I first heard about NeverAwake in the Switch import scene where it gathered quite a little buzz. Mainly because of its imaginative and dark visual design which could easily have been artistically inspired by Tim Burton’s work. Combined with the shmup pedigree Neotro Inc has build with its previous Steam-only release, Vitro, it seemed like a safe bet for many shmup enthusiasts.
The game offers 8 worlds with 10 levels each, filled with fast and short twin stick shmup action. The levels are relatively short with the aim to gather enough souls to fill the meter to 100% which are left behind by defeated ghouls and monsters you are confronted with.
As the player, you play as the avatar for Rem’s proverbial ‘angel on her shoulder’. Apparently, nasty negative vibes keep Rem from waking up from her hospitalized situation. To snap her out of her slumber, you’ll need to face and conquer her deepest fears and inner demons she is mentally trying to cope with.
These fears are themed around very stereotypical pre-teen fears and dislikes such as veggies, school bullies, nightmares, the dentist and so on. NeverAwake does not really try to build a narrative from that premise onwards apart from seemingly incoherent diary snippets displayed in a text box before every mission. It paints a picture of a typical preteen kid but does not do much else. No real cutscenes or plot building makes the game feel a bit dry and the developers chose to make this game work by virtue of its graphical style and gameplay mechanics alone.
Locked and loaded
The twin stick controls are well executed with additional dodge mechanics and specials which both play an integral role in clearing the levels. The game offers a slew of special weapons which can be individually powered up. Typical screen clearing specials are not available, but a shotgun, 360-shot, a target area bomb and many other very specific weaponry are. The game makes them buyable in the game’s shop, once you unlock them by clearing levels. Some of them become pretty potent the farther you get in the game and you can afford the upgrades each weapon.
Just as important to your survival are the numerous accessories you can buy in said shop. These are passive power-ups ranging from stat buffs to shield protection with a certain durability. You can combine about 8 of these passives at the same time and allows you to create powerful builds. Experimentation with making very specific builds for certain bosses, for instance, is quite a bit of fun but takes some trial and error. In the end, making a very solid all-round build was the path I personally chose, making minor tweaks whenever I got in trouble with certain sections of the game.
The accessory builds become very important once you get into the latter half of the game and levels become significantly harder.
With the ‘Oversoul’ feature, you have an additional accessibility option to make your life a bit easier if you have trouble finishing levels. You have to cough up some coin for it, but your firepower doubles and you get one or two additional lives (depending on your chosen accessories) specifically from the level you are trying to beat. So even if the game becomes fairly challenging later on, it still remains quite accessible.
The level design steadily gives you more stuff to manage while you progress with level parts working as environmental puzzles, for instance. It will probably take a couple of tries for you to understand its mechanisms in some of the levels, which should keep you engaged for the duration of the game.
The visuals are definitely one of the game’s core appeals. The overall visuals maintain the samey dark tone throughout the game, but the enemy designs really stick out. The game’s thematics translated well to the level design in some unexpected and imaginative ways. I just hoped that the overall visual tone would break up once in a while with a more distinctive look for every world.
Another thing that doesn’t help prevent the game from becoming a bit of a drag is the fact that the cinematic intermissions between levels don’t add much to the narrative. It is not really satisfying to look at the same static image every time you finish a world. Once you reach world 6, it starts to feel more like a running joke than a meaningful way to tell a story.
The game certainly has a lot going for it. First and foremost, the interesting character designs tap into the world’s themes directly in a very fever dream approach. Also, the creative level design keeps you on your toes and makes you want to fine-tune your character’s build, even for levels specifically. Too bad Neotro didn’t create a more immersive narrative to bind the levels and the world together to keep me hooked all through to the end without having to rely on perseverance only. A shooter being thin on story isn’t a real shocker, but NeverAwake’s world-building evokes a more story-driven approach on which Neotro does not deliver. It leaves us behind with a very playable and nicely looking shooter though.