Thursday Review: Legends of Aethereus

Legends of Aethereus is an interesting game; I backed it on Kickstarter, despite my skepticism, in part out of interest and in part because my brother kept bothering me about it. And, to be honest, I really do enjoy it. It has a unique system, which comes with its benefits and pitfalls, but it’s a genuinely enjoyable game and I’ve spent a pretty hefty chunk of time with it.

I made that last remark, because Legends of Aethereus is a little bit like a roommate. They may seem all fun and great when you first meet them, and that’s usually a valid perception, but then they begin to kinda get on your nerves. It’s well-done and polished up nicely, but LoA is not the most smooth flowing or awesome experience out there. It’s a mix between cerebral and skill-based play that is at times exhilarating and at times just kind of annoying, with combat that’s got some nice meaty depth to it, but will also constantly knock you around (not just figuratively, either) and while it shines for putting more depth in a genre that typically doesn’t get depth it does so by adding complexity rather than refining any core mechanic.

At its heart, LoA feels like it wants to be a new Diablo in many ways inspired by Dark Souls. You’re heavily restricted by a stamina bar, and wearing or wielding too much stuff will drop your speed like a rock. You have pretty little resource orbs at the middle of the screen, and while you have special abilities you’ll mostly be using your weapon’s core attacks. Unfortunately, it forgets to do certain things, like making the skill based combat really reflect user input; there’s three attacks for melee fighters; charge (using the dash ability with a weapon out), swipe, and smash (essentially a powered up swipe). These mostly have the same arcs, and you can wind up with difficulties attacking certain foes because you’re doing the same animation but you only hit things that physically clip your weapon, and you really need to think about how you’re going to hit something before you swing.

This is one of the glaring flaws in the game; its combat is really, really solid, except when you’re being pelted in the back by ranged combatants who do incredibly long interrupts and missing foes who are a foot shorter than you just because your swing goes over their heads. It has a critical hit system based on hitting a foe’s head, but it really only applies to archers because with a big sword you’re relying on timing and luck to have it come down where you want it to, rather than necessarily using skill. Foes can be too close to attack, or linger just outside attack range. Every attack has a shock value in addition to a damage value, so you can knock foes around like they were in a superstorm and laugh at them as they try to recover; combat’s too frenetic to play a long animation so they just jump back up, something which I feel actually penalizes the system in ways. While the ability to charge up attacks makes battle an interesting dance, it also takes away a lot of the frenetic swinging and replaces it with Ghallian mating rituals, leading to an experience which probably doesn’t feel as fun in the long term because I’m worrying about whether or not the foe is within the eight feet or so from me he has to be standing for me to hit him with my big sword, while wild smashing actually feels awesome and powerful. In short, while it’s skill based and actually fun, it probably works best in PvP, which is not how I actually enjoy the game most.

Indeed, the arena mode is where the game really stands out. Last Stand, its arena mode, is absolutely glorious, with various waves of tough foes, and then Last Stand Extreme presents an additional challenge for people who don’t like their characters very much. In beta, when I played, I found myself falling in Last Stand’s spike pits a lot, but that hasn’t happened to me in a while. The campaign is quasi-enjoyable, but has a couple issues; there’s a lot of walking and foes come one-at-a-time; perfect to help you overlook the fact that any hit from a javelin sends you falling on your rear (seriously, even in full plate?), but incredibly detrimental to actually fighting, since it just becomes “let me charge up and hurt this guy badly. Co-op makes it somewhat better, actually, and it has that nice storyish feel of DDO’s missions, but even though the environments are pretty that doesn’t make up for the fact that it really glosses over a lot of things that could make it interesting, such as chests that give real immediate loot.

Indeed, it falls into a problem along the lines of games like Firefall or Borderlands where the ways in which players are rewarded don’t go into the way that they want to be rewarded. From a design perspective, this is not immediately apparent; I got platinum, I can craft a top-tier item. Unfortunately, I don’t get a top tier item. I get to make one. And I love Legends of Aethereus’s crafting (shallow as it is), for the freedom it provides, but the truth is that it’s just so dull in terms of “oh hey, look at my reward” and the rare random items I can find and the ones that I can buy all fall flat. As in Borderlands, there isn’t anything “special” to experience. There is no +3 Sword of Riptide, simply a somewhat underwhelming Platinum Gladiator Sword, which is far superior to other Gladiator Swords made of iron, but doesn’t feel like it other than the fact that things go down in fewer hits.

Indeed, my main gripe with Legends of Aethereus is what I call the “no-shiny” effect. There are two character classes: inventors who get to use gadgets and officers who get to use… gadgets and shouts. Sure the officer’s gadgets are less cool, consisting of caltrops or a javelin, but they’re pretty much the same purpose. There’s a “special attack” tree, but it isn’t linked to weapons and was underwhelming when I used it with my platinum greatsword (which I love even in its uniformity), but that’s not even anything special. The one power in the game I used and enjoyed as Officer was what I referred to as “the Best Ken Player In The World” attack, which essentially blasted out a very small wall of force.

And it felt terribly out of place. It did really low damage, but it was an attack that actually felt like my character was heroic and above the normal plebian masses (by the way, they got a similar fire-based attack that did superior damage at later levels). Plus, it hit a broad cone of enemies, which was nice for taking out some annoying foes in the arena, and it did a lot of shock damage to send people flying. And this is where Aethereus sort of loses me; it’s placed in a grim, post-apocalyptic low fantasy world, but everything is magical except you. There are magical aether gems everywhere, but inventors use them in a steampunky way and officers touch them only rarely.  This is perhaps more directed toward the setting, but if everything’s steampunk and there are great magical abilities in the form of the aether, perhaps the tree that doesn’t get steampunk powers could get some impressive magic? Officers just felt really left out (not in performance so much as special effects), and I had a lot of times when I was like “It would be awesome if I could burn these fire gems I have piling up and just fireball everyone here.”.

While we’re on the subject of “no shiny”, there’s also a noted dearth of boss battles. Don’t get me wrong, there are harder foes, but for a game whose epic appeal seemed to be in the fact that you could fight these awesome challenges, few things will survive more than fifteen seconds and most will just go down to a couple half-hearted hits. I haven’t beaten the game in its entirety (in part because quests don’t like generating/pointing me at important objectives), but I’m pretty sure that it’s missed its potential here; it’s good as it stands, but it had an opportunity (and still has one, should development continue) to be great.

This is entirely my personal complaint, but you have the ability to jump up and run around on stuff, but only in a very rigid way. This makes me cry a little for the unmet potential of LoA, because every time I climb over carts and onto the awnings in market booths I realize that the game could have had wonderful acrobatic combat, but chose to have a more stationary ground-based blow-exchanging combat, even though it screams for fast characters ducking and weaving their way into close quarters to stabbinate their enemies. Also, “stabbinate” is a word now.

In addition, I’m not quite sure where the decision was to cut off Beta and move into full release; I’ve had several quests not spawn important enemies (or maybe the lack of any HUD notification just throws me off). That said, my computer can run it happily, except when sounds try to buffer in and cause a ton of lag on my 5400 RPM hard drive, so it’s certainly better optimized than it used to be.

So, after all my hating on Legends of Aethereus, I’ll give it credit where it’s due. It’s a very good game for what it is, and I’ve had some really good times with it, but it’s the sort of thing that just throws unmet potential in your face and rubs salt in the wounds even as you enjoy a game that delivers an experience unlike anything else, but it’s really only going to be worth $30 to fans of the genre wanting an interesting take or those who are willing to put up with its many quirks and intricacies.

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