"The sloppiness of Aethereus' combat may even eclipse that of bottom-feeding action RPGs like ArcaniA and Two Worlds."
For all the video games that give life to our most fabulous dreams, there are an equal number that simulate our dreariest nightmares. I mean this in the worst possible way. Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent create exciting new nightmares; games like Legends of Aethereus transport us into banal, old ones. Aethereus's problems are the same ones that have been separating competent action RPGs from incompetent ones for years. The same virtues that allow video games to create powerful fantasies can just as easily toss us into a depressive, tedious hell.
Aethereus features an ambitious array of game modes: single player questing, co-op questing, PvE arena matches, PvP arena patches, co-op PvE arena matches, and various difficulties including a perma-death hardcore mode. The game plays like a soloable, instance-based MMORPG with active combat. The player smiths weapons, purchases items, and gathers quests in a hub town before setting out on any number of expeditions.
At first, one might believe Three Gates made a good decision in turning away from the MMORPG genre. In theory, by making multiplayer optional they tailor the game to both MMORPG veterans and those who prefer solo play. On second thought, however, this seems less like a conscious decision and more of a comment on the limitations of an indie developer. This isn't inherently bad. Unfortunately, by modeling Aethereus after the generic MMORPG yet removing most multiplayer features, Three Gates has only succeeded in alienating both audiences. I enjoy genre-bending hybrids, but Aethereus lacks the story of a good single player RPG and the features and ease of grouping found in good MMORPGs.
Aethereus panders to those who skip story sequences and pass over in-game lore books, and the resulting narrative wasteland is a bleak place seemingly without end. With no story structure and very little quest flavor, the game seems to have no beginning or end. Since the gathering, preparing for, and completing of quests never evolves, any part of the game can be confused for any other. The result is an oddly timeless cycle wherein salvation lays only in the hands of Lord Alt-F4.
A quest by any other name is still kill the orc and gather the toadstools. The fancifully named "expeditions" occur in small, linear levels that are remarkably similar to one another. Indeed, in less than ten expeditions, I found three that began in front of an identical wooden structure. A landmark is defined by its uniqueness. If the levels were any larger or less linear (forests and swamps can have corridors too!), I might have gotten lost. There are allegedly both hand-crafted and procedurally-generated levels, but no one will know the difference with level design this bland. Each expedition uses the same muddy graphics, draws from the same small well of enemies, forces the player to traverse the same hollow fields, and features the same few quest objectives: this is the nightmare. The repetition of boredom is nearly unrivaled, and arena modes provide no succor when combat is this bad.
Combat is almost unplayable, particularly with groups of enemies. The sloppiness of Aethereus' combat may even eclipse that of bottom-feeding action RPGs like ArcaniA and Two Worlds. This clumsy, awkward, sluggish world of aberrant physics crumbles and collapses during just about every combat encounter. I would have preferred the passive target-to-attack combat of some MMORPGs, and that's not something I thought I would ever write.
There are some neat skills, however, such as bombs to throw, rockets to shoot, and a turret that can be controlled in first-person perspective. Naturally, these playful gadgets (open to one of the game's two classes) don't really work, but the innovation is there to be appreciated at least. That the skills require two resources (the equivalent of MP and a collectible item) encumbers the pace and dampens the little joy of shooting fireworks at foes.
Indeed, there seems to be an odd clash of gameplay ideologies in Aethereus. Perhaps to attract the Dark Souls crowd, the game features a number of mechanics meant to give the game a greater sense of reality. Movement with the sword unsheathed, for example, makes the character walk more slowly. Your character's bombs can harm him or her, and enemies can hit one another, often to great effect. In a game that doesn't even attempt to simulate reality in any other aspect, however, these are barriers to entertainment. Sheathing and unsheathing my weapon so I can move at a reasonable pace and yet be ready for the next enemy that seemingly leaps down from the clouds doesn't increase my enjoyment, it postpones it.
Aethereus isn't about the story, the graphics, or the music; it's about gameplay. I won't fault Aethereus for not being something other than what it tries to be, but with questing this anonymous and combat this dysfunctional, I can't recommend it to anyone. The ambitious number of gameplay modes and few nuanced mechanics foretell a potentially exciting future for Three Gates, but even after patches and adjustments, I doubt Legends of Aethereus will be worth playing. There will always be many better options for every kind of gamer. Hopefully this is what lays behind just the first of three portals. May what comes out of the next one be better and brighter.