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Echoes of Aetheria (PC) artwork

Echoes of Aetheria (PC) review

"A fantastic RPG experience lurks just beneath a surface marred by some regrettable flaws."

Echoes of Aetheria is the sort of game I wish I could love without reservation. Boasting a surprisingly involving story, a generally satisfying combat system, plenty of intelligently designed dungeons and a soundtrack that would have easily suited one of 16-bit gaming's heavy hitters, this is one indie RPG that has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, the game also suffers from several issues that together diminish the impact of the important stuff it does so well, to the point that the overall experience becomes difficult to recommend without a pile of caveats.

As I mentioned, there's something special about the game's plot. It begins with a wedding. Princess Soha is about to marry Albrecht, a nobleman from a rival kingdom, and their union is expected to usher in an era of peace and prosperity for all involved. Unfortunately, kidnappers intervene, and the day of joy is well on its way to becoming a tragedy. That's when the brand new brother-in-law, Lucian, pursues the scoundrels. Before long, he is joined by a resourceful young lady named Ingrid, who arrived on the scene to repair a train but quickly gets more than she bargained for once it becomes clear that train is jammed full of explosives and headed for a nearby town center. So much for peace!

Echoes of Aetheria (PC) image

The story unfolds using sprites like those you'd expect from a really old Final Fantasy game, or perhaps an RPG Maker project (which this game might well be, for all I know). There's more dialogue than the medium usually employs, however, and a lot of it is even quite good. There are minor grammatical errors sprinkled throughout the campaign, but what's more important and heartening is the way characters have unique personalities that come through in their conversations. Scenarios are complex and do a good job of presenting a world populated by different sorts of people with conflicting agendas. The game explores darker and more profound themes than a lot of classics within the genre do, as well, and you get to know the villains before it's time to kill them.

Speaking of villains and murder, there is the aforementioned combat system. Though not spectacular or wholly original, it is deeper than it might appear at a glance. I mostly liked it, even though it fails to capitalize on some of its potential. Heroes are positioned along a grid on the screen's lower left side, while foes occupy the upper right portion of the battlefield. A meter at the top of the screen uses icons to let you know who will take a turn next, and another meter to the right lets you monitor how much TP you have at your disposal. That dictates when you can use special techniques.

It's possible to spend time moving your characters around the grid, but such direction seldom proves necessary or even particularly helpful. Enemies don't ever reorient themselves, either, but positioning does matter. If you want to attack the guys in the back row, you'll either need to use projectile weapons and techniques, or you'll have to clear out the front row first. Your placement also determines the likelihood that a character in your party will come under attack, and can impact the efficiency of his or her offensive moves.

Echoes of Aetheria (PC) image

Combat grows steadily more interesting as you advance through the game's first half, since characters often learn a skill or two each time they gain a level, through around level 30 or thereabouts. From then on, they gain only small stat boosts. What's interesting is that only a set number of skills can be equipped and thus used in combat at once, so it's important to know what you want from a character and how to use him or her best, both in conjunction with the other members on the team and (as sometimes demanded by plot twists) when traveling alone. You can readjust whenever you like without any penalty, so character customization errors aren't damning, but making changes all the time does get old and you'll want to settle on an approach that works well for most general situations.

Customization also extends to the equipment you purchase, find, or craft. I went through most of the game without forging or augmenting more than 3 or 4 pieces of equipment. Then I reached the final dungeon and carefully worked my way through its first half--a time-consuming process, since enemies were so strong by that point--before determining that I didn't have strong enough weapons to beat some elemental enemies that could wipe out my party in a single turn. I now realize that I could have had an easier time with probably most of the campaign if I had taken the time to more regularly mix the various ores, hides, and smelting components to produce more effective weapons and armor, but it's not like I was having a hard time of it until that last dungeon (which, by the way, I finally had to restart after spending a bunch of time grinding for resources and money to properly equip everyone).

While I recognize that the weapon and armor customization will appeal to some folks who are into such intricacies, the system that facilitates it isn't as clear as it really needs to be. When you replace one piece of gear with another, for instance, you can see the new stats and color coding lets you know whether or not they represent an improvement, but you don't get to see the actual numbers that might let you make an informed decision. Even on the SNES and PlayStation, most RPGs let you easily compare stats (for example, you'd see something like "DEF: 5 > 7" or "DEF: -3"). That common-sense convenience is definitely missing here. Gear also can leave your heroes encumbered, and it's difficult to tell up front or even after the fact what armor is most suitable for which hero.

Echoes of Aetheria (PC) image

The game also doesn't support controllers, even though it might otherwise play like a classic JRPG from the SNES or PlayStation era. Instead, you have to use the WASD keys to move about each map, or click on a spot and hope your character follows a fairly direct route to reach it. Menus must be navigated with right-click and left-click action on your mouse, which often feels tedious and counter-intuitive. I never got entirely used to it even after spending more than 30 hours with the game. In combat, your standard attacks and special techniques are mapped to number keys. That's a handy shortcut, but there's no 10-key support and that feels like a missed opportunity.

