I was skeptical about Echoes of Aetheria. I’d never heard of Dancing Dragon games, nor had I heard of their previous RPG maker-style releases. Initial research yielded very little results other than the Steam page and the developer’s website. Hell, I was afraid to turn on the game for fear of it being some kind of horrible trap intended to catch unsuspecting video game journalists and force them to play low-end, unimpressive shovel-ware for the rest of eternity. When I first hit new game, my suspicions seemed to be correct. With SNES-like graphics, I was lead into a wedding between the protagonist’s brother and a young princess who the protagonist clearly held feelings for.
“Here we go,” I rolled my eyes in disgust at the apparent cliched plot point I was about to witness.
And then the unthinkable happened. A man leaped onto screen, grabbing the princess and running off with her. Another man shouted at me to follow them and save the princess as text flashed onto the screen accompanied by potentially the greatest “Quest Start” music I’ve hear heard. “Grand Theft Bridal,” the text read. Within moments, I was in a high-speed train chase fighting bad guys with great swords and automatic nail guns all while disarming bombs.
Echoes of Aetheria, despite its indie origins and 20-year-old graphics is totally badass. And I hadn’t even seen the talking commando tigers yet.
What makes Echoes stand out beyond other recent RPG maker games is just how much awesome tension they convey through what’s otherwise a carbon copy of a SNES-era RPG, complete with maze-like dungeons and 16-bit graphics. Often times, you’ll be traversing an environment that’s visually lacking and ultimately bland, but be completely immersed due to the characters reactions to what’s happening, or other actions taking place on-screen. In another early scene right after the train chase, you will be in an airship hangar filled with enemy soldiers. Now, of course, by the game’s own limitations, you will only be getting into a few encounters and walking to the objective. But, the game does a fantastic job of making it feel like you’re actually sneaking through this hangar trying to escape.
Despite the fact that Echoes does a good job of making it feel like you’re not playing an old RPG, it’s definitely worth mentioning that the actual gameplay is pretty entertaining. Battle plays out in a turn-based fashion with a few twists. For one, your characters are located on a grid system. Character placement determines who gets the brunt of damage in battle. The grid system also allows you to aim special attacks at the opposing side’s grid, allowing for area of effect attacks a’plenty. There is also a “TP” meter on top of the screen (Though what TP means, I couldn’t possibly tell you). As the battle goes on, every attack you perform will raise the TP meter, which can then be used for special attacks. There are also spells characters can learn, though those generally take from the character’s HP as there is no magic meter to speak of. Fortunately, health is automatically restored at the end of battle, and it kind of creates a cool effect when people sacrifice some of their life to cast a spell.
Outside of battle is a different story. While many of the areas you traverse are made interesting through context, from a purely gameplay point of view, they aren’t very fun. It’s reminiscent of Final Fantasy 4 and its constant maze-like level construction. Fortunately, there are tons of secrets to find. Many maps have a key that will unlock hidden treasures and doors, usually resulting in some nice loot. Speaking of, loot is the name of the game here. Almost every chest you come across will contain some kind of stone or a piece of cloth. These pieces can combined to create various equipment for your characters. While the game’s steam page touts “Over 1000 combinations!” it’s worth mentioning that most of those combinations are just different varieties of the same weapon with different stat bonuses. You can make definitely make 20 different kinds of “Steel Great Swords,” but they’re only going to be distinguished by which one raises your intelligence or which one raises your strength.
Echoes of Aetheria was a surprise on all fronts. With incredible music, awesome story, and intuitive gameplay, this epic journey is one that every fan of RPG should experience. Even with its faults, I wholeheartedly recommend you check this game out.
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