Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a gorgeous, intelligent platformer. Beginning with a blatant Super Mario Bros. rip-off for the Commodore 64, the series was revitalized after last year's successful Kickstarter campaign by developer Black Forest Games. The result is an ambitious game with variable mechanics, visuals, and music, all hinging on a well-implemented duality system. Smart level design forces you to use all of your abilities and prepares you for encounters with the game's unforgiving bosses. Instead of pointing out obvious pathways around every obstacle, Giana Sisters constantly pushes you to learn from your mistakes. It's tough, but almost never unfair. It's fast-paced, but sprinkled with hidden treasures for the adventurous among you. And perhaps most interestingly, it trusts you to make the most out of a limited moveset.
The premise is a thin one that serves only to introduce your character. Two young sisters sit huddled together on a cramped bed. A portal opens within the darkness, snatching little Maria and tugging her into a dangerous dreamworld. Her sister, the bold and brave Giana, leaps into the vortex after her. What she discovers is a menacing world of platforms, pits, and spikes--and the looming crimson dragon that inhabits it.
You're immediately introduced to the aforementioned duality system, which must be used to navigate traps. At the press of a button, Giana can switch between cute and punk versions of herself. Cute Giana has access to a twirl maneuver, which slows your rate of descent and allows you to float between flying fish, spike bunches, and more. Punk Giana is equipped with a fiery dash, used offensively or as a means of boosting across gaps. This skill can be used only once per jump, though it recharges if an enemy is killed midflight.
In one of Giana Sisters' more brilliant design choices, a shift in personas signals a shift not only in available skills, but also in level layout, art direction, and musical tone. Punk Giana blasts aggressively through a gorgeous world of sunshine and lush, green trees. Mushrooms stand healthy and orange. Most enemies appear to be funny, rotund marching birds. Switching to cute Giana turns the world into a chalky, scarlet hell. The vegetation withers and dies. The tree branch you stand on becomes a dry, yellow backbone. Innocent birds become winged demons. The music switches from an upbeat, bouncy tone to a heavier, more metallic version of itself. Platforms that were once translucent phase into existence while others disappear. Gems that weren't obtainable in another form become corporeal. You change the world at the press of a button, and the transformation is always both beautiful and functional.
The game's beauty can occasionally act as a double-edged sword, however. Because the environments are exploding with color, some of the more vibrant traps--spiked vines, for example--blend in too well with the background. You may die numerous times as you simply stroll along, unaware that death waits at the next step. Some of the jumping fish are also difficult to see as they rest atop the water, especially when persona shifting alters the color of the puddles. Prepare to receive several surprise nips on the rear. These problems won't be constant, but they can be frustrating when they spring up just moments before a new checkpoint.
After finishing this game, you're not going to talk to others about which version of Giana you used most. The levels and enemies demand that you switch between both, sometimes at a dizzying pace. Imagine jumping off an enemy's head, rocket blasting high into the air as Punk Giana, and then twirling along a path of collectible orbs as Cute Giana, all the while shifting to deactivate spike blocks and stalactite barriers. Red and white ghosts pursue you in later levels depending on whether you're cute or punk. Dodging their assaults while scaling vertical tree mazes becomes an exercise in dexterity. The game keeps your finger glued to the trigger, eager to tap your way to safety in a fraction of a second. The pain of these trials is lessened by the fact that Giana Sisters is very generous in doling out checkpoints. As a result, the challenge of the game takes the form of tight, successive sprints rather than a grueling marathon.
To up the stakes, each level has several supersized gems hidden in hard-to-reach locations. As you navigate your way through the worlds, you notice divergent paths, though some of them aren't quite so obvious. Following these all the way to their rewards often requires more precision than avoiding the traps along the main path. Many ask you to jump off the heads of multiple flying enemies without falling to your death, or to navigate moving platforms while dodging enemies or outrunning swift walls of fire. The hidden gems unlock concept art, which you probably won't care about, but they're also usually surrounded by a hearty stockpile of gems, which you definitely should care about.
Stars are earned for completing levels, and how many you earn depends on the number of gems you collected and the number of times you died. Time is not a factor, at least not in the standard adventure mode. Aside from representing how well you did, the stars are used to unlock the seals preventing you from facing bosses. If you slack off during your first time through a level, you can count on heading back through it later with more zeal. This design choice pushes you to use the provided mechanics to explore.
Giana Sisters' few bosses are difficult, but only because they expect mastery of the mechanics presented in the preceding levels. They are the exams following the lectures, as it were. Success against the first boss hinges almost entirely on timing and dodging. The second requires precision jumping, persona shifting, dodging, and a touch of foresight. Play intelligently, learn from your deaths, and you will overcome.
The game doesn't end after you finish the 20-plus levels, however. Every level beaten in the standard adventure becomes unlocked in other modes. Entirely new modes can be unlocked too, each fundamentally changing how Giana Sisters is played. Some work brilliantly, while others are hindered by poor design choices. Score Attack mode plays out within the normal levels but with a heavier emphasis on speed. Enemy kills and gem collection increase your ever-draining score multiplier, so there's a powerful impetus to beat a level as quickly but as thoroughly as possible. The tick of the clock is normally absent, so by adding one, and then making it integral to the gameplay, Black Forest Games has given you what feels like a separate game with its own accelerated pacing.
Time Attack mode is less thrilling, unfortunately. As the name suggests, your goal is to reach the end of the level as quickly as possible--gems and enemies be damned. Modes like this necessitate a speedy trial-and-error type of play, and the game's options should do everything they can to facilitate that. Giana Sisters doesn't have a "restart level" option in its menu, so if you're shooting for a perfect run and you mess up at the start, your only options are to finish the level or back out and restart. Throw in the game's awful loading times, and you're looking at about 40 seconds of downtime between attempts. The lengthy pause is a shame, especially given other platformers, such as Super Meat Boy, make the restart process almost instantaneous.
For masochists, there are the aptly named Hardcore and Uber Hardcore modes. Playing hardcore means all checkpoints are removed, turning each level into a nightmare maze of pointy things. You may die upward of 50 times on some of the later levels, so knocking that down to zero is a substantial challenge. Uber Hardcore mode is surely one of the most difficult challenges in all of gaming. You attempt to play through all 23 areas in one go, and if you die once, it's back to level one. Watch out for those camouflaged spiked vines.
The greatest thing about Giana Sisters is its confidence. Instead of drip-feeding you a steady supply of upgrades or weapons, the game presents two basic mechanics and then builds a compelling experience around them. By the end of your time with the game, you feel like you've achieved more with so few maneuvers than you have in most games with more moves at your disposal. With its eye-catching art and its plethora of game modes, all of which deviate strongly from the core experience, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams manages to step out from beneath Mario's famous red cap as something distinctly great.'