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Aphelion
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade (Indie Games)
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Lunatic Studios
Genre: Traditional RPG
Format: Download
Released: US 07/08/10



Scorecard
Graphics: 87%
Sound: 81%
Gameplay: 81%
Control: 80%
Story: 70%
Overall: 80%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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Not as tough as it looks.
 
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Quite a spiffy looking game.
 
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Blue, blue, and more blue as far as the eye can see.
 
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Oh Savion, getting himself into danger again.
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Dennis Rubinshteyn
Aphelion
08/22/10
Dennis Rubinshteyn

Prior to Aphelion, Breath of Death VII was the only other Xbox indie RPG I'd played through, and it left quite an impression on me. It kept players engaged, even with its familiar-feeling mechanics, while really showcased how well indie RPGs can fare on consoles without the need of an RPG Maker engine. Even so, BOD still looked like any other retro RPG out there, and that's where Lunatic Studios' debut title, Aphelion, stands out. It's still a traditional RPG at its core, but dares to be different by not jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon and does its own thing with a unique, modern look and some unique features. The result? Aphelion started off quite underwhelming, but as I pressed onward, it grew on me a little despite a couple of flaws bogging down the experience.

You play as Savion Mercante, a soldier from the Ereit Peacekeeper group. Savion tends to do this own thing and is quite reckless with protocol, but ultimately gets the job done. One day, he is assigned to investigate a colony attack caused by a race of aliens known as Crimsons. Joining him is his technophile friend, Ashley, and their commanding officer, Ceda. It's during that mission where his fate begins to change after he rescues a powerful Crimson ambassador. Because of his team's heroics, he, Ashley, Ceda, and several others are selected for a special mission. The objective: travel to a far-off planet and rescue a scientist named Delith from the Crimson. While en route to their destination, tragedy strikes when a whole fleet of ships are suddenly destroyed one by one. Savion and Ashley manage to escape the destruction (thanks to Ceda's valiant sacrifice) and reach their destination, but wind up as only two of the very few survivors. Nonetheless, they march onward to fulfill their mission, but this ordinary rescue mission turns out to be a lot more complicated than they imagined.

To start off on a positive note, I like having an adult group of protagonists and the chemistry they have with each other. Character interactions occur frequently and the way they just joke with one another and their reactions to current situations feels believable, even if the writing itself isn't golden.

Unfortunately, this is not enough to make up for the heavy flaws that plague the story. First, the game begins by throwing you abruptly into the action with little explanation of what's going on and providing no backstory. There is some historical information about the world's history and the Crimson race, but it's only through loading screens, which ironically load too fast to read (though that issue was resolved through a recent update where you can now press a button to continue after the page loads.) There are also collectable datalogs scattered throughout the game that give brief depictions of some previous events. Even though this issue slowly fixes itself when you familiarize yourself with their world and read up datalogs, the game acts like you know who these people are and what's going on, despite this being only the first episode.

What bothered me more is that after finishing the game over five hours, I felt that so little had occurred; only two or three important events, some minor events to prolong the next important scene, and some small detours. It did manage to introduce your party, but you don't really know anything about them outside of their personality. There were also a lot of major questions raised but no answers were given. A major antagonist appeared, but he only appears briefly to reveal his name, and the climax didn't feel like much of a climax. When the plot did finally get into a major revelation, the game ended right there and did not explain why, how, or what made these events occur. I was scratching my head, trying to put together what little I had learned the last few hours. Granted, this is the first game of a multi-part series, but it could've done a lot better than just introduce things and throw in lots of filler between events.

Visually, Aphelion goes beyond what most indie RPGs look like, utilizing a good mixture of 2D and 3D design. I like the character art and designs, the enemy units look cool, and the bosses look downright creative. It's impressive how detailed the work is, and you wouldn't tell it was just some indie title at first glance. The only drawbacks are the generic and repetitive environments, enemy palette swaps and the somewhat messy dungeon layouts. These are certainly not bad, but I wonder if the developers are fascinated with the color blue, based on how much I see it in nearly every instance of the game.

