It’s tough being a kid these days. School is rough, home ain’t much better, and to top it off, you get hit by a car. What better to do now than dream anxiously in your coma about your worst nightmares? Ranging from eating wasabi, to going to the dentist, to never fulfilling your parents’ expectations, conquer your darkest fears and shoot down all nightmarish foes in your path!
Developed by Neotro Inc and published by Phoenixx Inc, NeverAwake is a fun little shoot-em-up with a very unique creepy aesthetic, based on the memories of the main protagonist, Rem. After a tragic accident results in her falling into a deep coma, she battles the demons based on her most miserable memories and her biggest anxieties. NeverAwake was released on September 28th on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4/5, and Steam for PC.
The core identity of NeverAwake lies in its design premise. Levels are extremely short autoscrollers with consistent enemy patterns, but will loop back to the start if the objective is not yet completed, and each loop adds increasing difficulty. It starts with some extra bullets, then enemies get a little tougher, but suddenly the bullets are endless streams and weirdos start spawning whenever they feel like it.
Bosses are no exception, where even getting through the first loop is often a massive challenge, as each boss has a whopping total of six phases per life. While clearing only three is necessary for story progression, it’s always worth the experience of fighting the boss to the end. Your reward? Even more boss. Or death.
While the gameplay is excellent, the art and design is what first drew me in. NeverAwake has a bold and unapologetic style, with sharp neon colored gunfire contrasted against dark moody backgrounds, and creepy enemies infesting every dank corner firing off the single bullet that hits you in an otherwise flawless run. The boss designs are big and bad, mean and memorable. The graphics are a seamless mixture of beautiful 2D hand-drawn artwork and crisply rendered 3D modeling.
On top of it all, NeverAwake has an amazing OST that perfectly captures the mood of each world, with catchy boss themes that’ll have you tapping to the beat as you die relentlessly.
While the main story will take only around 10-15 hours to complete, NeverAwake features some very unique replayability. There’s a considerable amount of bonus content unlocked from completing special versions of many levels, certain Steam achievements that are legitimately difficult challenges, and there’s a leaderboard and scoring system. Paired with the excellent gameplay, NeverAwake offers untold hours of satisfying replayability.
A tale of the past and the present
There are actually two plots to NeverAwake being unveiled at the same time, which is kind of weird, but it’s not bad, as it’s always pretty clear which plot is being developed.
The first plotline is Rem’s core memories, which start long before the events of NeverAwake, but also are being formed through the events of the game. For example, as early as she could remember, Rem had a particular hatred of vegetables, immortalized in instances such as the sushi event, a moment of profound betrayal when Rem was given a rice ball that was just completely slathered in wasabi – her dad laughed, and her mom only reached for her drink.
But while there are a few gems like the sushi event, the majority of the album comprises of some very familiar scenes, such as getting chased by the neighborhood dog, or a disastrous visit to the dentist, painting an easily relatable story, if not slightly unremarkable. I also had a strong distaste for vegetables, and I was once mauled by a dog at a park because I was a dumbass kid. The similarities go on, but they’re really just minor events now, small character building opportunities. Rem just hasn’t yet gotten to an age where she can self-reflect like that, since she’s still in the first grade. But hey, she beat her social anxiety before I beat mine, so she’s doing something right.
The second plotline is Rem’s journal, which she began at the start of the school year. It’s a sad story of an anxious young child, caught between argumentative parents, and unable to form a meaningful bond with even her own sister, who’s seen as the perfect elder sibling. Other than Gramma, her maternal grandma, she has only one friend, Yuki, who isn’t in her class this year. Thrust into an unfamiliar environment with her poor social skills, she’s miserable both at home and at school. Then Gramma dies, and then by pure coincidence, Rem gets into a horrible car accident and falls into a coma, which is when the game is occurring canonically.
It’s written kind of how like a child would, reinforcing that the narrator is young, and can only see and understand so much. There are many instances of foreshadowing certain events, particularly surrounding Gramma’s illness, which Rem clearly doesn’t fully comprehend, and she’s just sort of dragged along the current of time.
Being written with such simple prose also allows for some more creative interpretations of what’s going on. For instance, it’s an established fact that, prior to her accident, Rem’s parents had a fairly toxic relationship, something that is noted in both the diary entries and the photo album. Their poor relationship even materialized as a very unique boss fight, Jack & Lisa, a memory of a spat between Rem’s parents, in which her weapons have no effect, and instead, Jack & Lisa’s attacks damage each other. Lisa often spits sharp knife-like words and fiery vitriol, while Jack often resorts to violent outbursts of slamming walls and furniture.
The reasons for their relationship breaking down are hinted at in the diary entries, and a particularly sharp person can spot what’s really going on beneath the surface.
