A young woman wakes up in a strange place, her long, braided red hair flailing in the wind despite the numerous ribbons that bind it. Broken eggshells, large enough to house a person, lie scattered around, and an even larger sword towers over her. “Am I free? No. Still inside. Stop dreaming, Ina. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to go home.”
Such is the opening of Aspire: Ina’s Tale, setting the scene for a tale that’s familiar yet abstract. At its most superficial, it’s a story of a girl finding a way to escape the tower she’s locked inside—a deliberate subversion of the trope of a princess locked away, waiting to be rescued by a knight in shining armour. But the surreal architecture of a building that defies the laws of physics, the symbolism in the environmental design, and the enigmatic nature of the other people you encounter add depth to a simple premise—much is left open to interpretation, and in that, there’s power in Aspire’s reflections.
The theme of escape is a constant one, of course. Escaping the tower, escaping the hostile creatures you encounter—that you can’t fight back against, and can only flee from. Escaping from something: Ina’s desire to get out is urgent, desperate, though we never really learn what it is that’s motivating her beyond a vague desire for freedom. How did she wind up here in the first place, and how did she come to be the tower’s “Heart”, as she’s often described? Her’s is a flight not just from captivity, but from whatever shadows the narration keeps hidden from view.
Escape runs in parallel to finding beauty in destruction. The tower is a strange, old place: a technical marvel whose machines have mostly broken down, full of beauty and wonder that’s slowly crumbling away. The gardens overflow with colour and life, and also the cracked pieces of a place that’s been worn down—but there’s beauty in that, too; in the way the remnants fit together, in the juxtaposition of pristine natural wonder and degrading construction, in the way everything still holds together despite the damage. The tower is a remarkable place, made no less for the impact of time and disregard on its walls and pillars.
This picture is vivid and detailed, but it still leaves much to the imagination. Everyone’s takeaway will be slightly different. For me, Aspire: Ina’s Tale is a story about escaping from a toxic, abusive relationship. The way everyone refers to Ina as the “heart” of the tower, and the way seemingly benevolent and well-meaning others try to convince her that it’s in her best interest to stay mirrors the kind of gaslighting and emotional manipulation that can be such a hurdle for people trying to leave an abusive relationship. The damaged buildings call to mind the broken plate analogy, and—more importantly—the way every room in this tower retains its beauty and form despite the damage sustained shows the strength and resilience of a person who’s been subjected to so much but still stands tall, scarred but not broken.
It’s a haunting image that Aspire paints, made all the more evocative for the striking visual design. Bold, flat colours create an ethereal atmosphere, and through careful use of foreground and background details, depth is sparingly and pointedly. Ina’s reflections in the tower’s many crystals twist and distort perspective, not unlike a house of mirrors, adding to the already surreal mood of the piece. Against a giant, ghost-like reflection in the background, Ina looks tiny; against a tiny foreground reflection, she looks larger than life—and this shifting sense of scale carries the weight and meaning of her journey.
If only the rest of the game could hold up to the powerful imagery. Aspire: Ina’s Tale is a fairly straightforward puzzle platformer, largely revolving around moving boxes and activating switches to open the way forward. A gimmick comes through Ina’s unique ability to command spirits: light to clear away solidified darkness and trigger light-based mechanisms, movement to activate certain platforms, and growth to adjust the size of certain boxes.
There are a few interesting ideas at play here, but Ina’s Tale never fully realises them, and its puzzle design remains rudimentary despite the possibilities that the spirit gimmick should open the door to. Most puzzles are clear immediately and require little in the way of “solving”, and the few headscratchers are more to do with poor conveyance of crucial information—like one where you have to activate a machine by putting a battery somewhere, but the where is neither told nor shown, so you have to just fumble around until you hit the right spot.
It’s made worse by extremely fiddly controls that turn even the simple task of moving a box into frustration. You have to be very precise with where you stand if you want the grab button to actually trigger: a pixel too far away, or even too close, and nothing will happen. On top of that, the button to grab something—which you have to hold down—is also the same as the button to interact with switches and other objects, and the interaction takes priority, forcing you to drop whatever you’re holding.
And finally, there are bugs. It’s one thing to spend an age racking your brain to figure out a tricky puzzle and finally getting it; it’s quite another to give up, look up a walkthrough, and realise that the puzzle relies on an NPC being in a particular place—a place that, for you, they haven’t moved to because a script hasn’t triggered properly. Whether it’s these sorts of bugs or late-game puzzles that are very easy to accidentally render unsolvable, an inordinate amount of time in Aspire is spent manually reloading and sitting through a lengthy (on Switch, at least) loading screen.
Aspire: Ina’s Tale sets itself apart with stunning visual design and a story that, in knowing exactly when to leave things unsaid, encourages reflection just as it does adventure and excitement. It’s vivid, brimming with little details, but also leaves the door open to personal interpretation. It’s a shame that the game itself can’t reach the same heights, though, with lacklustre puzzle design and lots of little frustrations that get in the way of Ina’s inspiring tale, rather than enhancing it.
Aspire: Ina’s Tale
Developer: Wondernaut Studio
Publisher: Untold Tales
Genre: Puzzle platformer
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox, PC
Release date: 17 December 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.