There’s nothing quite like flight in video games. All too often it can feel wrong in the execution, clunky, or awkward. But when being able to simply leap up and fly is one of the core tenets of your game, you’d better hope you get it right.
AER: Memories of Old (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2017 | Developed: Forgotten Key | Published: Daedalic Entertainment
Genre: Adventure, Interactive Narrative | HLTB: 3 hours
Let’s take a dive into AER. Although the game begins in a cave, dimly lit by thrumming torches and covered in ancient etchings of a civilization long gone, AER’s soul is in the skies. Once we do leave the cave, scrambling through falling rocks and an encroaching darkness, AER lets us launch off into the great wild yonder. It’s a world of floating islands and vast cloudbanks, of incredible monuments and relics of the past, and a lingering, all but slumbering presence of gods and evil. Most importantly, it’s a game with a more realised sense of freedom than I think I’ve felt in any huge, sprawling AAA release, and it really wants you to spread your wings and explore it.
I do mean that quite literally as well. We play as Auk, a shapeshifter with the power to become a great bird. She finds a lantern, an artefact of an ancient god, and learns that it can not only cast a magical light which pushes back the all-encompassing dark but it can also allow Auk to see shades of the precursors who once lived in her land before it was shattered into the myriad islands that hang listlessly in the sky. She is tasked with travelling around the world and making a pilgrimage to ancient temples dedicated to primordial deities in order to learn of the darkness which threatens the fabric of her world even now.
The plot is, in all honesty, a little wishy-washy. It’s a general pretext for a reason to fly around AER’s world, and to give a little shape to that process of exploration, but it’s a far cry from being a compelling narrative. Still, I wouldn’t stoop to calling it bad, and I do admit to enjoying the way world-building is conducted. Auk herself is a silent protagonist, and she’s also limited in both animations, particularly because the old-fashioned PlayStation-style polygon graphics Forgotten Key chose to employ for AER mean neither she nor any other character has facial expressions. Auk, then, cannot really emote and her mind and motivations are largely left obscured. The islands are very sparsely populated as well, with only a scarce handful of characters to whom Auk can talk; namely there is one family who have a little homestead on an island near the beginning of the game. They offer a smattering of narrative but mostly their job is to remind the player where to go next if you’ve forgotten.
However, I said I enjoyed AER’s world-building, and I do. AER: Memories of Old is an exploration game. There’s not a gameplay loop as such; Auk can wander about her world but interaction is very much limited to looking. It is gorgeous to look at though, and the world of AER is beautiful. The floating islands pop with vibrant colours and features on the landscape stand out as stark against the ground and rocks. It helps to give the world a tangible sense of character, which I think is hugely important to helping AER feel worth it to explore. There’s a wonderful feeling of exhilaration as you crest over a cloud bank and spy something far below, from ruins of the civilization past to natural monuments and structures. Each one contributes silently to the narrative of the world and invites you to piece together its history. I can’t decide whether this is to the game’s credit or not, but AER also leaves that exploration entirely to you. It would be a simple matter to play this game without bothering to find any of the landmarks, just following the plot, but I think it begs to be explored by design; I just wish that there was perhaps some reward beyond achievements for doing so.
The seamless transition to flight is pretty much AER’s core gimmick. In the overworld you can jump up and transform into Auk’s bird form at any time, and once you do it immediately switches to flying. It’s a funny little thing but that kind of gameplay switch, while taking place in an open world without loading is one of those things that genuinely gives me the sense of next-gen gameplay (or, well, current-gen, soon-to-be-last-gen I suppose by now). You’re going to be spending the vast majority of your time in the overworld flying, so it’s a good thing it works very smartly and tightly. There’s not a lot to mess up, to be honest; controlling your direction is easy, and you can speed up to help traverse the skies but that’s largely it. Although there is a reasonably sizable world to traverse, thankfully AER isn’t that expansive; it was limited presumably by budget, but I also think that the size of AER’s open world is about right anyway, so the developers definitely seem to have gotten the right balance.
The other part to playing AER is working your way through temples in order to complete Auk’s pilgrimage. It’s tempting to label this portion of the game as a walking simulator, and perhaps some will see it that way; indeed, your interaction with your environment is, as ever, very limited. You’ll find yourself doing some light puzzling in the temples, though there’s nothing remotely taxing about it; the vast majority of what you do boils down to activating switches until a door opens. They’re pretty environments at least, and they tell an engaging story; each temple is notably different and very clearly occupied different niches in the precursor society, from a snow-covered monastery to a clanking, wheezing factory filled with pumps and pistons. Along the way Auk’s lantern can shine to reveal shades, remnant memories of that civilization, and she can sense their last words, which gives you a little insight into their conflicts and the eventual island-shattering apocalypse that befell them. Again, it all contributes to that tangible sense of the world before.
One thing I’ve definitely found myself appreciating a lot these days is shorter games, and AER definitely fits that bill. It’s playable in a bare handful of hours; I think I spent about 3 with it, dilly-dallying about by flying around to find landmarks before progressing straight through the temples, and I’m quite happy with that length. It made it a pleasant palate-cleanser in-between lengthier games, but if you’re more a connoisseur of shorter, indie games I don’t know entirely how well AER would stack up. I also think the price point is a bit of a sticking point. I confess to getting AER during the recent summer sales, where I paid a pittance for it. I’d happily have paid more for it, but the non-sale price is around £12-13 and I can’t help but admit I wouldn’t have paid full price for it.
The reason for that is, sadly, one of substance. AER is truly gorgeous, a marvellous experience that I enjoyed in a deep and satisfying way but it’s also kind of empty. I mentioned it earlier but there’s no inherent game reward in exploring; you really are exploring for your own sake. That’s fine, of course, and I’m glad I played a game which engaged that feeling for me, but I’m also aware that there’s a shallowness one might perceive in that. Worse, that filters through into the writing, which I think might have benefitted from giving Auk more personality, or perhaps more active characters in the plot. The biggest fault I can level at AER is the ending, which I felt was needlessly feeble, an ineffective non-finale that faded to credits with a weak and sad flop. Still, any criticism of AER must also stand against the joy of playing it, and I find that hard to deny.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.