Welcome, dear reader, to my first ever Xbox console review. Thanks to our dear Rossko over at Finger Guns HQ, I’ve finally (FINALLY) acquired myself a shiny Xbox One S, with which I can, at long last, experience the glory of Game Pass. Not just that however, it’s also provided me the wonderful opportunity to play Aspire: Ina’s Tale. If the rest of my gaming experience turns out to be as fulfilling as this, well, I’ve got some great gaming experiences on the horizon.
Aspire is a wonderful, colourful, empathetic and subtle tale which weaves straightforward puzzling and exploration into a compelling, compact adventure. Filled with interesting themes and characters, it surprised and impressed me with equal measure, even despite it’s minor technical problems and relatively short length. While the act of guiding Ina through her journey isn’t especially challenging, the story slowly develops into an understated, overarching narrative which is well worthy of trying out for yourself.
So, please join me as we explore what makes Ina’s Tale so compelling and deserving of your attention.
No Rest For The Innocent
Awaking from her slumber and whimsical dreams of returning to her own village, we’re introduced to Ina, who’s mysteriously referred to as Heart. In her subconscious visions, Ina sees herself escaping the Tower – the place she, like many other unfortunate souls, have been trapped to feed the Tower’s apparent selfish machinations. Upon waking up then, it’s our job to steer Ina through this dangerous and unfriendly structure to help achieve her fantasy of freedom.
In the early stages, this set up wasn’t especially engrossing, mainly due to the lack of voiced dialogue (characters make noises akin to Banjo-Kazooie when text dialogue is progressing) and no clear direction. Delve past the first hour or so however, and things start to develop some real depth, much like an eerily deceiving puddle suckers you into plummeting to its depths. You’ll witness Ina grapple with some tough lessons, particularly about sacrifice and the damage to others seeking your own happiness can bring.
Impressively, much of this is delivered with real subtlety and a less-is-more approach. The lack of voice acting and light amounts of text dialogue or interaction with other characters you’ll come across benefits you immersing yourself in the Tower’s aura and location. Ina is an innocent and naive avatar who develops her understanding of this cruel place through experience, while never losing sight of her own desires and hopes, which really helps you to connect with her to some degree.
Tackling themes of self-discovery, sacrifice, isolation, unhealthy interdependence and overcoming your own fears or regrets is tough stuff. However, Ina manages it expertly, weaving in subtle elements of these themes without ever letting it become overbearing or heavy-handed. In some cases, I wanted a little more exploration of these ideas to really flesh them out. In truth though, this is a shorter, more condensed title which probably didn’t have the scope to dive in much further, but what’s here is great and I do wish the developers had had a bit more opportunity to expand on these themes.
So much of this narrative success comes from Aspire’s beautiful art direction and musical score that’d be amiss of me not to give them their due credit.
Visualise Your Dreams
Following in the footsteps of so many other indie titles, Ina’s Tale makes the wise decision of emphasising graphical style over raw polygon power. The initial starting areas are drowning in darkness and cold hostility, with muted colour palettes to match. Pursue on however, and you’ll come across some remarkably beautiful artwork in varied locations borne out of the memories and dreams of the unlucky Tower dwellers. Each section has a distinct colour scheme and feature some absolutely stunning backdrops.
So good were some of these areas in fact, I simply stopped to whisk myself away into it all and appreciate the amazing work the concept artists have brought to life. The Gardens were a particular highlight of this, and show just what an inventive style can do on a more limited budget. Characters are enigmatic and creatively derived too, with each encounter having dream-like and strangely pleasing appearances. This goes for the few enemy creatures you’ll come across, with beasts looking imposing and the late-game boss having a grand sense of evil.
It comes together beautifully well at times and does a fantastic job at supporting the underlying story through environmental cues. That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows though, with a handful of areas having distinctly blocky details which stand out from the rest and certain early or late-game environments can border on being too sterile, which has the unfortunate effect of making them more repetitive. Minor issues, granted, but they do stick out when the backdrops in particular sparkle so brightly in comparison.
Musically, Ina’s Tale is a joy to play, which elevates its story and gameplay immensely. Whether it be a chilling chime in the background as you stumble on a hostile creature or a soaring piano when blazing through a bright, inspiring area, Ina seems to have the right orchestral tools for almost every occasion. I’ve always believed great music elevates good games into amazing games, and Ina’s Tale is right up there in this regard. In many ways, the graphical and OST direction reminded me a lot of titles like Journey, which is no small compliment.
