Review | Echoes of Aetheria

Dancing Dragon Games, best known for 2014’s Skyborn, a Steampunk RPG which currently holds a ‘Very Positive’ rating on Steam, are back with their latest offering – Echoes of Aetheria.

Skyborn earned it’s excellent reputation by creating a deep and rich setting not normally seen in the genre – a wide-scaled steampunk world – which the players were dragged through as the political face of the world was reshaped. A more important reason for it managing this success was that the team built the game on the RPG Maker engine – an engine which deliberately streamlines the game creation process so much so that a stigma surrounds games which use it.

Dancing Dragon Games had custom made not only their classes, story, and characters – but, also all of their combat moves, enemies, and tile sets. As a matter of fact, if there was a resource left from the game system’s default resources then it was nigh on impossible to spot. They’d also custom built animations for characters outside of combat – allowing for cinematic scenes – and converted the combat system from random encounters to a system wherein enemies were viewed on the field screen before combat.

All in all, Skyborn was a massive success, completely transcending the curses normally laid at the feet of those who build their title on RPGMaker.

So, with that said, the expectations for Echoes of Aetheria were high. There would always be some detractors who dismiss a game for trivial things – but, there’s also the opportunity to see equal, or greater, success than it’s predecessor, and prove that in the realm of RPG, content is king.

In Review

Set in a tense time, where the great industrial nations of the world have begun to swell at their borders as they look for chances to expand, a single nation has risen above that of the others. The militaristic nation of Veridia has benefited the most from this, expanding and occupying a mass of land, rocketing themselves into a golden age.

Everybody loves a good wedding
Everybody loves a good wedding

This age is coming to an end however, to the relief to the majority of the other nations. Singing it in is a wedding for the ages, set to unite the Veridian Empire and the people of the Sayunaa Kingdom the second most powerful state, whose royal bloodline are said to have control over magic.

RPGMaker has a habit of making 95% of the titles made on it look like they are from the fantasy genre, even when there’s clearly a Steampunk setting (as with DDGames’ previous title) the mind instantly inserts fantasy elements and justification in when there are none. This actually adds slightly to the allure of the game, which features genetically enhanced knights, machine guns, and trains. As the wedding guards talk into their radios, as the entire wedding is ruined by stun-grenades, and kevlar clad terrorists, as you give chase onto a bomb-rigged train – the cleverly crafted and utilised libraries of the game manage to exceed the expectations laid on by the engine.

Skills are a diverse mix, allowing you to build for elemental damage, delaying enemies attacks, or good ol' muscle-power.
Skills are a diverse mix, allowing you to build for elemental damage, delaying enemies attacks, or good ol’ muscle-power.

The game’s characters all have skills rather than the traditional magic attacks – with the exception of Soha who possesses healing magic. Augmentation, technology and expertise are instead used as justification for the abilities possessed by the heroes – which is a fantastic twist on the traditional magic based systems.

From mission to mission the story is non-stop, within three hours I had met (or certainly seen) all of my team-mates, however their fates, and allegiances, had not aligned yet – and the three protagonists had gone from their starting positions into trying to head up a rebellion against the very empire they had started the story as part (or soon to be) of. There had been a airship chase, and a beachhead landing against a machine-gunned encampment.

It’s not just the story that’s exceptionally well paced, combat is surprisingly balanced and works magnificently with the battle mechanics which have been built from the ground up for this title. Combat takes place over a two-sided, fifteen tiled battle area, allies taking one side, enemies the other.

The isometric, grid based view allows for a few new features – which work their way into being pretty important to combat. For a start, area of effect spells and moves have shapes and form – like in Tactical-Turn-Based RPGs, like Vandal Hearts, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy Tactics – and the combat engine allows you to see the affected areas.

In addition to this, the positioning of enemies and allies also takes effect in the fact that if a character is in front of another, then they will take the physical damage intended for those behind. What this means is that you’ll be using ranged, and magic characters from the back of the pack (should you put them there) to fight equivalently classed enemies. Adding to this further, a starting character almost immediately gets a skill which can call down a pile of rubbish to block a tile – working well when you have too few melee fighters to create a wall, or just useful for giving a brief bastion of safety to an endangered troop.

Characters level up quickly as the game goes on, and for each level you gain at least one skill. These skills fall into the passive, or active, type, which you can assign and divert skill points to in an easy enough fashion through the game’s menu. If anything the skills actually come so fast, and varied, that you may find yourself rolling with an earlier skill set throughout the game – as there’s a lot of skills based around increasing damage type effectiveness, which can simply be overwhelmed with brute strength through the game’s weapon crafting, and upgrading system.

Lore and maps, two critical things in creating an in-depth setting, this game features both,
Lore and maps, two critical things in creating an in-depth setting, this game features both,

Upgrading weapons through attachments, and crafting is actually done through gathering or buying materials as you journey around. Most of the times items for crafting are found in chests which seem to randomly, and peculiarly, litter the mission’s battlefield, however some enemies do drop them, and you can also find some hidden in objects around the game world – as well as lore books around the game world, LORE!

