Developer: Wondernaut Studio
Publisher: Untold Tales
Genre: Platformer, Action
It’s not enough to simply make a puzzle platformer nowadays, even with the advent of better and tighter design controls. Puzzle platformers without some kind of narrative or drive end up on the mobile game store markets being given away for free with ads running over a quarter of the screen. No, you need to have any kind of story to help move things forward, even if the story is one that you’ve heard before. Without trying to poke anyone in the eye, Aspire: Ina’s Tale is a revisitiation of the narrative that we’ve heard in several games beforehand, though that does make getting into the elements of it all that much easier.
Aspire: Ina’s Tale is focused around the titular Ina, who is a living component of a dark and mysterious tower. She is named “The Heart,” and is the key to everything that exists in this massive monument of some evil warlord. Awakening one day and finding that she’s regained a bit of her bearings, Ina has only one thought: escape the tower, get back to her village and, hopefully, reunite with her family. The brief narration at the beginning suggests that Ina’s escape attempts will not necessarily be successful, but that the importance of her jailbreak is one of self discovery and finding out what makes her Ina. It seems that the tower is filled with living machinery, some of it benevolent, some aggressive, but Ina will come to understand all the tower’s inhabitants on her quest for freedom, enlightenment and answering the bigger question: what does it truly mean to be free?
Anyone who’s had a chance to play Child of Light in the last few years will understand a bit of the tone that comes with Aspire: Ina’s Tale. Our protagonist will run, jump and climb throughout the tower in an effort to move forward, activate machinery and avoid ferocious beasts that seem only intent on obliterating her. If she falls down a hole, gets touched by the guardian hounds or otherwise is incapacitated, Ina will dissolve, respawning at the last check point she discovered. There are no save states here: you need to make serious forward motion and overcome the puzzle set out before you before the game will let you progress, and the puzzles, for the most part, are short enough that you can put in the hard work to unlock the next progress point without too much difficulty. However, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s vital that you don’t let your guard down until you hit that next checkpoint tower. There were a couple times where I thought the hard part was over and I then promptly stepped down a pit, died, and had to do the whole damn thing over again.
What helps to set Aspire: Ina’s Tale apart from the average game is a three part recipe that mixes into something both sweet and bitter. Firstly, the presentation of the game itself. Done up in a beautiful mixture of low fidelity textures with high point angles, there’s a dreamlike quality that exists within the Tower, one that fluctuates between a horrid nightmare (the red and jagged beasts) to crystalline purity. When you walk through certain rooms and see Ina’s visage refracted and reflected across multiple crystals or sojourn through a temple room that’s overrun with carefully cultivated ivy, there’s almost a serene quality to it. The soundtrack, which does a lovely job of incorporating some original piano score with the synthetic orchestra, only heightens these moments. You can really get caught up in the more slower paced moments of the game, thought these, sadly, become less common the deeper you go into the story.
Secondly, the light and dark puzzle components. Though it’s most prominent at the beginning, Aspire: Ina’s Tale has a decent head on its shoulders regarding the utilization of the unique “light power” technique. Ina’s ability to commune with the living technology of the tower gives rise to the propensity to move the floating energy from one vessel to another, which does anything from dissolving darkness to creating expanding platforms. The early introduction of the concept helps to expand the understanding of the game’s expectations much later on, so that you can quickly glean the next steps later on without too much exposition. It can be a little frustrating at times, simply because the way the energy works from item to item changes and, on occasion, can hamstring you. For example, the lanterns that you pick up in the beginning MUST be held (by holding down a button) for the duration of you needing them. This means that you need to remember to keep the Y button compressed if you don’t want to get murdered by the devil dog you’re trying to beat back, and, shockingly, you give up the ability to jump. To get the energy into the platforms, you need to have enough space to expand, and you can very well push yourself to your own doom without thinking it through. Again, a puzzle platformer often requires very specific end condition parameters, but it’s still surprising to see just HOW limited it can be.
Which brings us to our third point, the stickiest of them all: the precision. Aspire: Ina’s Tale wants the players to interact and land in ways that they have devised are possible, but also have little forgiveness to them. A very early puzzle involves you needing to slide down a slope and then climb up a chain in order to avoid being eaten by a guardian. If you overshoot your jump, though, you’ll land with your back to the chain, and pushing up to start the ascent will not work: Ina cannot intuitively understand the rope in her vicinity is what she should be interacting with unless she’s looking directly at it. With almost no time to adjust, I was killed many, many times before I jumped, landed and climbed at the right pace. This early example echoes itself time and again throughout the game’s four areas. If you don’t hit the game the way the developers expected you to, do it again and again until it’s done right.
This rigidity in interaction was a bit of a damper on the overall experience of Aspire: Ina’s Tale, though I can’t help but wonder if it was on purpose. Even with longer exposition scenes where Ina talks to the denizens of the tower (and learns something very important about her role), the whole game experience was about three hours, a pleasant if limited afternoon. Therefore, I like to think that the staunch parameters were meant to help increase the game’s total playthrough. Still, the throughline about choices and meaning were interesting, and the ending, though poignant, managed to deliberately undercut what the game said at the beginning (no spoilers, but the introduction seems meaningful, yet isn’t). All in all, while short, Aspire: Ina’s Tale was an enchanting romp that did inspire me to look closer at further stories and the dual relationship between the dependents and the dependables. Enjoy it like a beautiful film: wonderful to behold, but only a select few will find the need to view it again and again.
Aspire: Ina's Tale
The journey to discovery in Aspire: Ina's Tale is short and fraught with frustration, but the dynamics and visuals more than make up for the shortcomings.