Developer Piccolo Studio’s debut game, Arise: A Simple Story, really hit me with a hard gut-wrenching punch. From its opening moments of witnessing the protagonist’s funeral, to his journey through limbo accessing his old memories, I couldn’t shake the feeling of finality and loss. It gave me the same sunken feeling I get every time that I watch the video to Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’.
Seeing an old, weathered Cash perform whilst clips play of his younger self, knowing it’s likely to be his last ever song, really makes me overly emotional, almost to the point that I fear old age. The thought of looking back before the very end, or after the end in the case of Arise: A Simple Story, at when you were young, fit and strong, falling in love for the first time, having fresh new experiences and witnessing all of your very best moments throughout your life is magical, but now, it’s simply the end – the finality of it all fills me with dread…
As stated, Arise: A Simple Story begins at your funeral with your tribe standing around you, mourning their loss as they say their final goodbyes before setting your body alight. You awake, still as an old burly man with a thick bushy white beard, but now you are in a beautiful and peaceful snowy hillside world that acts as a kind of purgatory. From this point, you can see a light shining on a hill in the distance that will be your goal, but to reach this, you must first access the swirling portals in the snow that lead to your past memories.
These memories are often whimsical and fantastical takes on the most prominent moments of the man’s life and tell the bittersweet story of the relationship he had with his partner. The story is incredibly well told through visuals only, without the need for any narration. Environmental cues, statues of little snippets of the old man’s life, and memory orbs depicting beautiful hand-drawn illustrations of memories found across the levels are the only storytelling mechanics within this wonderful 4-5 hour adventure.
The ten very distinct levels throughout Arise: A Simple Story are a visual delight. The sandbox environments range from being quite grounded to being very abstract, linking closely to the theme of the memory. You will find yourself from a world of giant flowers and taking rides on snails, to having to traverse a flaming cavern. Worlds tend to have plenty of vibrant, bold colours and the graphical style reminded me a lot of fellow indie-game RIME only even more impressive.
I don’t want to give away too many details on the levels themselves, as they play a huge part in the story, though my personal favourite is the memory called ‘Romance’. In this level the old man takes to the water, riding across lily pads and flowers recreating dancing with his partner. It’s truly a beautiful concept that plays out perfectly. There are plenty of heartwarming moments throughout Arise: A Simple Story but that’s not to say there isn’t great sadness too. One story element I really didn’t see coming and it literally crushed me, I was a sobbing mess.
Aside from the lovely visuals, Arise: A Simple Story’s musical score is incredibly powerful and emotive too. Both the composer and sound designer is David Garcἰa, noticeable for his work on both Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and RIME, and this, for me, is his strongest work yet. The ‘Romance’ memory that I detailed above is made even more uplifting with a dashing waltz playing as you ride across the water, while the games moments of sorrow are made even more impactful with soft piano tones that really pull at the heartstrings.
Arise: A Simple Story can be described as a basic platformer with puzzle elements. Gameplay mechanics are truly very simple as the title of the game dictates. You can jump, climb and use a grappling hook to swing from foliage or pull-down tree trunks to create pathways. The real magic of the game is the ability to manipulate time either by reversing or speeding up events with a simple movement of the R3 button. It works very similarly to the time mechanics in the indie side-scrolling runner game Planet Alpha, where elements of the level’s environment will move depending on the moment in time, such as water or snow receding so that you can reach a platform, or a boulder rolling down a valley which you can freeze in place to hop on and ride.
The only enemies you come across are phantoms of the old man which you find clustered together in large numbers in only a couple of the memories. These are slow-moving, easily avoidable and cleverly freezing time when a lightning strike lights the sky will make the phantoms vanish for safe travel. My only slight niggle with the platforming elements of the game is the fact that it’s not always clear where the old man’s jumps will land and you have to be so precise, which makes it often quite frustrating.
This isn’t helped by the fact that in most games characters tend to have the ability to land safely from fairly high falls. Not in the case of Arise: A Simple Story where the old man will crumble in a heap from even the smallest of heights. I guess it’s because he is old and has weak bones, maybe? It’s not too much of an issue though, as there is no consequence from dying as I guess as you are technically dead already, and you find yourself swiftly returned back to the point before you died in a matter of moments.
Arise: A Simple Story surprisingly features a local co-op option where a friend or family member can join you on the journey and manipulate the time elements for you. It’s quite a fitting tale to share with a loved one, however, I played the entirety of the game on my own and was kind of glad I did as I wasn’t aware of just how impactful it was going to be on me – no one needs to witness me crying, it’s really not pretty.
Once you have picked yourself off the floor, after the emotional ending to Arise: A Simple Story, there’s a bit of replay value on offer through collecting the hidden memory orbs throughout the levels or undertaking the various tasks within the trophy list to gain the very achievable Platinum trophy. I’m definitely planning to replay the game with my partner joining me in co-op mode so she can experience the wonderful story and hopefully, I should be able to keep my emotions in check this time around.
Arise: A Simple Story has done something no other media has done to me in quite some time, send me on a rollercoaster of emotions. The game’s environments are visually very pretty and often quite quirky, while the musical score is truly moving and compliments the game perfectly. While the time manipulation concept is nothing new, it is done very cleverly and makes for some interesting platforming sequences. Platforming precision may be a minor irritation but it doesn’t impede the overall experience in the slightest.
As a debut game from Piccolo Studio, I’m thoroughly impressed as it’s easily one of my favourite indie games of the year, possibly only behind the artistic masterpiece that is GRIS. If you are planning on playing this game, which I heavily advise you do, just make sure you have a box of tissues at the ready!.