Waking Review: A Heartfelt Mess

Waking is a third-person action game available on Steam, GoG, and Xbox One. Joseph Pugh conducted this review on a standard Xbox One console.

Note: I normally use my own screenshots for the games I review. Waking asks the player to input a ton of personal information that I am not comfortable disclosing. I have opted to use official screenshots for this review instead.

Overview

Waking is heartwarmingly beautiful in concept and incredibly unique. You play as yourself more intimately than nearly any other game. You are in a coma and fighting within your own mind to wake up instead of giving in to death. This is accomplished by delving into your psyche and Waking will ask you many questions about yourself as you play.

These questions are not always easy and the game opens with a dire warning about your mental health. It notes that if you suffer from certain mental illnesses you may want to reconsider playing. This is because the game can get very personal with you and diving into your own real deep memories could be traumatic depending on your life events.

Down Memory Lane

The fundamental gameplay is that of a third-person action game. Nightmares plague your dreams and stand in your way as you scour the dream scape for what you need to awake. Your weapons consist of telekinesis that you use to throw the clutter of your psyche at foes, and attacks forged from your memories, feelings, beliefs, and knowledge.

A bridge made of lights in the mindscape of Waking.
The dreamscape has a strong and trippy visual appeal.

Sometimes this is symbolic. Knowledge manifests as spheres that deal more damage and stun enemies when thrown. Feelings, be it hope or despair, manifest as a dagger of light in your hand. Beliefs can be used as a shield to deflect projectiles.

Yet other pieces of your past have more tangible effects. Early on you choose two of your lifes desires and two of your struggles. Choosing safety as a desire granted me the ability to form a force field around myself. Later on, I could summon loved ones from my past (that the game asked me to name and choose the appearance of) who would fight alongside me.

I ended up throwing my prized possession of Pokemon cards as a weapon or generating a variety of attacks by activating my hometown memories, my street, the house I grew up in, and the mall I used to hang out at.

The player uses telekinetics to throw a spere at a pig-headed enemy.
Most of the combat consists of mentally throwing objects

You unlock these memories all game and in dramatic fashion as Waking will ask you, the player, not the character to close your eyes as a soothing female voice guides you into your real memories in a meditative fashion. After which you will be asked questions about that memory to form the stats of your new weapon.

The game broke me in the first hour as I was asked to remember a deceased pet which was a little rough by itself. After following the meditative instructions where I drudged up my memorys of her, I needed to tell the game her name, then choose what she looked like.

After exiting the building I was greeted by a spiritual manifestation of my dog from my real-life memory who ran up to get belly rubs from my character. I had been strong up to that point, but that broke me and I couldn’t hold back tears any longer.

The player chooses from a set of life desires in Waking.
Waking asks you intimate questions about yourself to form the stats of your abilities.

My dog became an ally that I could summon and who would aid me in battle. You continue instances like this throughout the game as you generate more aspects of your memory, entering meditative guidance each time.

Some have a larger effect than others. I don’t think my Pokemon cards would be different than your Stamp collection for example. My summoned partner would look different than your dad but would be functionally the same.

There aren’t a ton of abilities for the game to pull from, so many of them would only have slight differences. Regardless the concept still won me over. It was a profound and emotional feeling that took me from being skeptical about the game, to wanting to love it.

Lucid Dreams

As you explore your mind on this journey of Waking you enter randomly generated areas that change each time you explore them and battle nightmares using your telekinesis. The combat is janky and the controls are clunky, but the actual mechanics are interesting and unique. At first.

You can always throw clutter with your mind, but all of your memory weapons are formed by picking up what essentially boils down to power-ups. You rarely have your arsenal ready at all times. Enemies can drop some of them, others you can find in crates or in the world.

An angel stand over the players comatose body in Waking.
A soothing voice guides you through your real past.

Once you pick them up they can be activated in your inventory and they are almost always limited, including your basic melee attack. Some attacks stun enemies and melee attacks are only effective on stunned enemies. It is interesting to enter each fight in a frantic frenzy looking for pieces of yourself to use in battle.

It loses its luster fairly quickly though. The enemy variety is lacking and generally speaking, you fight most of them the same way. You might have some stronger attacks ready at times but it all feels samey very quickly. The environments, as beautiful as they are in the dreamlike haze also get repetitive early on and so do the objectives within them.