Crafting is managed easily, as it’s as simple as selecting a blueprint and then selecting the  material types you would like to contribute to it. Each item, and the gems which can be attached, changes the statistics of the end result, so you can end up building a fast, magic-boosting weapon which actually contradicts itself – if you so wish. It’s quick and easy to use, and if you’re not the sort to scavenge around clicking everything (and why not?) then you can buy the materials at the base-camps available between each mission, an area where you can also chat to your comrades for XP bonuses, or buy other items or pre-made gear. Alternately, there’s also a salvage option, wherein you can score some usable materials from something you have no intention of using.

With the solid crafting system in place, and the skill system, combat actually plays out very fluid if you put the time into your equipment and parties skill sets. If you combine this with – much like Skyborn – the fact that there are no random encounters, with combat only triggering through story events, or actively making contact with enemy units in the field view, then you end up with a really complete package, in which you can remove the grind from the game through solid preparation and team management.

Each map has several hidden areas which net you XP rewards. This gives you a second reason to explore each thoroughly, with the first being that each setting is vastly different than the next.
Each map has several hidden areas which net you XP rewards. This gives you a second reason to explore each thoroughly, with the first being that each setting is vastly different than the next.

It’s thankful that there is such a battle mechanic in place, because some of the mission field maps are large and non-linear, requiring a little bit of exploration before you find the exit, as well as offering up button puzzles for those who want to explore every nook and cranny. Random encounters, while seen by many as a staple of the genre, can be thoroughly disorientating as you are pulling into, and spat out of combat, into an area you’ve not seen for a minute. By having visible enemies roaming the field maps they serve as markers for where the player has yet to go, and as well as that, there’s an opportunity to avoid most of them altogether – if you are adept. This gives a much greater feeling of control in the field screen, and even encourages searching the map for obscure points – which normally reveal experience boosts to the team.

All that said, I do have some complaints about the combat system. You see, combat also features three more important elements, meaning there’s just a few too much at work during it.

  • Firstly, the game features a turn-order bar. On a basic level this is fine – many great JRPGs have used the same system, and many more will. The real problem with this is that turn order seems to be based off of the character’s agility – and there are several enemies (bats, for instance) who are so agile that each of the -say- five enemies in the encounter get to act twice each before you finally get a turn. As I played through the game on the Hard setting this was particularly unpleasant to watch, as the ten hits would nearly reduce my tank character down to death. Luckily the game actually restores your health, and clears conditions, on battle completion.
  • Secondly, there is a TP bar which gradually fills up as hits are dealt and taken (depending on your skill layout), the idea of the TP bar is that certain moves require certain quantities of full-bars to use up. As a concept, and even in practice mostly, it’s brilliant, as it means that players cannot simply go all out with overpowered abilities from scratch. The problem is that smaller enemies hitting you can quickly power you up (like the bat example) which can give you a massive edge if abused. In addition, most boss characters do not follow this rule themselves, they have their own system. This to me undermines the point of having such a logic system in a game.
  • Finally, boss characters have super-powered moves that they can use at will, the only condition being that they have to wait multiple turns from selection for the move to fire. (Several enemies, and allies have multiple turn moves, it’s no big-deal on that point.) To stop this you have to hit them with skills specifically made to delay multiple-turn attacks, the counter to these moves are that they are a lot weaker than standard attacks, as a couple of skills are in general. This means that in preparation for a boss (which who can know when one will be sprung?) you should change out your lethal crowd-control skills for weaker, stunning skills… It just doesn’t sit right with me.

Other elements also come into play in combat, some weapons deal multiple batches of damage – machine guns for instance – which is great to see, however the skills related to weapon damage don’t take this into effect in most cases. This means I ended up just using my character’s overpowered machine gun in place of any offensive skills – which is a shame, but no doubt a quick fix.

[I should add now that during my time playing the build, there were three updates pushed live, so it is clear that the developers are continually improving their product and any issues I mention may well be remedied shortly after launch[

As well as that there’s a character who can go into a stealth stance, which makes them do more damage to enemies under certain conditions. It’s a pretty cool trick, and one that is only truly realised due to the developer’s well crafted battle system.

- and the writing is pretty good too.
– and the writing is pretty good too.

After a while, and I’m not quite sure how I came to notice it, I realised that while the main characters were all fantastically animated in combat, swiping as they attack, bobbing as they wait. That characters repositioning in combat animations, and enemy animations on the whole, are completely absent. That said, I don’t think something like that would have even stuck out had the overall quality of the game not been so great. In fact, that’s the case with any flaw I could pick out with the game – they were only spotted in odd moments, from the corner of my eye.

The characters and nations of the world are well written, with several layers of betrayals, legends-come-to-life, and characters at cross purposes all working together to make a fantastic, fast-paced story with enough depth for most JRPG fans to enjoy – and enough skip-able content, combined with an easy-mode, for anyone simply interested in the story to have a good ol’ time with.

You can find the game on it’s Steam Store Page [Here]

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