Barcelona studio Piccolo's debut narrative platformer Arise: A Simple Story looks mesmerizing, taking players on an intimate, inward-facing journey.
It all starts with a funeral pyre, and a community gathering to pay tribute to a departed elder. Other games might have you play the village’s plucky young adventurer, pondering their own mysterious fate as they watch the elder’s body transition to ash. Not so in upcoming indie puzzle-platformer Arise: A Simple Story, with players taking control of the actual elder himself on a meditative afterlife adventure.
In line with those morbid beginnings, Arise: A Simple Story intends to offer some insight into death, loss, regret, and memory. A fetching, somewhat minimalistic art style introduces players to the dead elder, who finds himself in a wintry limbo hub-world. Wordless and steeped in a procedural soundtrack (helmed by David García, of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice fame), Arise communicates a rather abstracted narrative through its level environments and unique gameplay mechanics. The aesthetic qualities relate a contemplative feeling that is bolstered by its mechanics, which the game’s director Alexis Corominas hopes will further engage players into the narrative experience:
“...Arise tells the story of an old man [who] dies, wakes in limbo, and starts recalling the key moments of his lifetime. And, because it’s about memories and [a] lifetime...we wanted fresh original mechanics. Because we’re not doing walking simulators...we want to do games. Gameplay helps tell the story—it’s not just an accessory that you have there between cinematics. It has to be an integral part.”
Alexis’ conceptual offering to Arise’s mechanic is thus: the game operates around what he refers to as a “time lapse.” In one of the two levels we got to experience in the demo, the player controls the time of day, from dawn til dusk. Pressing to the left on the right analog stick rewinds the time of day and the position of the sun, while pressing right fast forwards it. Within this mechanic, in this specific level, the environment activates and moves back and forth as well; bees fly on their journey, flowers reorient to face the sun, and comically large snails trace their journeys on the forest bed, among other reactions. Additionally, holding the right trigger freezes time in place.
Soon enough, players will be using the protagonist’s grappling hook to latch onto over-sized bumblebees, who then carry the elder to hard-to-reach places. If there’s any confusion about where to go, you can just start fiddling with the time lapse to see what changes, and then determine how this might help you reach a higher ledge or access another section of the level.
If someone looked at five seconds of the gameplay, they might think that Arise is a more conventional 3D platformer, but the time manipulation becomes a truly unique problem-solving tool. Additionally, since the elder is...well, an elder, he can’t really fall from high places or wall-jump all over the map like a spry ninja. He’s relatively nimble but also rather fragile, though any time the character falls into a pit or dies, the game quickly restarts from a frequently-updated checkpoint.
The game is also absolutely gorgeous in motion, with tantalizing views—in the forest level, the first time you look out onto a field of gargantuan sunflowers bowing to the sun is strangely moving. Jumping between these massive floral platforms and zipping between them while tied to a fuzzy insect was a memorable moment in the demo.
The specific level being described here is meant to represent the elder’s memory of childhood, which is one of the reasons why everything looks so much larger. Alexis describes it: “It’s not because all of the world looks like that—it’s because the memory is of childhood. You know, when you are a child and you’re running through the woods, the things [around you] seemed big.” This sensibility informs the symbolic tendency of Arise’s world, where the truth of the memory is filtered through the character’s subjective mind and perspective. In other words: it’s not just a matter of recollection, but of telling a story refracted through an old man’s emotions.
The forest level was quite tranquil, but the following level explained how the elder was separated from his lover. Here, the time lapse is incredibly brief—a matter of seconds—and the right analog stick controls a cataclysmic separation of two mountainsides as the elder navigates through a stormy valley. This includes tumbling boulders that need to be frozen in time to act as platforms and grappling points, and an interesting section where you can climb between shattered handholds as they slough off cliffs. Nothing here is tranquil at all, and this particular memory seems to invoke romantic loss and inter-tribal conflict, and is much more mechanically complex and daunting than gaily leaping around a sunflower field.
Secret achievement-ready collectibles dot the levels, taking the form of wordless storybook panels that add more detailed context to each level. Additionally, statues can be found in key areas, somewhat reminiscent of those in The Witness, and these further fill in the plot particulars. As optional content they seem a viable pursuit for players who want to push past the accessible metaphors in the game and tease out the narrative, but going off the beaten path to find them is also predictably rewarding.
There’s also a subtle cooperative mode baked into the game, where one player can control the elder while the other is responsible for each level’s time lapse adjustment. In the later level we played, this definitely seems like a lofty task, but should satisfy some nice couch co-op with a partner or close friend.
“He really wanted to do it. He still works at Ninja Theory, but in his spare time, he has done everything. Everything means: the music and the sound effects, and the programming of the music and the sound effects. He’s such a genius that he does everything...he has three daughters [too], I don’t know how he does everything!”
Some of the inspirations cited by Corominas for the game include Disney’s Fantasia, Playdead’s Inside, Studio Ghibli films, and thatgamecompany’s modern-day classic Journey. From our experience of Arise: A Simple Story, these seem like strong touchstones for the emotions the game means to impart on its players, as well as the superb visual and aural design.
People won’t have to wait very long, as Arise: A Simple Story is due out on December 3, 2019 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Epic Game Store. Pre-orders come with David Garcia’s complete soundtrack as a free pack-in.