It’s October, and you know what that means! It’s time to splash just a little bit of horror into all of our favorite things. That and pumpkin spice, but that’s not important right now. Today we’re looking at NeverAwake, a nightmarish twin-stick shooter by developer Neotro Inc and published by Phoenixx, where you help a little girl who just won’t wake up.
NeverAwake launched September 28, 2022, for PC. The Steam version was played for this review.
A Hazy Dream
Your name is Rem, and you’re in a nightmare world shooting monsters and collecting souls. As you select your stage you see a low-poly girl with a giant hole in her chest…and this is all you’re getting as you hop into the action.
That’s not to say there’s no plot, far from it, but you’re thrown into the action right off the bat with your first mystery being “Who exactly am I and what am I doing?” After the first world, a number of things become clear. There is a girl in a coma at a hospital, you’re a manifestation of her psyche, and you’re fighting manifestations of things she fears and hates. After an initial half covering what her home and school life was like, there’s a latter half that deals a bit more concretely with the events that led to her winding up where she did.
Every so often you’ll unlock diary entries that shed a bit of light, and the end of every world has a cutscene that adds just a bit more. It’s a relatively short story all told; the answers from any given world would take only a sentence or two to fully explain, but it’s paced to last the entire game. It works for what it is, however. Shooters aren’t generally a genre known for their story, and this drip feed of plot both allows it to stretch out its reveals as well as ensure you’re never far from the action.
If I had one complaint, it would be that the story goes pretty hard on the trauma right out the gate. It felt like the writers REALLY wanted us to feel bad for our main character and want to hug her and help her, but it just felt like a bit too much to the point of comedy. Thankfully this is just an early game problem, as the writing improves in the latter half, but it was still something I felt I had to just get through.
A Parade of Bullets
NeverAwake, for the most part, plays as a typical twin-stick shooter. As you fly through levels shooting enemies based on grotesque interpretations of childhood fears, you collect souls until you hit your quota for the level. This adds an interesting wrinkle to the classic formula, as simply reaching the end of a stage will cause you to repeat it until you get enough, and if you’re skilled you can even significantly shorten a stage by collecting enough before you reach the end.
There’s also upgrades you can unlock over the game, using souls as currency to purchase. These include a variety of special weapons as well as accessories that provide passive buffs. This is something I felt the game did rather well on compared to many others I’ve played. Usually in games with a variety of weapon choices like this, I’ll pick the one I like the most and just sit on it the whole game. Here, they each have distinct advantages and disadvantages. For instance, one is a short-range explosive attack that allows one to target spawners directly instead of tearing through their mooks first, while another is a shotgun-like shot that shreds through boss health.
Speaking of bosses, they’re truly the highlight of this game. Each of them have their own mechanics you’ll need to learn, but as they have a stage to themselves, dying over and over again to learn them is fairly pain free. You’ll likely not even see all of a boss’ moves on your first encounter, as they’ll drop enough souls to finish long before you fully defeat them, but most of these fights are fun enough that insisting on drawing things out can be its own reward.
Lastly, there is a bit more to do than simply clear each stage, a bit of incentive for replay value. First, once you hit a certain point you’re able to replay stages with an extra objective to accomplish for earning album pictures, something that’s required for the second ending. A lot of these require you to avoid collecting enough souls to finish the stage normally, forcing you to play in a different way than you’ve been used to.
For the extra skilled players there’s also a leaderboard. You can compete with your friends normally here, but if you want to go above and beyond each stage also has a score that’s only applied if you put some severe restrictions on your accessories, notably losing your extra hits, ability to attract souls, and any method of recharging your special weapon. Good luck to anyone going this route!
A Gruesome Fantasy
Fast-paced action games such as scrolling shooters are one area in particular where graphics are EXTREMELY important. Not only does the game need a distinct appearance to set the tone, the player also needs to be able to keep track of everything on screen. Thankfully, NeverAwake fully succeeds here.
The aesthetic is a personal favorite of mine, that “creepicute” mix of things that wouldn’t look out of places in cartoons or as toys, mixed with a bit of horror elements to make them extra unsettling. Here as a twin-stick shooter this also allows the developers to use a lot of highly saturated colors to help things really stand out. The oily shimmer of the souls, pearlescent enemy shots, the sunset orange of my own rapid fire shots, all stand out from each other while letting me confidently fire at anything else that moves.
The music is also a definite highlight, and despite the otherwise dark tone the soundtrack wouldn’t be out of place in a 90s action game: Vibrant, with a strong beat, and a distinct flavor to each area.
Less a Nightmare, More a Dream
NeverAwake is a truly polished gem, an absolute pleasure from start to finish. The short levels, simple controls, and satisfying challenge all combine to make it oh so tempting to play “just one more level” until you’ve binged the whole game. While there are certainly a few areas here and there that feel less polished, they really focused on the core that makes for a great shooter.
Review copy provided by Neotro Inc. for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer.