I’ve just finished Phoenotopia: Awakening since it was recommended by someone on the ‘underrated games’ RPS article, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had more mixed feelings about a game. It’s a pixelly metroidvania with strong Zelda influences, without any of the polish, but with a whole lot more meat on the game’s bones: the first dungeon alone is large enough to get properly lost in, and you can spend a solid hour in it solving puzzles, platforming and bashing beasties.
If the game does one thing well, it’s scale: dungeons are huge and crammed with puzzles, other challenged and loot, towns are huge and full of NPCs, things to do, and secrets to discover, and you travel between those places via an overworld map with additional chances of random encounters (you can see them coming) and other small locales to discover. The art looks amazing everywhere you go: backgrounds are richly detailed, there’s tons of variety in environments and there’s a surprising depth to the moods on display.
I have less good things to say about the platforming and combat, which is just awkward. There’s no coyote time, everything costs stamina, enemies knock you about like a football, and your attack has a pitiful hitbox. It didn’t stop me from having fun with the game, though. No, what stopped me from having fun is the unmistakable element of sadism that shows up intermittently in the boss fights.
The boss at the midpoint was the culmination of this. He has a move where he teleports next to you, stuns you, steals one of your healing items, and eats, it, gloating all the while. If it hits, you’re immobile for EIGHT SECONDS. You might avoid it once, but he does this THREE TIMES in a row. You have to dodge this perfectly EVERY TIME. What he steals HEALS HIM. What motivated the developer to make such an utter cunt of a boss I cannot imagine. It took me like an hour to beat him, and the rest of the game doesn’t pull any more dick moves of the same magnitude, but my god, what a stain on an otherwise perfectly agreeable game.
The other bosses can be a pain in the ass too: the vast majority are utterly impossible to avoid getting hit by, so you just gotta tough it out and deal more damage than you take. Thankfully there are not a lot of them and most of the time you can just enjoy exploring, solving puzzles and finding secrets. There’s a fair bit of room for sequence breaking, which I absolutely love. You can skip ahead to a few powerups by pushing the game mechanics to their limit: certain treasures are physics-enabled for example, so with clever use of bombs or projectiles, you can bypass a platforming challenge that requires an item you don’t have.
I had a great time with 95% of the game so I would still recommend it, albeit reservedly. Just turn on all of the accessibility options for that one boss and load up on attack-boosting items, and hopefully he won’t make you want to quit the game, uninstall it and purge it from your steam account like I did.