"Overall, Echoes of Aetheria is enjoyable but rarely engrossing."
Dancing Dragon Games has managed to achieve what many RPG fans no doubt long to accomplish: that is, create quality, commercially viable RPGs with simple tools like RPG Maker. Having thoroughly enjoyed Skyborne, their previous outing, I was excited to see whether they could repeat that success with Echoes of Aetheria. While Echoes does not quite reach the heights of its predecessor, it manages to carve out an enjoyable niche in which to sink my time.
First of all, I will reiterate that this is an RPG Maker game, and as such it makes adequate, but not extraordinary, use of available resources. The attention to detail in the maps using simple assets is impressive at times, but generally environments are nothing to write home about. Sound design is also unremarkable. I will, however, credit the developers with avoiding the temptation to abuse palette swapping; each area has a distinct crop of custom enemy models.
Gameplay is turn based, with a timed component similar to Grandia or Child of Light. Characters employ either regular or special attacks, the latter typically requiring expenditure of TP, which is built up over the course of battle by dealing or taking damage. Player characters face their enemies on opposing fields of three-by-four grids, and there are options to move around the grid for better positioning. However, I never found much reason to move, except to reset my formation after it was scrambled by an enemy attack. There are several other options, like the ability to summon items for cover, but again, I found them largely unnecessary.
Each character has a unique skill set with an impressive variety of skills, but generally I stuck with a small number of attacks once I found the ones I liked. For example, for the main character Lucien, I mainly relied on flame sword attacks, as it balanced damage and cooldown time. There is little incentive to re-spec, and doing so is made harder by poor menu design. One big problem with the menu is that there is no easy way to switch between characters or easily compare the impact of new equipment, and some abilities' mechanics are so poorly explained that I simply avoided them. Boss battles are a notable exception to this critique, though, as their challenge often required a change in strategy or loadout. I just wish the menus allowed for greater flexibility.
The highlight of Echoes is the writing that brings its ensemble cast to life. Each character is likeable in their own way, with their own arc that feels complete. There’s the brash Lucien, the impish Ingrid, the ambivalent Soha, and many more. Even the villain is ambiguous enough to be intriguing until the end. The dialogue between the characters is punchy and witty, drawing a genuine chuckle at times, and creates the sense of a cohesive group.
The broader story, however, is unsophisticated, and the pacing feels rushed. The game tries to depict an uprising against a great power a la Suikoden, but it doesn’t allow enough of a rising action to feel organic. It doesn't break any new ground, but neither does it make any glaring omissions. Adequate is a very apt description.
Overall, Echoes of Aetheria is enjoyable but rarely engrossing. Combat can become rather tedious once the player figures out an optimal strategy, and the story is just not the underdog epic to which it aspires. However, the characters will keep many players coming back for more, just to see how everything plays out for them. This is essentially the perfect game for a night in while binge watching your favorite Netflix series. Not every game needs to be Persona 5; sometimes it is enough to do a few things really well and deliver a couple dozen hours of solid gameplay. That is what Echoes of Aetheria has to offer.
* A previous version of this review described the environments as "stock," which is not entirely accurate. The language has been amended to reflect this fact. This change did not impact the score.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.