Ok folks gather round. It’s time for another review. This time we’re taking a look at the new isometric action-RPG AereA from developer Triangle Studios. Their first two games, Cross of the Dutchman and It Came from Space and Ate Our Brains both have pretty good Steam ratings so I had high hopes for AereA. After all, it had an interesting musical theme going for it and I love all kinds of RPGs. I attacked it with gusto, sinking 4 hours into my first play session and having a fun time doing so. But during that time, the cracks had already begun to show. By the time I was closing in on the last boss, I had formulated a very different opinion of the game, and it was bad. So what happened along the way to change my mind so drastically? Read on, brave adventurers!
The story is interesting enough to get the ball rolling. The land of Aezir is made up of three separate islands floating in the sky. It used to be one land mass until a great calamity broke it apart. The primordial instruments (9 magical instruments of great power) that have kept the remaining landmasses together and airborne have been stolen. As a disciple of the Great Maestro Guido, you are tasked with recovering them, thus keeping the remaining lands of Aezir from plunging to its total destruction. The gist of the game is more or less traveling to and fro via airship, exploring each area until you come across the musical instrument-themed boss guarding one of the primordial instruments.
Now the gameplay itself falls into a rut after just a few hours. Aezir’s concert hall serves as the game’s main hub. You receive all your main story missions and sidequests here. There is an item vendor here too, as well as a place where you can upgrade your skills and stats: more on that later. The whole process more or less falls into this routine: somebody in the concert hall asks you to go to an area for a task; you complete it and return to the concert hall. You then unlock the second part of that area. You get another menial task from the concert hall and head to the second part of the area. After completing said task, you return to hub for some more talking. You then head back to the second part of the area to find a teleporter that brings you to the boss guarding the primordial instrument. Repeat until you see the credits role. There is little variation until the end of the game, where you are tasked with some busybody work and backtracking before you can fight the last boss. Getting through each area is a bit of a slog, too. You’ll run into plenty of easy to avoid traps, and quite a few locked doors to bar your way. They can be opened by beating all the monsters in the area or by hitting a switch somewhere. The overall flow of the game is a little too predictable for my taste. And a big problem that I have with backtracking is the fact that once you enter an area, you have no way of leaving it until you find the bell to call your airship back. This means that even if it only took you a minute to do what you had to do, you still need to waste time exploring the level again, unlocking doors until you can find the exit. It is a poorly thought-out mechanic that doesn’t respect the player’s time. Since the game autosaves whenever you complete an objective, I found it much faster to simply quit the game and then reload your save file, since you start off back at the main hub every time you continue. You know you messed up somewhere when reloading the game is your best option for getting around quickly.
AereA’s theme revolves heavily around music. This theme is readily apparent in the game’s four playable characters. Jacques is a Cello Knight/melee class that uses a cello for a shield and the cello’s bow (the kind a musician would use, not an archer ya big dorks) is used in a sword-like fashion. Claude is a Trumpet Gunner: a speedy ranged class that uses dual trumpets like a pair of pistols. Wolff is a Harp Archer, which is a more traditional type of ranged class. His weapon is - as you have probably guessed by now - a harp, which he uses as a bow & arrow. Last but not least is the mage of the group: Jules. He uses a lute in lieu of a staff. Each character comes with a unique set of special abilities which must be unlocked through leveling up. Once unlocked, you can equip them by visiting the store that can be found in the main hub. You can also pay a fee to level each skill up in order to make it more powerful. For some odd reason, the developers decided to put in two experience bars instead of one. Character XP and weapon XP are earned from defeating monsters and clearing quests. Going up a character level increases your bases stats by a set amount. Going up a weapon level nets you tuner points that can be used in the hub store to increase your stats however you want. They could have gotten the same results by dishing out a few skill points every time you level up so you can customize your character’s stats as you see fit. This system feels like an attempt to take a basic RPG mechanic and trick players into thinking it was something unique. Moving on, consumable items can also be purchased in the main hub. There are only a few basic items available at first. There are recipe books that can be found while out adventuring. Each one you find unlocks an additional item in the shop. Another small grievance I have is that you have no way of knowing exactly what an item does unless you read its info in the store, which is impossible unless you have unlocked that specific item. Whenever I picked up a new item out in the field, I never knew what effect it would have because there are no descriptions or inventory menus. You simply have a small onscreen hotbar that shows what items you currently have on you. It makes for too much guesswork in the beginning: by the end of the game I had a pretty good idea of what did what, but there are still a few items that I am unsure of.
The main thing that AereA has going for it is its excellent soundtrack and graphics. While the character models have a slightly cartoonish look to them, the backgrounds are hand-drawn and sharp looking. My favorite (and most beautifully designed) levels are the concert halls. They’re jam-packed with all sorts of interesting little details, like the decorated wooden wall paneling and the rows upon rows of finely-carved chairs in the grand hall. The music fits in well with an abundance of classical/orchestral tracks that are always a pleasure to listen to. Even after playing for hours the soundtrack never felt like it was grinding on my ears.
Even though you can play four-player couch co-op, there is no online play whatsoever. This is something you usually see in smaller indie titles, not in games that are almost full retail price. AereA also suffers from some very extreme balancing issues. Everything went as expected in the first hour or so. Enemies put up a bit of a fight, but nothing too challenging. After a few hours my character was an unstoppable killing machine. I was slaying monsters while barely breaking my stride. And another annoying issue is the fact that regular monsters spawn almost on top of you whenever you kill one, so you can just stand still and attack and the monsters will spawn into their own death. Using my Cello Knight’s shield bash annihilates enemies that haven’t even spawned yet. They just spawn dead on arrival. So after carrying on like this for half the game, I run into a big boss. To my surprise, my attacks are only doing one damage to him. He has 2800 frickin’ HP. I was one-shotting every single monster up until this point, so I have no idea why this guy was so sturdy. After 20 minutes of fighting, I got someone to play co-op with me. In the end, we defeated him after at least 30 minutes of fighting. After that boss, everything went back to the way it was before. The very next boss I fought was taken out with a few swings of my sword and one special attack.
ENDGAME SPOILERS INCOMING
And in possibly the worst case of backtracking and anticlimactic storytelling I’ve ever seen, your grand adventure ends by revisiting the first area of the game, the sewer. The big evil mastermind behind all the turmoil is hiding in the sewers under the main hub. After fighting through a bunch of weak rats and slogging through an incredibly annoying maze of locked doors and teleporters, you get teleported to an airship. The final boss seemed easy at first. Then, he killed me with a single critical hit. Poor balancing strikes again. And the worst part is that you have to go through the entire maze again, so that is another 20 minutes of mind-numbing drudgery.
END OF SPOILERS
This problem occurs when going after the main bosses too. I have had at least 4 instances of glitches during boss fights that were so bad that it forced me to quit the game. Reloading brings you back to the hub, forcing you to go through the entire area once more. Uneven difficulty spikes, time-wasting mechanics like being unable to return to the hub until you find a way out, and game-ending glitches are more than enough reason to pass over the title. AereA has a few good things going for it, but not enough to warrant wasting your time with all the nonsense.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 4/10
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