Nightmares realized as enemies
All of the enemies faced represent Rem’s biggest fears and anxieties. The entire first world is themed after her hatred of vegetables, and the infamous sushi incident is memorialized as the first boss encounter, a suitable baby-sized encounter for a first fight.
Her anxieties regarding her new classmates manifests in world 4, with her classmates, unfamiliar to Rem, being seen as faceless arms blindly reaching out, including Kanako, the perceived “popular girl” of the class, serving as the final boss of that world. The godlike reverence she has of her sister Theta results in not only one, but two Theta fights that represent some of the most unique, beautiful, yet devastating boss fights to be unveiled in NeverAwake.
In order to awaken from her coma, Rem has to defeat these phantasmal images of her darkest memories. And even as she conquers all her past fears and humanizes Theta by defeating the godlike impression of her, that catharsis only serves to wake her from her coma, and not necessarily solve her deeper issues. She’s still reeling from the loss of Gramma, the only family member she’s close to, and has yet to love herself. And what’s holding her back is herself.
Fleeting levels for short attention spans
The core design tenet of NeverAwake is to provide a series of difficult challenges that can be quickly overcome by a mixture of tenacity and creativity. A defining feature of NeverAwake level design is that each level itself is short. Most levels are under a minute long, which allows for some pretty radical design that can still be easily learned and cleared with minimal frustration.
As stated by developer Hiroshi Sawatari in an interview at the 2022 Tokyo Game Show, “In traditional shooters, if you mess up and die ten minutes into a stage, you’ve probably forgotten most of what happened in that ten minute span, right? […] By shortening that iteration length to about a minute, it’s easier to remember where enemies spawn, and where you messed up last time, and how to avoid it the next time.” (translated by Brando, @brando_themando)
So paired with these short levels is the looping system, where each subsequent loop brings greater hazards. While this is typically utilized as something like a soft enrage timer that forces you to clear the level or die, the mounting difficulty is also seen as a fun extra challenge, and the game does lean on this feature a bit later on.
It’s split into a number of worlds that each feature their own design theme and individualized OST. There are ten levels per world, including boss levels, but upon clearing a world, you can revisit it to clear the challenge modes on the levels to unlock bonus lore.
While initial clears are often a scramble to keep up with the auto-scroll amidst a sea of tough multi-shot mobs, returning to the level with improved weapons and additional accessories to tackle different types of goals offers a very savory and unique depth of replayability.
Controller or keyboard, it’s crisp and well thought out… mostly
In order to make your way through these looping levels, you’re able to use either controller or keyboard/mouse. Either option is fine to use, with controller being slightly better for movement but KB/M being slightly better for aiming. Although the KB/M controls in the menus are pretty questionable, such as using the keys L and R to tab through the menus as you would use LB and RB on a controller.
In-game, you’re able to move with your left joystick (or D-pad, which is my preference) and aim with the right joystick. It’s a simple enough concept, but fine in execution. Weapons will either follow your aim or don’t care about aim at all, and it’s always fun to experiment with different weapons to overcome various level designs and challenges.
There is also an auto-aim function available, though using it will result in an altered score. I’ve used it for some challenges for which score didn’t matter, and it’s definitely much easier to not have to worry about aim. However, it doesn’t have any predictive ability, so it can miss a lot on certain moving targets.
You also get a dodge that allows for directional changes during all its active frames which gives you a very responsive dodge that’s better to navigate a bullet hell. Its stats are also pretty good – great range, decent i-frames, okay recovery, and can be improved further with accessories – but it’s still almost completely worse than manual movement, which adds considerable depth to gameplay by not being universally OP.
Simple equipment system leads to considerable depth
In order to combat her nightmarish foes, Rem is able to equip a weapon and accessories, though both come with some pretty hefty restrictions. And to begin with, she needs soul, a currency used to purchase the weapons and accessories as they’re unlocked – that soul currency is gained any time she gathers a soul from a defeated foe.
Offense or defense, casted or channeled, NeverAwake offers a wide range of unique weapons. You get one to start, but unlock more as you play, and they can also be ranked up to improve their properties, such as bullet count. The first weapon, the Sunflower, shoots bullets in all directions simultaneously, which eventually becomes powerful enough to almost single-handedly progress a whole phase for many boss fights, if you can get inside the boss somehow.
The defensive items have very creative concepts, and are often capable enough to significantly lower the difficulty of many fights. The Ferris Wheel summons three rotating spheres that destroy most enemy projectiles, but also deals some fairly hefty damage to foes as well.
As great as the weapons are, they’re all limited in use by their respective special attack gauges, with channeled abilities being limited with a timer, though the gauge can be recovered using one of four accessories (or all of them if you really want) that offer differing levels of impact to gameplay. There’s simple time-based passive recovery, as well as tying recovery to soul collection, hence tying to level-clearing progression. There’s also recovery based on Rem receiving damage, which works both as a crutch for progression, as well as a calculated option to recover a large amount of gauge. And finally, there’s “grazing”, which is an extremely satisfying mechanic to play around with.
