By Joe Orchard
For me, AER – Memories of Old, was one of those eShop purchases. You know the ones. You’re idly scrolling through the sale section, carefully trying to avoid the shovelware and mobile ports, when something just piques your interest. It looks kinda neat, has an interesting concept and, oh what’s that? 90% off, you say? Well, don’t mind if I do. We’ve all been burned like this before, I’m sure, but with a Metacritic score hovering in the mid-70s, AER has to be a pretty safe bet. Right?
Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. Personally, I enjoy the basic, polygonal design. Growing up with an Acorn A500 home computer and a steady diet of Stunt Racer 2000, Elite and Chocks Away, I have a lot of nostalgia for this graphical style. In AER’s outdoor environments, it looks lovely; big, bright, colourful shapes gliding past as you soar serenely through the angular cloud formations. Contrast that with the interiors which, in spite of some occasionally pleasant lighting effects, are uninspired, flat grey corridors of not a great deal. Even the ruined architecture of forgotten civilisations that litters the game’s temples are unremarkable, and doesn’t do much to help immerse you in AER’s narrative. This is an area where I feel the game struggles to set itself apart.
The gist of the story is that humans are bad. Not evil, necessarily, but feckless enough that they have exploited their environment and turned their back on nature, which has left them and their world on the brink of annihilation. So far, so yep. It’s a theme that has been done before, and better, elsewhere. To attempt to flesh out this gossamer-thin conceit the game periodically has its characters throw out big, dry chunks of expository dialogue in bland text boxes. It’s all just very uninspired.
The main issue that I have with this game is that it doesn’t seem to realise where its strengths lie. The flying mechanic is wonderful and, the first time you use it, genuinely exhilarating. Being able to switch player character Auk between human and bird forms seamlessly at the push of a button, the music swelling to compliment the shift perfectly, is liberating. It is during these moments, when you are soaring through the air, searching for landmarks and clues that AER is at its best. It’s not perfect by any means. The flight itself is pretty basic – no loop-de-loops or barrel rolls to be had here I’m afraid – but things get particularly funky when transitioning from the air back down to earth.
When you are coming in to land, your downward trajectory causes you to accelerate, and the absence of any kind of brake means that you invariably lawn dart Auk into your destination at high speed. You don’t take damage or anything, this isn’t that sort of game, but it is jarring when mere seconds ago you were gliding gracefully through the sky. Nonetheless, the power of flight is unquestionably the highlight of AER. So imagine the frustration when you realise that the greater part of this game takes place not in the sky but underground.
Nearly every puzzle this game has to offer is in a cave, or a temple, or a ruin, leaving the outside world feeling quite empty. The one puzzle that I recall involving any flight was a simple case of ‘fly through some rings to open a door’, but do you know what? It was the best part of the game. And it happened once.
The net result of this is that the flying aspect of the game (the USP and standout gameplay mechanic) is relegated to merely navigating a hub world that links the actual meat of the game. As menus go, it’s one of the more engaging ones, but it is at its core little more than that.
Other problems present in the surprisingly frequent performance issues. Frame rate drops are not uncommon while flying around at high speeds, and the environment tends to pop in when it’s good and ready and not a moment sooner. What’s worse though is the performance during cut scenes, with the frame rate dropping to stop-motion levels to the extent that I genuinely spent much of my time with AER thinking that the Ray Harryhausen-esque movement of its characters was a stylistic choice. Surely, given the game’s deliberately basic graphical style this simply shouldn’t be an issue and the result is that AER often feels less charmingly retro and more unfinished.
The puzzles often feel like placeholders for something more engaging, demanding little consideration to be solved and instead placing buttons and switches far away from one another, seemingly in order to pad things out. Combine this with a control system that maps your interact command to the same button as jump and you’re left with a situation where puzzle solving is a loop of: walk over to thing, jump for no reason, pull lever, repeat. I wouldn’t mind, but there is only one other face button that does anything while you’re indoors, so other options were available.
Auk’s movement is oddly floaty, in a way that I think is supposed to make her feel light and agile, but makes her feel strangely ethereal, separate from the environment that she is in. This feeling is compounded on occasions when the camera isn’t following directly behind her, and you can see that rather than standing on the ground she appears to be hovering a fraction above it.
So, is AER a good game? Not really, no. I feel awful saying that because it is by no means terrible, and clearly a lot of love has gone into AER, but it just seems like a waste of an opportunity. There are good ideas in here that just somehow don’t quite make up the sum of their parts, leaving the game feeling like a proof of concept, rather than a finished product. I know that this is a small indie game, but through a combination of a Switch eShop sale and a few gold points I picked this up for nothing, and still felt let down. It’s usual eShop price is £17.99. Ouch.
If you want to play a game where you can spend a couple of hours flying around, exploring an interesting environment, full of secrets and engaging characters, play A Short Hike. AER – Memories of Old is better off forgotten.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch