The best indie games of 2019 (and beyond)
Games famously treat death as a pavlovian penalty for player error, but Arise: A Simple Story decides to kill off our protagonist before we've even pressed a button. Our nameless greybeard's funeral is the opening act to Piccolo Studio's debut adventure, one which chronicles his proceeding rite of passage through limbo, as treasured memories play out in the form of distinctly themed platforming levels.
One early stage, Joy, suggests Arise will be a twee and relatively undemanding yarn that unashamedly pitches itself as Journey Lite in all but name, but this five hour pilgrimage soon metamorphs into a powerfully affecting eulogy on grief and trauma that pulls very few of its punches. Make no mistake, then; Arise can be a real tearjerker at times, despite – and sometimes a result of – the bucolic and often preternatural pleasantries of its elegiac setting, rendered in breathtaking visuals via the Unreal Engine.
That art style, one which invokes the profound beauty of simple imagery, is representative of Arise's overall efficacy as an experience beyond the sum of its parts. The game's central mechanic, for example, is the ability to manipulate time across a limited period via the right analogue stick. This is hardly a novel concept, seen before in titles like Prince of Persia, Life is Strange, and others, but Piccolo uses the mechanic to further Arise's themes around memory and loss while embellishing its platforming with elements of cerebral puzzling.
One particularly strong level, Away, restricts its time lapse to a mere ten seconds of an earthquake, forcing you to ascend a crumbling valley via the life-saving powers of rewind, pause, and fast forward. Another takes place in what I'm pretty sure is a fertilized uterus (Like I said, the game goes places), in which our wandering spirit bounces across cell streams and straddles fallopian tubes to bring life into existence.
Not everything works (a water-based stage becomes a frequently aggravating reminder of our character's cliched inability to swim, even in the afterlife), but this central idea is executed with enough smarts and tact by Piccolo to leave a positive impression.
Life after death
Indeed, critiquing Arise is like giving constructive feedback to a puppy. I can't do it. It's too adorably earnest. That said, I wouldn't be doing my job properly if I didn't say Piccolo's first effort isn't without its teething problems. Arise's identity as a platformer is where it stumbles hardest, with awkward controls that can turn delight into tedium whenever gravity is brought into the equation.
I know this astral OAP is hardly a supernatural Spider-Man, but his threshold for fall damage is both inconsistent and laughably poor. As a result, it's not always clear which demarcated areas are out of bounds or open for exploration, leading to needless fail states and trials by error which undercut the crucial pacing of Arise's story.
These moments are hardly bothersome enough to derail Arise from its main objectives as an interactive story, however, which compelled me to see the game through to its end within just two sittings. Not enough can be said about David García's score, either; a resonant medley of ambient piano and stirring strings that pirouettes and crescendos gracefully in tandem with the on-screen action, evocative enough to draw a tear all on their own, (if the heart-rendering narrative already hasn't left you a drenched wreck, that is).
Smart, beautiful, and quietly profound, Arise is absolutely worth its £16/$19 price point, especially as 2019 wraps up and we begin to gesticulate on our favourite games of the year. It's a far from perfect product but, by the time my celestial travels with this stocky playdough santa claus had wrapped up (with the most bittersweet of bittersweet endings, no less), Arise had managed to strike a chord with me in a way that few other games have this year. Its story may be simple, but the emotions it sits with are anything but.
Check out the biggest new games of 2019 still on the way, or watch the latest episode of Dialogue Options below.