Version reviewed – PC
It’s funny how Echoes of Aetheria feels like two games sort of jammed into one.
The first involves an overworld map, with palaces and cities, trains rigged to explode (train, actually, I only came across one), forests and caves and other of the dungeon types that you’d expect from a fantasy RPG. In the overworld, you explore the map, talk to your companions, watch cutscenes, read through dialogue that varies from amusing to flat, attempt to make sense of the convoluted plot, and get into fights.
When fights start, is when the second game begins. While the game’s characters felt largely colourless, they’re much more clearly defined and interesting in combat. My personal favourite is a Barek Tor, who gets a free turn if you manage to sneak up on an enemy. I stealth him on the first turn and have him backstab someone on his second, effectively disemboweling pretty much anyone who finds themselves on the pointy end of that one-two attack.
Lucian is a fighter with more interesting attacks than I would expect from what is essentially a staple of all fantasy games. He can, for example, call down bolts of lightning to strike at clumped up enemies. The ranged character whose name I can’t remember can lob flasks of stuff into enemy ranks, reducing armour or their resistance to specific types of damage. The spellcaster – again, can’t remember her name – uses her own life force to cast spells and a personal favourite is one that deals a whopping amount of damage to a group of enemies at the expense of nearly half her life.
But although I thoroughly enjoyed combat, the fact that I don’t remember their names is a problem.
The story never once feels essential to the game itself, which is no small thing in an RPG. About four or so hours in, I had given up all hope of trying to understand the plot. The only thing I had understood by that point was in more or less every map, there is a master key, which will unlock enormous chests with useful stuff, or open doors behind which there are chests with useful stuff.
But I never could quite figure out who was fighting whom, why any of them were fighting at all, and what in the almighty name of heck was actually going on. Somewhere in there were a couple of empires (I think), fighting either each other or a rebellion (I’m not sure), and I’m still trying to figure out what exactly the cat people were rebelling against.
All I know is that things start at a wedding, then things go wrong, and then I spent several hours hitting things and enjoying it. If hitting things is enough for you, Echoes of Aetheria can be quite satisfying. If plot is your thing, you’d best look elsewhere, for something else.
The characters feel drawn from a pool of fantasy archetypes and then mixed a little in an attempt to create something unique. You have the honourable fighter, the wisecracking sidekick, the princess, the sneaky assassin – but none of them ever really felt like people, and I had no attachment to them at all. They were my pools of hit points with interesting attacks, who existed for no other reason than to satisfy my gladiatorial tendencies.
Combat is fun, though
The fighting really is the only thing that kept me going, because it manages to introduce a few tactical elements to the experience without being either overly complicated or excessively simple.
For starters, if you initiate a fight by walking into an enemy from behind, you get a free turn. That alone made me think about things like positioning and patrol routes, so I could start as many fights as possible with an advantage.
Second, enemy attacks are reasonably varied as well, from guards in armour with shields and swords, and enemy spellcasters who can heal their own troops or dish out frost or lightning damage; to lumbering trees that can poison your entire party and deal sizeable amounts of cold damage with their blizzard spell. The variety meant that I focused on taking out as many of the more pressing threats in a fight as possible, using each turn as sensibly as I could instead of simply hammering at the nearest beastie.
Another nice touch is that I found myself using more of my items than I normally do, and more carefully as well – healing Lucian up just enough so he can take the next hit, and buy my spellcaster enough time to get her blow-everything-up spell ready. Even on normal, fights pose just enough of a challenge to be interesting without ever being frustrating.
There’s also a clear inclination towards keeping players fighting as much as possible – to my surprise, my party healed between fights without needing potions or spells to do so, which meant groups of monsters weren’t whittling me down slowly. Starting each fight with a fully healed party – even if someone was knocked out during the fight – meant that I was always looking forward to the next one, rather than worrying about it.
Unfortunately, it feels like combat is the only thing that Echoes of Aetheria has going for it.
A couple of other things
There isn’t a whole lot of loot in Echoes of Aetheria, but there is a rather nice crafting system, with plenty of recipes to play around with. Components are easily available, both as loot drops and with merchants, encouraging experimentation.
The selection of skills – both active and passive – feels well-thought-out and interesting – I didn’t encounter any skills that felt useless and changed the skills I was using every now and then just to see if I could make encounters more entertaining.
And finally, the world map offers plenty of locations to explore with the option to return at any time and face the monsters there again. While you can’t farm low level monsters for xp after a point, I revisited a couple of locations for the chests in the level, in the hope of finding more crafting components.
So, to sum this up …
If nothing else, Echoes of Aetheria is sincere. It delivers its complicated, confusing story with enthusiasm, and goes all out in an attempt to make the characters interesting. Where it actually succeeds, is in the fast-paced battles and the steady increase in power as your characters unlock new skills and abilities.
But good combat alone does not a great game make. And while Echoes of Aetheria is good fun, it’s a long way from being a must-buy.
Whether or not you buy Echoes of Aetheria depends on how much importance you place on story and character. If neither are especially important, you might well enjoy the action. But if action isn’t enough, Echoes of Aetheria doesn’t have much else to offer.