the form of sculptures. Why worship fear when you could worship love and light? Honestly, worshipping fear sounds like a great alternative because it would offer an interesting reprieve from the same boilerplate stories about a pure innocent with impaired memories trying to bring joy back into the world, or how there’s beauty even in broken things. It’s not even an issue of the story being too simple or simplified – you can tell powerful stories with a minimalist approach or even without spoken language altogether; it’s the overwhelmingly derivative nature of the story itself. There may be little left that’s truly original in the world of storytelling but that doesn’t mean you can’t take risks or get weird with it. To Wondernaut’s credit, the art is crisp and polished, especially when a running Ina is reflected in a passing slab of crystal, or light glints off an old suit of armour. But for a story-rich game, you need much more.

I wanted to like it, I really did. At first, it felt like the puzzles walked a good balance between feeling challenging while still being enjoyable. There isn’t any combat – you run away from monsters and use light-emitting power sources to repel them; death just means regenerating in a cloud of light at the last checkpoint. And, bless the developers, there are lots of checkpoints – if not for this I think I would have given up a long time ago. The puzzles mostly revolve around the usual platforming suspects: moving blocks around, playing around with different types of power sources to use machinery, headache-inducing rope swinging mechanics. Each area has a different focus – movement, size (making blocks bigger or smaller) and so on, each with moments of inspiration before you hit a brick wall of frustration.

Playing on a Switch added to this frustration – even though I was using my best Joycons with nary a millimetre of drift on them, there is so, so, so much tedious trial and error in Ina’s movements. And with the flimsy story dressing, there isn’t much to compel you to keep pushing through the most maddening bits. Like most demanding platforming games, Ina runs on precise timing and a lot of Goldilocks-style experimenting to figure out the just-right position or moment. The rope-swinging physics, for one, are prohibitively stiff, and Ina’s movements just aren’t effective for the demands of a precision platformer. But the payoff just isn’t there – by the time I crept toward the last act of the game it was in a state of resignation. If you’re looking for something easy on the eyes that will also, at times, make you want to tear your hair out, Ina’s Tale is a good place to start, but time will tell if you manage to finish.