Weddings are always an exciting event. You have food, drinks, friends, family, and…kidnapping? Maybe the last part isn’t normal for most weddings, but this is the situation that we find Lucian in at the start of Echoes of Aetheria. Following an attack on his adoptive brother’s wedding, we follow Lucian as he gives chase after the kidnapped bride, Princess Soha of Sayunaa. Along the way, he meets up with Ingrid; a rogue character with a thirst for knowledge and significant lack of tact. Ingrid finds herself an involuntary accomplice in the liberation of Soha from her abductors. This rescue mission leads into a much larger scheme that threatens the entire world.
Along the way, Lucian and company also join forces with Eskandar (a Barek Tor resistance fighter) and Kesh (a 200 year old martial arts master, and Lucian’s mentor). These five make up the party that will lead you through a 15-20 hour grid based RPG. Fans of classic 16-bit adventures will find themselves at home with the world design, with beautifully detailed character sprites and backdrops. I found myself very taken in with the amount of detail in the start of the game; not just design, but soundtrack as well. The game features an original, orchestrated soundtrack that took me by surprise when I first started the game.
The visuals and score were a pleasure while exploring around this world. Exploration is key throughout this game, as there is quite a bit out there to find. Aside from finding enemies to engage on the field, you can also find crafting materials to create new weapons and armor. The crafting system, while sometimes frustrating, was something I felt was one of the stronger points of the game. It was easy to spend quite a bit of time straining over which items I wanted to use to craft weapons for each character, since you could add additional stats to each item using additional crafting agents.
You also earn skill scrolls by exploring and finding them in the field. These scrolls will allow you to upgrade your character skills, allowing for more powerful attacks and shorter cooldowns. Each character can equip up to 7 active skills, and 3-4 passive skills. Planning your skills out is critical later in the game, as not all enemies are susceptible to the same strategies. This is unfortunately a bit of a downside for players who are going through the game in “Easy” mode.
At the start of each mission, you have the option of choosing between three difficulty modes. I played the majority of the game on easy for the sake of time, but did flirt around with the other difficulty settings occasionally. The hard difficulty was a significant challenge, which is good for advanced players who are familiar enough with the skills and pacing of the game to plan ahead. However, I found that an extremely punishing difficulty curve late in the game made for some extremely frustrating boss fights, and found myself having to restart battle after battle (even on easy). Equally frustrating was the lack of a “run” command in battle, making it difficult to manage healing items through the length of the final level.
The levels themselves were a slight letdown, as they typically used only two types of puzzles. The first involved finding colored switches, which would lower barriers of the same color and allow you to progress further into the level. The second involved mazes that you traverse by stepping on colored portals that would warp you to another point. While there were additional level types, these were the vast majority of the game. These were fun and engaging during the first few levels, but by the time I was at the end of the game I found myself bored and simply trying to rush to the end.
The battle system, while having a large amount of skills and options to choose from, I found to be slightly lackluster. The grid based battle system had potential, but I found no real reason to manage character position other than late in the game, when enemy skills could move characters around. Placing a weaker character behind a stronger one would provide them a shield from enemy attacks, but I ultimately could not justify wasting a turn in battle simply to avoid certain attacks. Considering many of the enemies in the game had skills that could hit a character on the back row, there was no real necessity to manage it. I feel the battle system would have been better executed as a simple turn based system, with front and back row mechanics providing a defensive bonus to rear row characters.
Additionally, the bugs I encountered during my playthrough were more than just a minor annoyance. I was stuck in the first chapter for two days because of a treasure chest stuck directly in my path that should have disappeared after using the item inside of it (though in fairness, this has since been patched out). I also had a glitch crash my game after a jumping section caused me to land directly on an enemy and freeze my game. A slew of visual and performance related issues plagued the back half of the game, and I found my mouse cursor would disappear regularly, and would not reappear without loading my menu and returning to the game.
Probably my biggest grievance with the game is related to the writing. To be fair, I loved the story. I thought the game had a lot of potential for some truly heart wrenching plot twists. The disappointment starts with very little character development in the early portion of the game. The characters are thrown together with very little understanding of their backstory, and I found myself not caring about some of the plots that should have been heavy hitting later on (for example, I should never NOT care when an entire city is wiped out). These things happen too quickly, with too little reaction from the characters, for them to have any real type of emotional impact. Furthermore, I found it frustrating that many of the plot points in the game seemed to follow a “because I said so” pattern. One of the main characters finds themselves arrested in a kangaroo court scenario with “overwhelming evidence” against them, but no further explanation of what that evidence is, and very little on why he’s being arrested, is ever given. When this is supposed to be an origin story of sorts for the character, a bit more detail would have gone a long way.
While enjoyable, ultimately this game did not live up to the potential it had. It struggled to define itself in an RPG genre. The gameplay had significant potential, but ultimately the back half of the game often felt like a chore to get to the end. While some parts of the narrative were disappointing, the story itself was well thought out. It was disappointing, however, that it wasn’t more creatively written. With nothing really setting itself apart, and no additional reason to play through again other than more advanced difficulty, this is likely one that will stay on the shelf after a single playthrough. Disappointing…as it could have been so much more.