Ascend From Your Fears
Clearly then, Ina’s Tale looks and sounds great, while having an interesting story to match. So what of how it actually plays?
Providing a simplistic but accessible structure, Ina’s Tale is a light exploration puzzler, focusing more on the experience of the journey than providing an arduous or externally rewarding time. As a 2D side-scroller, you’ll be spending your time traversing through the Tower’s tricky infrastructure and using problem-solving to overcome obstacles to your ultimate goal of escape.
This largely translates to pushing or pulling crates, interacting with levers, climbing ropes or ladders and doing actions in particular sequences with decent timing to solve whatever riddle is being thrown at you. Acting as a double-edged sword, Ina is incredibly accessible by design as most puzzles are straightforward to solve, requiring very little mental effort to overcome the majority of, and usually within a couple of minutes.
The problem is that for a more experienced player, there’s seldom a challenge that provides a sense of reward or satisfaction for getting past. It’s the perfect kind of game for a newer or more inexperienced player who wants to ease in or if you’re just looking for a more relaxing couple of hours gaming. Between all the recent intense AAA and time-demanding games I’ve been playing, it was actually thoroughly nice to have a game I could almost play on automatic, but I know many might be disappointed with the lack of adequate challenge and subsequent fulfillment which comes with defeating it.
Embrace The Light
To spice things up slightly, you do gain access to a small number of powers that Ina will need to utilise to overcome all of the Tower’s best laid traps. Over the course of your journey, you’ll need to carefully maneuver light/power sources to deter foes from gobbling you up, extending shields to cover you from harm and manipulating the shape and movement of blocks to reach previously inaccessible areas to progress.
Powers provide a welcome bit of variety to the gameplay and to the puzzle design as well, but with only 3 to really contend with, it’s again a little bit lacking to be truly compelling. A couple of the puzzles had me trial-and-erroring for a moment before quickly realizing the path to progression. For the most part, they’re serviceable, but the majority of your time is spent simply making the solution happen (i.e pushing a crate for a bit) rather than actually having to work out what to do.
Late-game sections use the powers a bit more interchangeably, providing more opportunity for mistakes. Especially in the final section – where there’s more of a time-pressure – it can ramp up a tiny morsel of adrenaline, which was actually quite a nice surprise for the climax of the story.
It’s worth mentioning some small gripes that came up for me though. The jump button seems to have a slight delay from hitting it to the animation happening, which can be kinda frustrating when you’re needing to rush. Additionally, I had a glitch where a part of the map just didn’t load – it was just this vast, empty, pitch black expanse. When I entered it, I clipped through the level and had to restart the checkpoint, where it was then absolutely fine. Another minor glitch occurred near the end where Ina simply refused to pull an elevator lever… maybe it offended her? Not sure. Either way, had to reload a checkpoint. Good thing they’re frequent and well-placed.
Freedom Worth Pursuing
Aspire: Ina’s Tale certainly isn’t the longest nor most content rich game you’ll play this year. My playthrough in total lasted between 2 and 3 hours, which actually felt about right. The gameplay simplicity probably wouldn’t have carried it much further, though I can’t help but wonder of the sights, sounds and story that could have been. The fact I wish there was more is actually pretty telling for me, as despite overcoming the puzzle design almost on autopilot, Ina’s Tale has stuck with me since finishing it.
It’s not the best of its genre, but Ina has some incredibly beautiful highpoints which elevate it alongside so many other indie gems that are worth your time to explore for yourself. With a small handful of collectibles to find and no other difficulties or modes, there’s scant more reason to return aside from the intrinsic experience itself. Personally, that was more than enough and made journeying with Ina to put her regrets behind her an adventure more than fulfilling.
Nestling nicely among the raft of indie gems, Aspire: Ina’s Tale excels with a gorgeous art style, subtle yet engaging story-telling and excellent musical score. While you can largely solve the puzzles without much effort, your journey with Ina will be a compelling and rich adventure. It may not hold the loftiest aspirations, but Ina’s dreams are worth embracing.
Aspire: Ina’s Tale is launching on Xbox One (review platform) and Nintendo Switch on December 17th, 2021. The game is already available on PC via Steam.
Developer: Wondernaut Studio
Publisher: Untold Tales
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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