One of the luxuries of running an entertainment-centric website is being able to choose which games to write about. Some games catch my eye because of the visuals, or the description of a new game mechanic. Other times, it might be a witty or absurd title. But it was a completely different motivation that led to this review of Aeternum, a shoot-em-up (shmup) for Xbox from new indie studio Wasted Brilliance. I think I was most intrigued by the fact that the man behind the studio, Brooks Bishop, made the jump from indie game journalist at the (now seemingly-defunct) Two Fedoras to indie game developer. I’ve always wondered whether the ability to critically analyze a game could make someone a better game developer. Despite it being in a genre I typically avoid, using conventions that I generally dismiss, and having a difficulty spike or two, Aeternum ended up being the right challenge for the right amount of time.
Aeternum‘s plot involves a young demon girl in search of her best friend. Her journey takes her through the academy she attends as she meets a wide variety of classmates and other creatures. The character design and setting are both very Japanese-inspired, and while it’s not my cup of tea, I’m sure there’s an audience out there for it. Thankfully, the dialogue is well written, fairly humorous at times, and much more likely to appeal to a wider audience than the actual characters themselves.
I’ve never really been a fan of shmups. I enjoy overcoming adversity, but when a game is designed to frustrate the person playing it, it seems counter to the concept of entertainment. However, journalistic integrity includes keeping an open mind, which is how I approached Aeternum. What separates this game from other shmups is how the shield system is implemented. Defeating enemies earns the player ‘power’, and 50 ‘power’ can be spent to purchase a shield that lasts for a few seconds. The player starts with and can earn ‘Panics’ which automatically create a shield in the event the player’s going to get hit and doesn’t realize it. These are available in short supply, and even moreso on the higher difficulty settings, so there’s a strategy involved with making sure they’re held in reserve. Getting hit with no shields, no power, and no panics available results in the player’s death.
Taking down the game’s standard flying cat and dog enemies is an assailable challenge, but the boss fights are another matter. Each of the four stages includes multiple bosses, each with multiple phases. As with most shmups, the key is pattern recognition through trial and error. After a few missteps (and sometimes many more), I found that the shooting and dodging while swapping between an offensive and defensive mindset became almost dance-like in a thoroughly enjoyable way. The game never lets up, though, and attention must be focused at all times between cutscenes. Aeternum embodies the term “bullet hell” as the game tries its damnedest to overwhelm the player with a deluge of projectiles to avoid. Thankfully the player’s avatar can be controlled in an alternate mode that makes only a small area of the player a vulnerable hit box. While that option can also earn scoring boosts from near-misses, the tradeoff is that player movement is slowed down.
One of the biggest complaints I have about Aeternum is the pacing of the game in terms of standard enemies versus boss fights. Sometimes there’s not enough easier kills in between bosses in order for the player to earn back “power” that’s been spent. The second stage is particularly awful for this. Another minor gripe is the lack of a save system. While the game is only four stages long, they all have to be played in one sitting. And as much as I struggled with the game, I played it on the “easiest” level. I don’t even want to think about how painfully tough the other difficulties are, but they’re there for the most hardcore of shmup fans. If developers are going to offer a handful of difficulty levels, the easiest one should still be easy. Thankfully a retry stage option was added in the first patch that made it at least somewhat possible for gamers to make it through to the end.
Aeternum is an interesting animal. There are so many things that I shouldn’t like about it, but I enjoyed playing it anyway. Most of what I could consider drawbacks or failings tend to fall into the personal tastes category, as the game itself really doesn’t have any inexcusable issues. The biggest concern I have about whether or not it’s going to be a success lies in the fact that the genre and character design place it in a niche within a niche, potentially alienating some gamers before they’ve even tried it. Those that take the risk are going to find a better-than-average shmup. Be forewarned, though, that despite the cutesy facade, this is a game that wants to take your lunch money and have you thank it for doing so. Aeternum is currently selling for 80 MSP ($1) in the Xbox Live marketplace.
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