Sadly the music isn't on par, but it has some shining moments. Initially, it was completely unimpressive with its bland dungeon and battle theme, but once I heard the hard-rock boss music kick in, my impression suddenly changed. It was from that point that the soundtrack began to show its strengths, and I began appreciating it more for what it is. It primarily consists of atmospheric tunes to set the tone, but also has its share of melodic songs during key moments. Sadly, those only last briefly and they're never heard again. If those songs stuck around longer, I would've favored the soundtrack much more. Regardless, Aphelion's music works for what it is, and contains some variety, even if most songs are very short-lived.

Aphelion's combat has your standard turn-based battles and does nothing out of the ordinary with the exception of two minor things: each character has a shield meter that protects their HP. It's technically just an extension of their HP, but it's equipment based, and fits with the sci-fi theme. The second thing is a break meter where you can unleash a powerful group attack on a single foe or multiple enemies. It builds up by repeatedly attacking and when it's full, you just press the X button, select your target(s), and unleash some hell. This action does not even cost you a turn, and when you factor in how powerful it is, it's an immensely broken feature.

Outside of combat, Aphelion features an ability chart and a crafting system. The ability chart enables you to build up each party member's stats and gain new skills by spending points. You gain one skill point for each level up and there are thirteen skill categories to choose from. Only three of the categories can grant you new abilities whereas most of the others are simply stat enhancements. There is enough variation between types of builds where a party member could have an offense oriented build, or be more on the defensive or supportive side. Each party member has their own exclusive skills and slightly different sets of stat enhancements, so they can specialize a bit. I kind of wish that there were more combat and maybe even passive skills to keep things more interesting.

Crafting is simple and straightforward processes that consists of gathering up materials through combat, and having the right amount of specified materials to create weapons, armor and shields. Each party member has their own craft level in the ability chart, and investing points there unlocks more crafting recipes. A strange bug did occur on several instances where it inaccurately displayed how much of a certain material I had. Sometimes it read that I had enough when I actually didn't or that my materials were not being depeleted after I made something. Thankfully, unavailable materials are indicated in red, despite what the numbers say, but nonetheless, it's a weird problem.

The biggest issue with Aphelion's gameplay stems from the numerous balance issues. At first, Aphelion is tough, but fair, due to having limited skills, a low MP pool and scarce provisions due to a lack of shop access for a while. Once you get rolling on good equipment, skills, and lots of supplies, the difficulty sharply tones down. It might be beneficial for me, but the balance feels one-sided and can be a dealbreaker for some players. It's quite easy to make your party members capable of killing enemies in one to three hits or take consecutive turns. No need to worry about conserving either because items are very cheap and you'll be accumulate more cash than you can handle. And of course, the break skill is quite overpowered and actually gets easier to build up as you progress.

These factors can make random encounters a joke, but then there are the bosses. Even if you made your party capable of plowing through random enemies, bosses can still take quite a few turns to beat. They have way too much HP, can hit your party quite hard, and, depending on your build, can destroy you pretty quickly. I was never forced to grind, but others might have it a lot tougher depending on how they build their characters. Then again, that's how things can get when you have the ability to customize characters. Some builds will naturally be better than others. It's hard to maintain that kind of balance, but still, the challenge between random encounters and bosses can feel extreme.

The only form of side content is a coliseum accessible near the very end of the game. There, each party member fights several one-on-one battles to get their best accessories, then everyone bands together for the final challenge for the best equipment in the game and lots of EXP. Aside from that, the game has a very linear progression, but occasionally took me a while to get from point A to point B due to being lost in the mazelike dungeons.

After beating the game, there is a New Game+ where everything from your previous file gets carried over and you can choose between three harder difficulties. Aside from enemies getting stronger, greater equipment can only be obtained in New Game+. It might be the same game all over again, but I give credit to the developers on providing replay value for players either seeking an extra challenge or seeking to further improve their party into the best team possible.

In spite of my complaints, I still had a decent time with Aphelion and do suggest giving it a shot. Its technical aspects are strong, it maintains a unique identity amongst indie RPGs, and has some good things going for it, even though it needs some refinement. It's also just a mere three bucks, so you can't go wrong with that price point. It was still enjoyable, and has some potential, but it could've been so much more. Perhaps episode 2 will deliver on things this game lacks, but only time will tell.



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