I was always excited to delve into a new memory, even if it ended up being painful to me in real life. But the time in between drags hard and feels like a chore after the first couple hours. The clunky controls and interface make it sting that much more.

Despite all the available buttons on the controller, I could only equip one power at a time and had to pause and swap out my choice manually anytime my current weapon ran out. It felt like the opposite of smooth.

A player stands in the middle of a hazy dreamscape in Waking.
The environments have a haunting beauty, but get repetitive fast.

The repetitious nature can conflict with the rest of the game’s unintuitive systems. You collect neurons while you explore and fight. These are not only spent to activate certain abilities, but they need to be spent on your actual objectives as well. When you get hit, you generate fear which makes enemies stronger and faster. When you defeat enemies without getting hit you generate hope and gain additional neurons

Attaining set thresholds of hope is required to smash open boxes and gain loot. If you get hit a single time, you lose all hope. I can see what Waking is going for here. The concept of fear and hope is very thematic, but it’s unintuitive and can make the games clunky nature even more frustrating.

Waking is a lengthy game with a bunch of side paths or quests if you prefer. But it’s hard to appreciate that fact with its inherent repetitive nature. None of the systems have any real staying power, the random generation isn’t used in a meaningful way and does nothing to help the games monotony.

A Broken Mind

This is where it gets ugly I’m afraid. I reviewed Waking on a standard Xbox One and it’s technical problems were worse than anything else I have ever played on the platform.

The loading times were atrociously long and frequent. It had a near-constant graphical flicker and just straight up stuttering that could last seconds at a time, especially in battle.

The player chooses a memory of something they created in the past.
The trip down memory line could be difficult or even traumatic for some, the game does warn you of this.

I constantly locked up and got hit by attacks I had no chance to avoid and fell off of platforms due to the freezing stutter. This made the hope and fear system incredibly frustrating. Other times the game simply wouldn’t load and I would have to reset, losing progress and enduring the long load times again. This puts the game directly at odds with it’s the meditative theme.

This isn’t a case of the game being rough around the edges and needing a patch. It’s a situation where the game should have never been okayed for release on the platform at all. It is that bad. For full transparency, I always attempt to finish games that have an end when reviewing them. I did not finish Waking. Its core repetition issues combined with the technical mayhem made it an absolute chore and frankly a waste of time to try.

Obviously, this may not be an issue on the PC version. Maybe the game also works better on an Xbox One X, but it largely doesn’t matter. Consoles are closed platforms, if a game is going to be sold to people on a closed platform, it has to actually function, full stop. Xbox One X is not meant to be a mandatory replacement in order to play games at all.

Verdict

This is painful. Waking was made by one person and is a game of true passion. It contains a concept I would like to recommend to anyone who is comfortable enough to delve within themselves for the sake of an intimate video game experience. What Jason Oda set out to do is truly touching. Yet the vessel in which the experience is presented is badly blemished.

The player and a summoned loved one fight a nightmare machine in Waking.
You can summon loved ones to aid you.

The core gameplay is simply basic, dull, and repetitive after a couple of hours and even the weapons generated by the intimacy of your mind have a tiny pool of variety to draw from. The technical issues are unforgivable, they aren’t something you can simply power through.

To tell the honest truth. Once I got deep into the game I was touched enough that I resented the idea of reviewing it. I didn’t want to drag a game with such inner beauty through the tar. I had already accepted the key though and frankly, not doing so would be dishonest of me.

As heartfelt as the concept is, it is still a video game and entertainment product and it fails on both accounts. I can not recommend the game to anyone, but if you really want to experience the things I described, look into the PC version if possible. On a standard Xbox, it’s a complete catastrophe.

A key for Waking was provided for Gideon’s Gaming by Tiny Build.

If you made it this far you should totally check out my other reviews or my Kofi page. Or just share my stuff around, that helps too and it’s free.

Pros

  • An incredibly touching and heartfelt concept that puts you in the game and crafts power from your real memories
  • Unique combat system
  • Waking nails its thematic flair on a dreamscape with eerie beauty in its world and characters
  • Difficulty settings present

Cons

  • Repetitive shallow combat
  • Repetitive environments and objectives
  •  A small variety of enemies that look cool but are mechanically bland
  • An uninteresting and small pool of abilities
  • Clunky controls and interface combined with the hope and fear system is frustrating
  • Terrible stuttering, loading times and freezes make the game a terrible chore to play

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