I can’t help but sympathise with Game Freak. As beloved and acclaimed as the Pokémon franchise is, it must get awfully dull developing for the same IP over and over again. They’ve been making the famous monster-catching games since 1996; in the same span of time, they’ve only developed about half a dozen games outside of the Pokémon franchise, one of which is Giga Wrecker Alt., an enhanced version of 2017’s Giga Wrecker.
It’s not uncommon for a developer’s work to share certain characteristics even across separate franchises, but this is about as different from Pokémon as a game possibly could be. The only slight overlap between the two is that they’re both single-player experiences and both are pretty darn fun to play. For such a drastic change in tone and genre, Game Freak have done good work here.
Set in the near-distant future, the game depicts a world where robots have taken over Earth and enslaved or killed most of humanity. In a fairly bleak opening, you learn that the young and healthy are made to work away their whole lives in austere-looking robot facilities, whereas the old and the sick are put down on the spot.
The story follows Reika, a presumably Japanese schoolgirl who has been imprisoned by the world’s new robot rulers. When a strange woman arrives at your cell, ostensibly to set you free, she’s discovered by the guards and instead tries to execute Reika before being dragged away by a hostile machine. Her attempt on Reika’s life wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, however. She sustains fatal injuries, but there’s hope: a conveniently passing doctor saves Reika by replacing her damaged limbs and organs with robotic ones, allowing her to navigate the bleak machine world.
The intro is quite dramatic and sets a tone of oppression and suspense, but the story itself is actually quite sparse and lighthearted. As you explore the labyrinthine zones, most of the exposition will come from banter-filled exchanges between Reika and the good doctor, who seems to know more about the situation than he’s letting on. Reika’s primary motivation is to find the girl who tried to rescue/kill her, but for the most part, the story is background noise to the gameplay itself.
At its core, Giga Wrecker Alt. is a Metroidvania title, so expect a lot of platforming, puzzle-solving, and backtracking. Reika’s newfound cyborg abilities allow her to manipulate the environment around her; the most basic ability she possesses is to pull pieces of debris to herself, forming a battering-ram weapon of sorts. This is the basis of your interaction with the world: not only is it your primary method of smashing enemies to bits, but it’s also what you use to solve many of the physics-based puzzles.
The fights themselves are easily the game’s weak link. Most enemies go down in a hit or two, with an occasionally gimmick thrown in for good measure. One type of robot, for example, is immune to frontal attacks but will attempt to strike you with its tail – a vulnerable point. Dodge the attack, strike back and it’s stunned, at which point it can be easily eliminated. The combat isn’t bad, but it certainly is trivial, and often to the point that it feels like the experience would hardly be any different without it.
Boss battles are a different story altogether. These fast-moving, highly dangerous opponents come with a variety of attacks and abilities that deal huge amounts of damage. These encounters force you to proceed with utmost caution – not to mention some deft reflexes – while you learn your enemy’s habits and wait for an opening. The difficulty spike here is almost staggering, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for how tough the first boss would be. It’s not that they’re overly difficult, mind you, but rather that the exceedingly basic fights with normal enemies do not adequately prepare you for boss encounters.
The puzzles themselves are fun and challenging, though they can frustrate as often as they might entertain. Physics-based puzzles are, after all, at the mercy of the game’s physics systems, and Giga Wrecker Alt.’s handling of this sort of thing isn’t always perfect. Many puzzles involve breaking towers and platforms to get them to fall in a certain way, granting you access to a previously unreachable location. Oftentimes, though, the thing you’re trying to destroy will tumble off in the wrong direction, or land just right before sliding inexplicably away from where it should be.
These occurrences aren’t the norm, but nor are they particularly rare. The game provides you with a handy reset tool for each puzzle, which returns the area to how it was when you first arrived, but even this comes with a caveat: the loading times for each reset can be anywhere up to ten seconds. For a one-off use, that isn’t too bad, though it is slightly surprising for a game that isn’t exactly pushing any technical boundaries. When you’re struggling with a puzzle, however, constant lengthy resets will only add to the frustration. There’s also a little robot sidekick who joins you early on, a new addition for the Alt. version of the game, and it’s their job to give you hints for a puzzle that might be holding you back.
I can’t deny that I was quite fond of the art style, particularly the way it blended a retro aesthetic with more modern animation techniques. It’s endearingly reminiscent of old ’90s sci-fi games, in all their stark, oppressive-looking glory. That’s not to say it looks bland, though. Far from it. This robot-filled, post-apocalyptic world has subtle vibrancy to it, and everything moves and flows with ease and grace. It’s a treat to watch Giga Wrecker Alt. in motion, especially in areas where the terrain itself is your biggest enemy.
All told, Giga Wrecker Alt. is an odd game. I’m still not quite over booting up a sci-fi platforming game and seeing the Game Freak logo appear. It can be frustrating at times, especially when the physics don’t work as they should or when the combat begins to wear thin. Even so, this is a strangely compelling experience, full of futuristic charms with a sprinkle of anime-esque melodrama. It’s unlikely to reinvent the wheel, but there’s no shortage of puzzle-solving, robot-smashing fun to be had.