Being grazed means being anywhere near an enemy bullet at all, which includes touching the bullet itself; whether getting by hit by the bullet, i-framing the following bullet, or dodging directly through it all, you get grazed regardless, and you recover a bit of special attack gauge for your trouble. Skillful players can then play super optimally by dancing constantly on the knife’s edge and embracing a constant severe level of danger for unprecedented amounts of gauge and firepower. When it goes right, it’s extraordinarily satisfying.
Other accessories come in all shapes and sizes, based on some common knickknacks that Rem owns, like her umbrella, jogging shoes, or hairband; they’re items that improve her defense, mobility, and attack.
Most accessories will be unlocked through regular play, with some defensive items being unlocked quicker after losses. There are also some special items that are gated by progression that have more niche usage, such as score-multiplier items that don’t affect combat ability.
While some accessories will never be unequipped, many others will be constantly swapped to meet the needs of the level. The number of accessories that can be equipped at once is limited, so the player must choose based on the needs of the level.
For example, some levels are more of a sprint, where damage and healing would be necessary to brute force through. Others are so fraught with danger that the only option is to load up on health and mobility and try to survive as long as possible.
With unique weapons that offer both offensive and defensive capabilities, and an extremely diverse array of accessories that can be mixed and matched, paired with the short gameplay loop, NeverAwake allows players to quickly change loadouts and experiment on the fly to optimize their routes. This is all on top of the extremely crisp controls and superb “graze” mechanic leads to an amazing shoot’em-up experience.
Extremely savory replayability
As you clear levels and kill bosses, you’ll finish worlds and begin unlocking special challenge modes that award photos for your album. These challenges offer unique twists on the cleared levels that often require entirely different loadouts to achieve strange objectives. There are also Steam achievements offered for reaching the 10th loop of a regular level or clearing the 3rd loop of a boss level, and those are both serious challenges that likely require a fully unlocked inventory and some major skill, but reward with some serious satisfaction for such a boss kill.
To the competitive spirit, a live global leaderboard built into the game is a blessing, though again, it’s a bummer you can’t actually see it. Clear times and game scores are recorded for every playthrough of a level, and you’re given a letter grade based on your performance. But if your score or time is good enough, you’ll be given a ranking within the top 50 instead.
Even for those uninterested in trying to rank on the leaderboard, there is still plenty of fun to be had in trying to achieve a decent letter grade per level, since each subsequent replay only gets easier, yet remains just as quick.
The score leaderboard seems to be more competitive, since it’s the objective that pushes the gameplay to its highest difficulty. Score is granted whenever an enemy is killed, so you’re incentivized to full clear and loop as many times as they can survive. Bosses grant score just by being hit, so it’s a grueling effort to eke out as many boss phases as possible, even as the boss keeps getting faster, stronger, and sexier.
As for the going-fast portion, there is a lot of disappointment and a few gems of gameplay to be found. I’d wager that many claimed level records are at or near perfect times, due to the nature of how short the levels are to begin with. But some of the later stages have far more innovative design, and within them are some fantastic levels that are a blast to optimize.
Furthermore, a recent update added a speedrun game mode that plays independent of your save. Currently, NeverAwake only has one save slot, and a blank save always starts with limited weapons and accessories available. The speedrun mode can be initiated at any time by editing the launch options with “-enable-speedrun” in Steam’s client for NeverAwake. This will start the game with the accessory “Candy” equipped with most other accessories available for purchase, and much of the gameplay streamlined without tutorials and such.
Beautiful OST featuring multiple genres and iconic boss themes
The OST for NeverAwake was crafted by Fumihito Uekusa (@u23), and mainly features a dreamlike mixture of electronica and rock. The beautiful main theme and intro levels slowly ease you from pleasant sleep to a lulling nightmare, as you descend the depths of Rem’s psyche and begin to conquer ever darker fears.
And while each world is beautifully portrayed through its levels’ themes, NeverAwake‘s OST really shines through its catchy boss themes. In fact, on top of the crisp sound engineering all throughout, there are some levels where the song BPM matches both the player’s fire rate and that of one of the boss’s special attacks, which resulted in a particularly memorable first clear for me as I desperately dodged around his relentless laser blasts.
To be honest, some of the boss themes are so good that I subject myself to harder bosses than necessary to satisfy certain challenges, just because their battle theme is that good.
NeverAwake: excellent shoot’em-up with unexpected depth, tight controls, unique style, and beautiful music, also great for short attention spans.
NeverAwake plays great, looks great, it’ll tug at your heart a bit but promises countless hours of replayability to wash away the pain. The story is short and bittersweet, but is still a decent experience and fun to speculate about.