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Aphelion: Graves of Earth (Xbox 360) artwork

Aphelion: Graves of Earth (Xbox 360) review


"The episodic nature of the title goes some way to explaining the inconclusive ending to the game, but my exhaustive relationship with Sam & Max means I know it’s not really excuse. I suppose it claws creditability back by being a fantastic game suffering a “not quite there yet” by-line."



What do Phantasy Star, Star Ocean and Xenosaga have in common? If you answered “They’re all sci-fi based RPGs that, oddly, offer up combat via largely medieval weapons with a few neon lights super-glued on them”, then you’re a cynical bastard. You’re also right. Have a cookie.

New to this list is XBLI release Aphelion: Graves of Earth, an ambitious homebrew game designed, written and scored so well that it might as well be a full release on the Arcade section. Aphelion checks all the right boxes for a futuristic RPG: its villainous cast are a cybernetic race called the Crimson. The lead character ignores laser-based death-rays so he can swing a sword around and you’ll have access to at least one super hacker. Because in the future, one in four people will be world class hackers. Despite straying in to the expected clichés of the sub genre, the game still maintains a sense of originality and a surprising depth of professionalism willingly excavated from an amateur game.

This ambition shows itself repeatedly throughout. Perhaps the opening level isn’t the best showcase for this while your sword-swinging protagonist walks around repetitive skyways killing what seem to be robot cockroaches. Here, most of the title’s shortcomings are made evident. You’re presented with a pseudo-isometric camera view which showcases 3D rendered sprites that look impressive for an XBLI game until he starts to move. Running is done in a jerky marionette fashion, which detracts from a more realistic style than expected. Unless the people the sprites are based on have four kneecaps instead of the usual two -- in which case, I’m very sorry.

The ruined skyways are the scene of what should have been the site of a peaceful negotiation, but the strewn carnage is your second biggest clue of this souring (the first is the seven foot robot scouts trying to gut you). Here, you’re forced to defend yourself through the menu-based combat, exchanging attacks through a FFX-like turn grid that points out who has the next turn, and how many attacks the character has stacked. The usual options of standard blows and special attacks are all present, as well as a Mass Effect-esque levelling system that lets you place upgrade points into special skills. These skills range from standard stat buffs (that also unlock new special attacks) to attributes that benefit the entire party, such as passively restoring shield energy, or upping the chances of a successful escape.

Some of these skills, though, are wildly unbalanced. A cunning player willing to invest points in the stats supplied to speed up their characters will soon see them able to make numerous turns come their allocated slot, meaning they can easily heal wounds, recharge shields, and make an attack all without reply. There’s also an easily-abused break system in place, which slowly fills a limit gauge atop the screen. Once you have access to multi-strike attacks, filling this bar is remarkably easy, and unleashing the attack it governs means your entire party of (up to) three all chime in with an overpowered ultimate attack.

Late in the game, though the random enemies are upgraded from scrap-constructed scouts to elite metallic juggernauts, the wealth of attacks you have under your belt often makes short work of them. The later stages on the upper floors of a besieged research facility are a far cry from the murky, fog-encrusted forests of Earth you tread mid-game. In the darkened woods, the game finds its apex: vision is limited, supplies are low and you’ve not yet had the time to train your small selection of fighters into world-beaters. You need struggle against the cyborg hounds with guns hidden in the most unexpected of places and robot ninja who vanish into the shadows only to appear again inches from your face. Here, you creep through the undergrowth, hoping the random battles are kind to you as you crawl between save points. Late game pits you against a small army of people with pulse rifles and machines big enough to stomp you flat, but you can refill your break bar in about three battles, and the closeness of save points means you don’t need to hold back on special attacks. Abuse Aphelion's MP substitute -- you’ll rarely hit depletion thanks not only to the restorative abilities of save points, but the relative cheapness of healing and buffing items.

To try and guard against the crippling ease, Aphelion does bear the inevitable hidden bosses that will present a challenge spike, as well as a New Game + mode, that will dial up the strength of your foes considerably. The strength of the game’s replay value is only added to through a reasonably complex item crafting ability that makes several trips though the game a necessity if you’re interested in arming your team with their ultimate weapon set. For all my complaining, I’m already well through my second play through.

Mainly because, though Aphilion‘s teething does cause problems, the game has been an obvious labour of love. Its cliché nature is apparent, but so is the depth of the writing, the development of the characters and the bonds they share. Even the undeniable enjoyment of just cutting down space-faring cyborgs and harvesting whatever junk they drop to fashion into more effective ways to cut them down some more has a lot going for it. The music is beautifully orchestrated and the graphics -- odd gliches included -- are a huge step up from about anything released on the fan-made service yet. Graves of Earth is labelled as the first chapter in the Aphelion saga and, though the Indie nature of these titles holds no guarantee that a second chapter will ever be forthcoming, the first stab leaves me more than optimistic in the quality the second episode might produce.

The episodic nature of the title goes some way to explaining the inconclusive ending to the game, but my exhaustive relationship with Sam & Max means I know it’s not really an excuse. I suppose it claws creditability back by being a fantastic game suffering a “not quite there yet” by-line.

Rating: 7/10

EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (July 19, 2010)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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wolfqueen001 posted July 25, 2010:

Wow. A series in which you're actually optimistic about a possible sequel. I guess there's a first for everything. :P

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