While it’s not as great as it should have been out of the gate, there’s still time to fix this sleeper up with a decent patch and make it an even better product.
Developer Triangle Studios’ AereA makes for an interesting blend of familiar elements that gamers willing to overlook its flaws should enjoy. Indie publisher Soedesco has released this as a marquee mid-priced ($39.99) retail and digital game and it’s clear they’re wanting it to be a sleeper hit for casual to veteran ARPG fans. Colorful visuals, fast-paced gameplay and a superb score (by Deon van Heerden) are all strong points. Unfortunately, game balance issues, a poor English localization, and the lack of any post-game content hurt the overall experience.
A sort of love child of Diablo, Wild Tangent’s Fate series and Runic’s original Torchlight, the Unity-powered visuals and emphasis on action are initially impressive. Additionally, the ability to play couch co-op with up to three other players is a nice touch (no online play is supported). However, the very straightforward story progression, a total lack of personality in its four mute heroes, and some technical/UI problems made me grimace more than grin through my 22+ hours with the game.
“So, what’s the story?” you ask? Well, here you go:
AereA is a music-themed Action RPG in which you play as one of Great Maestro Guido’s disciples and explore Aezir; a floating island that was broken into pieces. Your mission is to find and return the nine primordial instruments to restore balance and peace to the world. You have to find your way through all parts of the scattered islands; complete quests, solve puzzles, defeat bosses and discover the truth behind the islands. Will you be able to return the nine primordial instruments?
Okay, so it’s not that other boy band out to sort of save the world at their own pace game at all. But there’s room at the inn for a colorful fantasy based experience as long as it’s fun, right? The main problems here stem from the initial fun being hampered by stuff such as not enough variety in the game’s bestiary along with some way too easy boss battles. Sadly, Wolff the Harp-Archer, Jacques the Cello-Knight, Jules the Lute-Mage, and Claude the Trumpet-Gunner are silent partners with neither a joke cracked nor comment made between them. It’s just get quest, beat up monsters, retrieve quest item over and over with very brief cut scenes that reveal the game’s ultimate threat over time to break up the rhythm.
As for gameplay progression, most areas are made up of two large maps and some have a third boss stage unlocked once certain requirements are met (or you stumble upon it accidentally before you get the mission to do so in at least one case). The game reuses the same map layouts per area, but randomizes elements such as party spawn points, switches and item boxes. There’s a bit of inconsistency in that some maps have respawning monsters that add challenge while other maps become empty, pretty theme parks once you clear out the opposition. This gives the game an unfinished feeling especially in a few very nice-looking maps where darkness could have been put to far creepier usage than what’s here.
As noted, visually, the game impresses with a lovely school environment ripe for exploration. That said, there’s even more odd inconsistency to the visuals in cases where certain maps look more detailed while others stand out in their plainness. Or: If you’re going to have lava caves with motionless lava that looks like cold pizza or ancient ruins with waterways that look frozen over (the forest’s maps water fares better), those will stick out like sore thumbs. The later snowy mountain maps look really nice, but these end up as some of the largest, emptiest areas in the game with only oversized bugs (that don’t respawn) to fight against.
Traps are in play as well, but you can easily spot the mines, shoot at or hack the cacti and avoid the wooden and metal spikes if you pay attention. I only died twice during the entire game, once from stepping on a mine as some enemies spawned nearby and a second time during the last boss fight. You keep anything you’ve gained, but get sent back to the school (or in the case of that last boss, the airship that flew you in with the choice of returning to the map before the boss room or the school’s main hall). As noted, this isn’t exactly going to be a tough game for most players.
In terms of NPC count, it’s pretty darn low for such an ornate music school or hey, even the most entry level of entry level RPGs. There’s only one student constantly roaming the halls and outside of the shopkeeper, his two daughters, a talking green bird, Master Guido, a janitor and some guy who sends you out via airship to quests like a silent taxi dispatcher, there are no other friendly NPC’s to interact with. Well, other than one very late-game encounter that feels forced in to get you to revisit an earlier map to retrieve a quest item just to advance the plot to the endgame.
Worse, not only do most of these characters have little to say outside of story or side quest advancing dialog, when they do speak, it’s too often typo-filled and grammatically challenged (as far as the English version goes). A good proofreading patch is in order ASAP, as the story just doesn’t read well with all those misspellings. In one case, there’s actually a major plot point that makes no sense once a certain character leaves the game for good. Some load screen game tips need to be rewritten to be less wordy and more concise. Finally, even the shop gets in on the misspelling action with the word “elixir” spelled as both the correct former and not at all correct “elexer” (facepalm).
There are also a few technical issues where a certain special attack will randomly freeze the game for anywhere from a few seconds to about half a minute (at least on the PS4 version). For a bit of time past the midpoint, a pair of characters pop up in two places in the school within a short walking distance. Additionally, there’s a too small mini-map that can’t be resized (standard issue in other isometric games) making navigation tough on TV’s under 40″ (my main gaming TV is a “small” 32-inch Sony HDTV). Amusingly enough, one character’s text box does automatically resize itself as you click through it, which makes me hope the game’s text fonts can be also be scaled up just to be more readable overall.
While 22 hours seems lengthy, I spent a great deal of that time grinding levels and earning points to level out weapons on one character and getting a second one’s gear to a high enough level to take down a few bosses within seconds. Yeah, there’s also a really bad exploit past the mid-game that’s going to make cheaters really happy once they discover it. Exploit aside, the game can most likely be completed in less time and that time might breeze by if you get hooked in despite the flaws. That said, my own preferences with ARPGs is to maximize my fun and not rush through even if things get ugly. They don’t get that ugly here, but it’s definitely a bit uncomfortable at times when things aren’t as fun as they need to be.
Oh, and item hoarders beware: not only does the shop not buy anything you don’t want or need, loot box drops are completely random and you can only carry four items total per hero. Ouch. That’s not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re really lousy at the boss fights or just want a game where collecting stuff becomes a side thing you crave. You do need to explore maps thoroughly and collect books in order to unlock the shop’s inventory, though. So if you’re a total completion geek, you’ll have your hands full with that as well as needing to gather at least one friend for a few co-op play rewards you can’t obtain otherwise.
If this review seems kind of harsh, it’s because I liked enough of what AereA has to offer to administer some tough love in the hope that Triangle can fix a few glaring issues that keep it a few paces behind similar action/RPG entries. It’s not a bad game at all, folks. It just needs some extra polish that will hopefully make it somewhat more franchise ready and user-friendly.
Score: C+ (75%)
Version reviewed: PlayStation 4
– review code provided by the publisher.