Reviewed on: PC
Reviewer: Maiyannah Bishop
Review Play-Time: 5h
Review Published: 2015-10-15
Review Updated: 2020-04-22
+ Neat pixel art on display
+ Some decent chiptunes
- Instant failure states
- Longish load times
- Very simplistic stealth mechanics
- Floaty and laggy controls
- Quite silly story
- Extremely short for the price point
Aerannis is touted as a Metroidvania-style stealth game developed and published by ektomarch. This is one that was given to me by a reader curious to hear my evaluation of its stealth mechanics since I am rather known for me love of the Thief series, the reboot nonwithstanding, and I have to admit I might end up disappointing that reader, because there really isn't much to evaluate. On both the story and mechanical front there isn't much substance to really dig into here, so I suppose I'm going to end up offsetting the longer review of SR:HK with a fairly shorter review. This game is maybe 6 hours tops, and as it turns out, the mission I got stuck on and decided to give up on is the second last in the game, so I don't really feel like I missed out on much. The ending would basically have to transport a hooker directly to my doorstop to make up for the game up to that point, so there's that. But, yknow, for what it's worth, yes - I did quit this game short. It has a checkpoint-based system with instant game overs and frankly I couldn't be arsed after a certain point. So do take that in consideration with the rest of my opinion below.
The stealth mechanics are incredibly simple
So yeah, like I said, this game was given to me by a reader whom, knowing my fondness for the Thief series, wanted my opinion on the stealth elements in it. Really, the problem with criticism here is that there's really so very little to talk about when it comes to the mechanics presented, as it's a very thread-bare and simplistic system. That's not inherently a problem though, I mean, Mark of the Ninja's stealth was also incredibly simplistic, and every game can't be the nuanced and incredibly-richly-detailed thing that Thief is. That said, in my opinion there's really only two key components to a function (if not good stealth system) - a clear indication of whether we're visible or not, and a brief moment between an opponent seeing you and the alarm being soundsed.
Aerannis fails on both fronts. First of all, detection in a "quiet" mission is an instant game over - and a frustrating one since it'll be a good like 20-30s for the game to reload to your last checkpoint (more on those later, oh yes). Secondly, the detection is instantaneous. It doesn't matter if they're a lone guard you could in an action sequence easily take out without much trouble, they turn around and see you, you're done like dinner. So what you get here isn't so much a stealth game as it is an annoying and funless game of grandmother's footsteps.
The frustration of those instant game over things gets compounded in several ways. I mentioned the load times, and they're frankly atrocious for the kind of game we're talking about here - and seem to be the result of using a free engine that's not well optimised for what the developers are trying to do with it - but that's only one bugbear. Another huge one is that the guards don't follow reliable patterns in their behaviour. The AI isn't complex, mind you, merely erratic. They'll be given an area to roam back and forth in, but when they turn around and double back the other route is something left to the ineffible will of the random-number generator, so you have to give them a wide berth at best.
And the checkpoints, oh the checkpoints. I suspect if this game had an auto-save feature it'd be all of maybe an hour or an hour and a half long at best, which is likely why it doesn't have one - to make the game artificially more difficult and longer than it otherwise would be. But this is like me stuffing my bra with tissues when I was a kid, you ain't fooling nobody here. Indeed, in the game's case, it's only turning what could have possibly been a short but somewhat memorable stealth game into an over-extended frustration fest.
Gadgets don't really add much depth to that stealth
So basically you have two main tools at your disposal when it comes to the utilities in the game - a gun, and a distraction grenade. You get a few other things later in the game that get used maybe once and then forgotten about, so I don't really consider them all that important to dissect.
The distraction grenade is a very simple area-of-effect tool, which when thrown will draw any guards in the area of effect to investigate it, and it really is as simple as that. So toss it one way, hide, and then shank the guard looking the other way, essentially. Get used to doing this if you're playing the game, because this is pretty much going to be your go-to route of going through things for most of the quiet sections, unless ytour idea of a fun time is getting constantly game-over'd by guards randomly doubling back.
Funny thing about the gun is that the shooting's actually pretty decent as far as a retro-style platformer goes, if nothing amazing to write home about, but having that emphasis on stealth as the game does, it has entire tracts where you never use it except in that pre-baked hostage execution move that I keep fucking up because the controls are poorly explained and handle even poorer. Control issues with the stealth aside, in the actual sections with combat an alien sensation for my session with this game started taking hold and a realisation set in: I was actually kind of having fun. So really, the forced and poorly-implemented stealth is not to the game's benefit.
Let's not even get into the fact the end-mission assassinations for most of the missions are just "eventlessly shoot a single individual after a couple lines of exposition". Because then this paragraph would be longer and completing it more difficult than the assassinations of your targets.
