As the debut game from the Barcelona-based studio Piccolo, Arise: A Simple Story takes a decidedly unique approach to storytelling. The upcoming action platforming puzzle game features a non-traditional protagonist – an unnamed Old Man who lived around 5,000 years ago, judging by his animal skin attire. He can’t take as much damage as a “younger” character, and he’ll perish if he falls from too great a height. The game will also have no dialogue except for the occasional whispers of words mixed into the sound effects and ambient music.
“In most games, you have a hero who has a great adventure before him,” Alexis Corominas, game director at Piccolo, explained. “We wanted something more personal that we could empathize with. So, why not an old man? Usually, they’re not the main character, and they have stories behind them instead of ahead of them.”
Looking back on life is the key theme of Arise. The early build that I played begins at the end, with the deceased protagonist being burned in his own funeral pyre. His soul is then transported to limbo, which is depicted as a barren and snowy landscape on which snow sculptures appear. Each sculpture represents a memory in the mysterious protagonist’s life, and the first one is made up of giant snails.
The scene shifts from snow to spring greenery as the Old Man approaches a stone statue of two kids flying a red kite. One is of a boy, who is presumably the Old Man as a child, but it’s not entirely clear who the girl is. Perhaps it’s a story similar to the movie Up, where two kids grow up together, fall in love, and get married. But it’s a story that’s slowly pieced together using metaphors, especially when it isn’t told in words.
Corominas said that the studio was trying to capture an exaggerated feeling with these memories, explaining that “when you’re recalling your first kiss, it’s not the same as having your first kiss.” So, each level is told through the lens of memory, which is why there are exaggerated artistic aspects.
The kite blows away, prompting me to follow it, and that’s when I’m introduced to the time control mechanic. Players can shift time forwards and back, changing the time of day and movements of the creatures with it. However, each level only has a fixed period of time. In this case, it’s from late morning to early evening. Everything except the Old Man is frozen when time isn’t being manipulated, which allows him to create paths and walkways.
I come upon a field of gigantic sunflowers, and I have to walk along their surfaces to get around. By manipulating time, the sunflowers tilt to follow the path of the sun, creating paths for me to follow. The Old Man will occasionally need to hitch a ride by climbing up on a giant snail or getting close enough to a bee to attach a grappling hook. Then it’s a simple matter of shifting time so that the creatures will ferry you to another part of the level.
For the most part, the puzzles are relatively straightforward, and I’m able to walk, climb, and jump my way through a linear path across gigantic mushrooms and rocks. However, I had two main issues with the gameplay. The first was with the perspective, which made it difficult for me to judge jumping distances at times. The second was with some of the surface edges, which could be strangely slippery, causing me to tumble off ledges.
Fortunately, there’s not much of a death penalty. Dying after a bad fall resets the Old Man to a nearby spot, usually about where he fell.
Walking through a dream
The game’s art director is Jose Luis Vaello, who also did the art for Rime. Even with the top-down perspective, I could see some similarities in Arise, specifically with the bright colors and gorgeous environments.
The demo I played focused solely on platforming and exploration, with no combat. I found a few children’s drawings, which are collectibles that help explain what’s going on in the level. For instance, he and the girl used to play hide-and-seek in the tall sunflower fields, and they played with snails as children. It’s difficult to know where the overall story is headed or what the Old Man is looking to accomplish, but Corominas assured me that it would all make sense in the full game.
When combined with the whimsical music composed by David García Díaz (who won a BAFTA award for his score on Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice), the game became a fairly laid-back experience. Corominas mentioned that enemies would appear later on, but he didn’t say whether that meant combat would be involved. In any case, it’s hard to imagine how much fighting the Old Man can do when he can’t swim or when falling from a relatively short height can re-kill him.
I was introduced to new gameplay mechanics as I progressed through the level, which included some climbing and trampoline jumping. This is when the game’s difficulty suddenly spiked up. Climbing involves holding down the right trigger of the controller while moving, or else the man will let go.
But the toughest part was growing and shrinking the spiderweb trampolines while timing my jumps so that I could leap up to higher landings. In some instances, I had to make spiderwebs form while the Old Man was in the air, which required way more coordination and multitasking than previous parts of the level. It took me a long while to figure them out so that I could reach the top of the mountain, and grab hold of the kite so that it could fly me away.
Corominas characterized the final part of the level as the puzzle equivalent of a boss fight, but it also serves as a kind of prelude for what’s to come.
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time
Although Arise: A Simple Story will have 10 levels that are unlocked in sequential order, there won’t necessarily be a linear difficulty curve, where each stage is harder than the last. Instead, as Corominas explained, each level is its own sort of microcosm. There will be some later levels that might be as easy as the first one, and there are mid-game stages that are more challenging than later ones. That also means that what you do in one level won’t necessarily prepare you for the next one. For instance, Corominas said that the spiderweb trampolines only existed in the sunflower stage.
He demonstrated this dramatic change by letting me play a few minutes of the next level, which featured an earthquake that was literally tearing the land apart. I don’t know what part of the Old Man’s life this memory came from, but it was a dark and violent one – completely different from the sunny, idyllic fields that came before. Corominas explained that the previous level was about the two kids coming together, and this level represented them being separated in a kind of Romeo and Juliet fashion.
Shifting time brought landmasses together or pushed them apart, but there was noticeably less of it to control. Where the first stage went from morning to evening, this level captured about 20 seconds of violent earth-shaking. Also, things didn’t completely freeze when I stopped pushing time back and forth.
Objects such as large boulders continued to fall, and I had to press a button to slow time down so that I could use them to swing from or jump onto. It was a very tricky switch compared to the previously straightforward time-shifting mechanic, and it made the game feel very different. At one point, I had to slow a boulder down as it fell so that I could use it as a bridge to jump across. Then I had to rewind time, grapple onto its bottom, and continue rewinding so that it could carry me up to a higher area. It’s becoming clear that each level’s theme will require different approaches and ways of thinking.
Fortunately, players won’t necessarily have to go on this adventure alone. Arise will feature couch co-op gameplay, where one person controls the Old Man while the other manipulates time. This should make the game easier while giving casual players a way to meaningfully interact.
“Being a game about memory and recalling things – and about things like happiness, sadness, and joy, it only makes sense for you to play this with the people you love,” said Corominas. “It [Arise] is supposed to be something that you can play with your spouse, your children, or your parents.”
Arise: A Simple Story releases digitally on December 3 for the PC on the Epic Games Store, as well as for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.