Dungeons are considerably more refined than the interface that lets you navigate them, easily ranking among the best I've seen in a retro-style RPG in recent times. There are a lot of clever puzzles along the way, but they never grow overly obtuse. As an example, you might find your pathway lined by spikes. So you can tap an orb to remove the impediment, but they'll sprout elsewhere. In order to advance, then, you have to keep tapping orbs and navigating winding corridors. Dungeons aren't merely a mild hindrance on your way to the next plot segment, in other words. They're an actual attraction of their own, and exploration is made more enjoyable by the fact that you can see any enemies roaming about. If you get lost, you're not forced to battle a bunch of foes just to get back on track. You are also rewarded for properly excavating, since you can find keys that let you unlock special treasure chests for equipment, items and rare crafting components.

By the time I got around 18 hours into Echoes of Aetheria (advancing more slowly than most players probably will, because I wasn't properly equipping my party members and thus had to spend more time deciding how to dispatch my foes), I was having fun and loving the plot developments. Then I hit the final dungeon and everything stopped short. I had to spend another 9 hours or so just getting my team into fighting shape for the last few encounters, which wasn't much fun and made the game's flaws more apparent. Still, there's no denying that the team at Dancing Dragon Games has done a good job of producing something unique and often quite enjoyable. Provided you're ready to make your peace with the rough edges, you could have a lot of fun with it indeed...


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 19, 2016)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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If you enjoyed this Echoes of Aetheria review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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harmonic42 posted January 24, 2016:

Hello Jason,

Thank you for reviewing our game. After reading the troubles you had, I really have to wonder where we fell short.

We specifically put a great deal of effort and resources into avoiding any kind of grind. You can always lower difficulty, you can always re-invest skill points, you can always shuffle around gear and augments, you can salvage gear for forge materials, you can re-forge gear, you can always move your formation around. Easy difficult is such that enemies basically hit like wet noodles - designed for the player who just wants to see the story.

Were any of these tools unclear to you that they were available? Believe me, we HATE grinding in RPGs and we feel that there shouldn't be ANY in this one. Please let us know how we can improve and/or which one of these convenience tools you were unaware were available to you.

Thank you!
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honestgamer posted January 24, 2016:

Hello, apparent developer of the game I reviewed! Thanks for reading, and I'm happy to answer your questions.

Your efforts to avoid the grind worked until the final dungeon, so they were not entirely wasted. I played through the game on Normal difficulty. I didn't avoid enemies, but I didn't necessarily seek them out, and so I made it to the final dungeon without grinding or even upgrading my equipment (except for applying a few augments here and there). This was possible because, as you noted, a lot of the enemies hit like wet noodles.

The enemies in the final dungeon, particularly the elemental dragons, do NOT hit like wet noodles. They suddenly put up some actual resistance, and they do so regardless of character level. I was at level 50 or so when I attempted the final dungeon, and the elemental dragons encountered halfway through--and beyond, I later found--absolutely brutalized my team. Their area lightning wiped out everyone within a single round, with no time to heal in between. That's not hitting like a wet noodle.

I didn't have the resources to put together capable equipment to resist those attacks until I left the dungeon and grinded by revisiting old dungeons. But most dungeons were closed off, for reasons that elude me but probably make sense from a development perspective. The few dungeons that were open to me required me to lower the difficulty to Easy just to survive, because the enemies I encountered were color swapped variants that could slaughter my party almost as effectively as the elemental dragons. Beating those monsters allowed my characters to level up quickly, from 50 most of the way to 60, but character levels aren't really the problem. The problem is that the enemies can hit too savagely for your party to survive a round if you don't have the best armor.

The components that make the best armor, most of them, must be purchased. Great armor requires armor patches and other crafting elements, so a piece of truly good equipment runs something like 8000 gold by the time all of that is brought together, even when--as I did--you already have a lot of obsidian and aetherium lying around (or can get it by salvaging other gear). So your typical cost is something like 8000 gold per piece of gear, with each hero needing 3 pieces each to really be off to the races, and with premium augments adding another 5000 or so to the cost of each piece, but potentially pushing your weight unless you buy beef at 10,000 gold a pop or fill up slots with costly puffin feathers that mean you can't add more useful augments.

The enemies available to fight at that point might generate around 1800 gold per battle if you get lucky, but they might also award 0 gold. So that means a lot of grinding, even though up to that point none had been necessary. To answer your specific questions, then:

Yes, I know about the lower difficulty (but I've completed some of the genre's toughest RPGs over the years and haven't had to rely on such concessions).

Yes, I know you can re-invest skill points whenever you like (and I mentioned that as a plus in my review), but there aren't ANY skills that work against last-dungeon enemy groups that can wipe out your entire party by blinking.

Yes, I know you can salvage gear for forge materials, but a lot the expensive materials like armor patches that are used to fire the forge or whatever aren't returned. It makes sense that they wouldn't be, but it still impacts the player.

Yes, I know you can move your formation around, but it had little impact on how hard enemies hit. Enemies could and often did one-hit kill my party members regardless of their position, once I reached that final dungeon, and the only thing that provided any relief at all was crafting the best equipment possible for each character. Even then, the golden spiders and such would wipe out a character in one flurry of blows, so I had to do a lot of reviving.

I hope the above response fleshes out my complaints in a manner that the team will find useful, so you can properly dismiss me as an idiot or gain insight into how some players approach RPGs. I hope also that my affection for the game came through in my text, since there was a lot here that I really did like.

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