The Elder Scrolls veteran looking for their next great RPG adventure isn‚Äôt exactly left wanting for choice when it comes to Steam. A quick genre search brings up a list of literally hundreds of results, with relatively unknown indie titles mixed in with the big names like Borderlands and Dark Souls.
Legends of Aethereus is one such indie game that found it‚Äôs way onto Steam recently. Developed by Three Gates, a small team of industry veterans from Sweden, Aethereus follows in the footsteps of the likes of Mount & Blade and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, eschewing to some extent the fantasy elements so commonly associated with the genre in favour of an intense, visceral medieval themed action RPG experience.
The eponymous planet upon which the game takes place is one that has been rocked by a number of catastrophic astronomical events - the Three Great Skyfalls - throughout its thousands of years of existence. As a citizen of the Nexus City-State, one of the few civilisations that survived the third Skyfall, you‚Äôre tasked with helping to rebuild and to fend off the encroaching threat of the Venatan Empire and the primitive, warlike Khagal tribes.
Your rebuilding and protecting efforts play out by taking on quests from citizens in Nexus and venturing out into the wilds to complete them, with each mission taking place in it‚Äôs own instanced zone. This mission-driven system works very well, allowing you to forego lengthy travel times in favour of just jumping into the thick of the action. The trade off for this is that some sense of grandiosity and adventure that other, more open experiences offer is lost, and lengthy load times for missions - a few minutes per load, without exaggerating - severely break up the flow of gameplay.
The missions themselves are fairly standard; you‚Äôll be sent to explore ruins, kill big ugly brutes, gather items, and so on. They‚Äôre functional, but get repetitive quite quickly and never really amount to more than fetch quests.
The objectives are generally straightforward and marked out on the map, leaving little room for confusion, but on rare occasions this linearity gets thrown out the window and replaced by some of the vaguest objectives I‚Äôve encountered. ‚ÄúCollect 10 Fire Shards‚ÄĚ - great. Where from? What do they look like? Are they dropped by monsters? It was only after I happened to find the first one, hidden in a rock that I happened to break during a fight, that the quest text update to give me some information about how to proceed.
Generic, at-times vague quests are fine if the means by which you complete them - combat, primarily - are deep and engaging. In this regard, Legends of Aethereus really is a mixed bag. When it‚Äôs working properly, the combat is a lot of fun. A range of different weapon swing arcs, depending on which direction you‚Äôre moving when you attack, and an array of dodge, block, and parry maneuvers mean that fighting can be much more involved than just swinging your blade. But most of the time, this gets negated by shockingly bad hit detection. More often than not, a well timed parry and riposte just ends up flailing uninterrupted through the enemy‚Äôs model. Opponents seem to have just as hard a time hitting you, so what should be deep and tactical combat mostly just amounts to swinging away haphazardly and hoping other things die before you do.
It's even worse if you try and use ranged weapons, with aiming being near impossible. There seems to be a huge random element in which way your shots go, and all you can really do is point your crossbow or javelin in the direction you want to go and hope for the best. The trailers for the game show marksmen making well placed headshots with the aid of an aiming reticle, but I never saw anything of the sort in my time with the game, nor any option to toggle this in the settings.
On the other hand, Aethereus introduces some innovative mechanics that work quite well. Most skills use some sort of finite, collectible resource; for example, javelin and barrier placement abilities require timber, with stronger techniques using better, rarer wood. This means that exploration and item gathering are married to the combat in a unique and clever way, instead of just being a means to crafting better equipment. It‚Äôs just a shame that these neat elements get overshadowed by the dysfunctionality at the core of the combat.
One of the most important aspects of any RPG is character customisation, but this is yet another mixed bag in Aethereus. On the one hand, there is a huge amount of freedom to build the character you want, with stat point distribution completely at your discretion, some impressively expansive skill trees, and fairly deep crafting system that basically lets you craft whatever you want, resources permitting.
On the flip side, there are only two character classes to choose from, and the skill trees get decidedly smaller when you realize that most skills are just variations of each other. Even something as fundamental to your character design as the weapon they carry into battle gets undermined when you learn that all the weapons are pretty much the same. Despite their different appearances, all weapons all have the same attack animations, and therefore the same combat utility, as others of their range (melee or ranged), and the only notable difference between one handed and two handed weapons is how fast you can swing them.
Legends of Aethereus is largely designed around multiplayer. All of the single player content can be played cooperatively with up to three other players; it‚Äôs as simple as joining a lobby and inviting someone into your game. At times, this can be incredibly fun - the game‚Äôs flaws, annoying as they are when you‚Äôre by yourself, become almost entertaining when you have friends there to share the pain. Even with only two character class that have no real specifically designed synergy, playing in a group opens some interesting new tactical possibilities.
However, depending on who you group with, the multiplayer experience can be decidedly less fun. The game has a small userbase, so finding games is hard, and finding games with other Oceanic players in order to avoid frighteningly laggy experiences is even harder. If there‚Äôs any lack in communication, which often happens with random players, it becomes more like a case of four people playing a single player game on the same map. If you have any real interest in the co-op side of Aethereus, you‚Äôll probably want to convince some friends to pick it up as well.
To make matters worse, the game‚Äôs single player seems to suffer due to the multiplayer focus, and in very simple, easily avoidable ways. The quests all seem to be designed around group play, and can be overwhelming when you‚Äôre by yourself, unless you‚Äôre more than a few levels above what is recommended. Most of the game‚Äôs difficulty comes from swarms of enemies rushing you, so a system of scaling the number of enemies based on party size would have easily solved this. There‚Äôs also no way to pause the game, which is understandable in multiplayer but incredibly frustrating in single player.
Visuals follow the same kind of mixed-bag approach as the rest of Legends of Aethereus. Some of the environments are quite impressive, but the character and enemy models are underwhelming. A lack of optimisation means that you‚Äôre going to need a pretty powerful machine to run it on any kind of respectable graphics settings.
So, the million dollar question - should you buy this fun-at-times but flawed game? I‚Äôm going to say no. Perhaps one of the game‚Äôs biggest failings is its price - at US$29.99, you can twice buy Mount & Blade, which does everything Aethereus does but in a much more polished way. For an extra $5, you can get Skyrim. For a cheaper price, Legends of Aethereus could be a decent way to wile away Sunday afternoon, but Steam has a plethora of better, cheaper RPG experiences available.