Story-wise the game is neither amazing nor bad,
but it doesn't really work very well, being quite ham-fisted
I think I can sum up this story to you and you can determine what your think about this game in relaying one simple fact:
It has a statue dedicated to the woman who "smashed the Patriarchy"
Yeah, it's a bit cringe unless you're a radical feminist, and I say that as a feminist myself.
So, Aerannis starts you off in this world where men are entirely abolished, and you just have women. But men weren't entirely abolished you see - spoiler warning, though it's not really a spoiler since the game makes this pretty obvious - there's some women whom get referred to as "snowflakes" throughout the game that are basically MTF transgenders. What actually happened to the men (or FTM transgenders for that matter, whom always seem to go forgotten) is not really explained.
The problem with Aerannis is tone. I couldn't really deduce whether this game is siding with progressive "SJWs", mocking them, or somewhere in between. The angle that seems the most reasonable to infer of authorial intent is to disparage feminism as somehow hostile to transgenders, and that certainly is an evergreen topic for radical feminism, for how often the term "TERF" gets thrown around ("trans-exclusionary radical feminist" for those unawares). But even that doesn't seem entirely consistent with the story. It seems like a game that had a lot of just general ideas for 'story points' that got shoved into things still as those bullet points without any real concern for connective tissue.
If it sounds like I'm getting a little heavy into the politics with this review, well, you can't really avoid it with this game. It's a game that seems clearly designed with some sort of political message in mind, as a form of ideological propoganda. I'm not even against a piece exploring that kind of subject matter, dear readers, as you may recall, I was quite fond of Papers, Please. The problem here is with that tonal inconsistency. Since it can't seem to make up it's mind what point it wants to make, it leaves the game feeling like it's going in a half dozen directions with it's very blunt and artless storytelling. Ultimately, it's a direction-less and short mess that has a few interesting moments but nothing that really feels like a coherent over-arching narrative or message.
Controls were a consistent frustration
Here's the second big fly in the gameplay ointment ladies and gentlemen: the controls were about as straight-forward as doing your tax return, felt loose and floaty, and in general had a fairly unforgivable input lag associated with them.
It could perhaps be argued that I was playing the game wrong since all the actual button prompts were given in keyboard keys, having plugged in my DualShock 3 controller as is proper for a platformer in my opinion, but playing on the controller was an affair in frustration. The controls don't actually directly map to the keyboard and the on-screen prompts are wrong so I basically had to work out the controls myself. I originally thought that perhaps the issue was because I was using a third-party driver for my (remaining) old DS3 controller, but, alas, this was not the case - digging out the 360 pad and playing with that was no better. Incorrect prompts combined with input lag of a good second made the otherwise simple gameplay much more difficult than it really had be.
So eventually I caved and just used the keyboard, but even that is awkward. It's set up in such a way that the WASD keys map to the ABXY keys on the controller, and the cursor keys map to the D-Pad. The WASD keys aren't a direct sensible mapping, however, and I never did get the keys bound to the shoulder buttons to work reliably. That said, without the input lag I did fare a lot better on the keyboard, so it just goes to show how controller optimization is something that game developers need to pay attention to. The keyboard controls are rebindable, incidentally, in the only accessibility option in the game, and even that was added in a patch. And as such I rebound the keys to something I found much more sensible - only to have the game fail to load them every second or third time I re-launched it for .. whatever reason.
In short, both control methods had their frustrations, and there really isn't any excuse for either. This isn't a cutting-edge implementation of a new engine on new software trying to do new things with gaming, this is a fairly formulaic stealth platformer, and that's ground that isn't so much well-trodden as purged with fire and salt at this point. No way to say this that isn't going to come off as a jab at the developers, but I can find tutorials on how to do this stuff that dates back to Object PASCAL in MS-DOS. It's simply incompetence, there. Not the largest display of it I've ever seen, to be fair, but incompetence all the same.
The art design of Aerannis is its one big strength
Yeah, I'm going to be that person, I guess. Most people that did praise Aerannis that I saw called it a very simple game in terms of graphics but claimed the story and mechanics made up for it. I find quite the opposite. As far as pixel art with a limited pallete goes here (as much as it doesn't comform to a proper retro pallete), this game does very well, and very stylistically.
The acumen of pixel art is to have something retain both artistic style and it's contrast in the setting. Which is to say, things are visually-identifiable from their surroundings while still looking good. There's a great many pixel art games where it all blurs into one homogeneous mess on screen, but Aerannis manages to both keep its various items visually-distinct, and additionally rather good looking, for the art style. Never been big on pixel art myself, so take it for the uninformed opinion of a non-fan as you like, but I appreciated it all the same.
Most importantly, that pixel art and the chiptune music both fit the cyberpunk theme well, the one really cohesive part of the game really, and in a better game it'd be the cherry on top of the sundae. In Aerannis' case it just makes it kind of unfortunate; there's obviously artistic talent on display with visuals and the music, but it's let down by the actual game it is a part of.