NeverAwake Review

Don't sleep on this dreamy indie title


By Paul Hunter

While I tend to play and review mostly AAA games, I love checking out indie games in between the big releases. This year at Tokyo Game Show 2022, I went hands-on with indie twin-stick shooter NeverAwake by Yokohama-based developer Neotro and it was a real highlight of the show. This nightmarish shooter has beautiful hand-drawn visuals and a unique level-looping mechanic, unlike anything I've seen before in the genre. 

Now that the full game has been released on Steam, I had to play through all 80+ levels to experience everything this indie gem has to offer. If you're a console player, there's reason to keep an eye on this game as well: it's dropping on PS5, PS4 and Nintendo Switch on January 19, 2023. Let's enter the twisted world of NeverAwake, here are three things I liked about the game...and one I didn't.

Liked: Touching Story

I never go into an arcade twin-stick shooter expecting a story of any substance, I mean, these types of games are all about the action. But surprisingly, NeverAwake tells an emotional tale of a girl trapped in perpetual sleep who digs into her subconscious and finds Rem, a demonic fighter armed with a dragon-shaped gun. Rem goes to war against the horrific manifestations of the girl's fears that continue to torture her, even during her endless slumber.

The story is told through a brief intro and equally short cutscenes that happen after completing each world, which consists of ten levels. These segments depict a girl trapped in her own body, paralyzed and hospitalized, and suffering from years of depression, bullying and neglect. It's quite a sad tale, yet realistic and told respectfully throughout. The first half of the game mainly focuses on the girl confronting her darkest fears, while the latter half explores how she gets into her current comatose condition. It's a really intriguing narrative hook that immediately got me invested.

As you complete levels and dig deeper into the girl's painful past, you'll unlock diary entries that shed further insight into her day-to-day living. Some of it is uplifting—especially the warm moments she spends with her grandmother—but the majority of entries get into the school bullying and home neglect at the heart of her sadness.

The diaries are great because they give you a good perspective on the enemies and bosses you face off against; suddenly that grotesque creature you just put down takes on a greater meaning. The diary entries are optional reads, so if you want to focus on the action you can, but I enjoyed peeling back the layers of this smartly designed story.

Liked: Innovative Looping System

NeverAwake presents traditional auto-scroll shoot ’em-up levels but with a huge spin on the formula. As you destroy enemies they'll drop Souls, and you'll need to fill up your souls counter to 100% in order to complete levels. But if you don't get the full amount by the level end it'll seamlessly loop all over again. It's a fantastic system that opens up a range of possibilities.

For one thing, the looping system means that the more skilled you get at individual levels the faster you'll complete them. The game also keeps track of your high scores, including how many loops it took you, and it's very satisfying beating levels with a lower loop count. For those that want to show off their low-loop scores, NeverAwake includes a global leaderboard.

Conversely, if you have a bad run it's entirely possible to finish levels with 50% or less of the souls you need, which means you'll need to clear the level at least one more full time. Another wrinkle is that a looped level increases the difficulty. A big reason is that levels end with stronger-than-usual enemies that carry over to the next loop. Suddenly you've got tough foes from the previous loop, plus all the enemies in the current loop, and that's when all hell breaks loose. The overlapping loops can really throw you off balance and end your run fast.

If loops ever give you trouble, don't worry! NeverAwake was perfectly designed to appeal to gamers of all skill levels. There are several ways to tweak the gameplay in your favour, all based on your ability to 'bank' the souls you've collected. Should you fail a level, you can cash in 60 souls to play the next run in an enhanced state (called OverSoul) where you get two extra shield protection points and your firepower does significantly more damage. It's a snap to beat levels being so overpowered and a great option for those wanting a toned-down challenge. It doesn't take long to acquire the requisite 60 souls, so you can OverSoul virtually whenever you want. In my current game, I have over 4,000 souls banked!

Another option to make life easier for you is to purchase new weapons and weapon upgrades using souls. There are numerous weapon types to buy, from the Sunflower that shoots bullets all around you to the powerful Trumpet shotgun to the Remote Gun that creates a duplicate of Rem's gun for double the firepower. Weapons can also be upgraded to dole out even more damage.

That's not all though, as you can also buy dozens of accessories with a huge variety of boosts and passive perks. The most beneficial are the Shield Rings that increase Rem's defence and School Umbrella that protects her from frontal enemy fire. Accessories can also be upgraded, and you can purchase additional accessory slots to equip even more helpful goodies. To give you a sense of how beneficial these equipable items are, when I started the game one hit and I died, but now I've got six shield bars and protective umbrellas in front and behind. Best of all, weapons and accessories get added to the in-game shop very frequently, so you'll always have plenty of options whenever you want to spend.

Liked: Stunning, Sick Bosses

NeverAwake's biggest plus has to be the gorgeous hand-drawn enemies you'll face, especially the eye-popping bosses. Each world contains sub-bosses and end bosses, all based on various fears that haunt the girl. For example, she hates vegetables and you end up facing off against bosses based on wasabi mustard and eggplants, with the final boss being this horrendous veggie scrap creature that takes up half the screen. Later worlds will pit you against bosses manifested from other fears, such as violent dogs, nasty schoolmates, challenging math class and the dreaded dentist. There are over 20 bosses to battle and by far they're the best part of the game.

I also have to call out the superb '90s arcade soundtrack that brings these otherwise dreary levels to life. Each world is punctuated with strong beats that have their own flavour, helping to give the zones distinct vibes. Neotro also enlisted YonYon, a Seoul-born, Tokyo-raised DJ, to produce the game's catchy official theme song "AWAKE". You can listen to the song here (it's really good!).

Didn't Like: Special Weapon Glitching

From a technical perspective, NeverAwake runs quite smoothly on the Steam Deck, where I did the bulk of the playing. Smooth frame rates and responsive gameplay were the norms. But for some reason, every few levels I'd notice that my secondary special weapon wouldn't fire at all. A simple exit back to the menu and revisiting the level would usually fix the problem, but it was still an annoyance. There is an option to turn on auto-fire (for those that struggle with twin-stick action) and when I tested that feature out, I noticed the special weapon glitching was even more prevalent. I'm sure this bug could easily get patched out, so hopefully, the developer is aware and working on a fix.

The Verdict

NeverAwake kept me awake for long hours as I felt compelled to binge-play the more than 80 levels in the game. The luscious graphics and innovative level-looping gameplay instantly hooked me and separates it from the crowded shoot 'em up genre. The best surprise, though, was the thoughtful story that tackles tough topics with sensitivity and elegance. You might not get a wink of sleep if you add this amazing title to your Steam library.

Final Score: 8.5/10 - Great

NeverAwake details

Platform: PC
Developer: Neotro
Publisher: Phoenixx
Genre: Twin-Stick Shoot ’em Up
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: TBD

A key was provided by the publisher.