If you are like most people, then you don’t go actively seeking out bad games to play. You go into every game with some anticipation, hoping that it will be a great one. With every bad game, however, a nagging sensation begins to tug at you, gradually eroding your enthusiasm. You may try to bury it deep down or fight it, but at some point you are forced to accept that you have chosen a stinker. With the heavily musical action RPG AereA, those troubling signs come early and often, and it doesn’t take long to realize that AereA is simply a bad game. It is a game that delivers, as promised, when it comes to production values. When it comes to its gameplay, however, it feels so amateurishly designed that it is downright maddening. In between the game’s mind-numbingly shallow and repetitive gameplay and its atrocious interface, there is very little besides its soundtrack that makes AereA recommendable.
AereA is an action RPG in the vein of Diablo and Torchlight. From a top down perspective, you explore levels, smash hordes of monsters, and break open containers for treasure. You gain experience through killing enemies and completing quests, which you subsequently use to upgrade your abilities. The game is musically-themed, which makes for a potentially great twist to this ages-old formula. You begin your adventures in a musical academy and many of the genre’s staples are given a music-related overhaul. It is not music that you would find in a typical rhythm-based game or Guitar Hero, but classical music, presented in an academic sense. You collect Clefines as currency and in place of mana or magic you have Rhythm Points, which can be restored by consuming tuning forks (this game’s version of mana potions). Doors are unlocked by activating metronomes and the game’s main quest eventually revolves around you recovering nine lost musical instruments. AereA presents its subject matter without a hint of cynicism, which is a strong indicator that the game was created out of genuine love for music. Whoever birthed the game attempted to share his or her love of music with a broader audience must be disappointed by the final product.
Many bad games at least have a hint of something great at their roots -- it might be an overly ambitious idea that was poorly implemented or something new that just doesn't translate into great gameplay. AereA is not one of those games. The trouble starts before you are done with the game’s introductory section, by which time you have already encountered a handful of ominous grammatical and spelling errors. Since I am not a grammar Nazi, I tend not to get worked up by this kind of thing, but I also have yet to play a game where these kinds of problems weren’t foreboding harbingers of things to come. In this case, AereA is no exception.
In the introductory area, you get a few basic quests and pointers before setting off on some quests, one-by-one through the game’s linear structure. Each quest is a fetch quest that you turn in by returning to the game’s hub area to talk to whoever gave it to you. This basic setup isn’t necessarily problematic, but the level design is so horribly dull that these missions quickly become almost unbearable. There is virtually nothing to them besides progressing through corridors, activating metronomes to open doors (which is nothing more than button pushing), and occasionally carrying a box a short way over to a switch. Along the way, you kill the same two or three monsters over and over again on each level without encountering any interesting challenges or needing to change up your tactics.
The game’s nuts-and-bolts mechanics are so rote and shallow that it is almost mind-boggling. The game’s four classes and their associated special abilities are as ordinary and unimaginative as they can be for a game released in 2017. Even if your abilities were interesting, you wouldn’t need them, because the game’s difficulty level is so insultingly easy that you could make it to the end without ever touching your secondary attack button. Enemies are weak and come at you with simple attacks that do little damage, and most of them can be dispensed with a few of your default attacks. Each level is populated by large numbers of the same few uninteresting and unimaginative beasts. There is nary a hint of adrenaline or addictiveness in AereA, which gets just about everything gameplay-related wrong.
The game’s trivial difficulty is one of the ways in which the game badly misses the mark. Another way is its horrendous interface and inventory system, which is inferior to just about anything that has come out since the mouse got a second button. You have no inventory other than four hot slots, which fill up automatically when you walk over an item. The game also has no loot other than consumables, which means that it is missing a huge portion of what makes action/RPGs appealing and addictive. There is no way to drop items or free up your inventory other than by consuming them. There is no way to even view a description of what each item does outside of the game's hub area, which is a downright inexcusable oversight. Even if you could see an item description, you might not be able to read it – at least not on the game’s PS4 version. The sizes of items and text are way too small to be read on an average TV screen sitting at a reasonable distance. Little effort appears to have been put into porting this game to a console and attending to details like how the interface had to be different from the PC version. It is an overall forgettable experience – one where you travel to AereA’s dull levels, engage in some dull combat against dull enemies, and then return to the hub area where you turn in your quest and read some poorly written or poorly translated text.
How did this happen? You may find yourself asking this question, because there are many signs throughout the game that AereA was not slapped together halfheartedly. This is especially true when it comes to the game’s production values, which are not Triple-A in quality, but still very good in relation to the standards for indie games of this nature. The game’s art style isn’t unusual or unique, but it gets a lot out of it with good use of the color palette and an adequate variety of scenery. The hub area in particular, the musical academy, is especially attractive and full of environmental details that immerse you in the game’s setting. The soundtrack, as promised, is a very good one that provides a different musical track for each area and is usually quite pleasant for the ears
It is too bad that what was good about AereA did not ultimately find a better game in which to reside. It is a bad game, but it is one that does not feel like a soulless cash grab. On the other hand, it is also not a game that stumbles because it is overly ambitious or because it banks on one or two game mechanics that just don’t work. It is a game that sets a low bar for its gameplay and then fails to hurdle it. It is hard to tell what, exactly was the goal of developer Triangle Studios when they developed this game, which is far too simple and repetitive to compete with any action RPG produced in the past 20 years. What is easy to conclude, however, is that AereA is not good, and regardless of your interest level in action RPGs or classical music, you will likely not enjoy it.