Review: 'Aaero' (PS4)

Aaero. Aaero. MAD FELLOWS GAMES

I am an enormous fan of rhythm games, and I like to imagine that I'm pretty good at them. So it was quite a surprise when I turned on Aaero, played a couple of levels, and got my butt kicked into next week. But after taking the time to learn and conquer the admittedly basic gameplay, I found an addictive and well-crafted game waiting for me, one that I had to force myself to stop playing.

Aaero puts you in a spaceship, flying through planets and destroying enemies for unclear reasons, but presumably you are delivering justice. There are only two components to the gameplay; destroying enemies and tracing the ribbon. Each one of them individually can be tricky enough on its own, and on the lowest difficulty there's a pretty clear delineation between one and the other, most of the time. On the later difficulties, however, they're frequently combined, and it takes a lot of concentration to effectively multitask. But after you take the time to practice and internalize the game's mechanics, you can feel yourself becoming an Aaero master, which is an awesome and satisfying feeling.

The ribbon is a beam of energy that wraps around your ship's path, and you need to get your ship buried in it by tilting the analog stick in the correct direction; if you're not doing it, some of the music will drop out, which gives you a greater sense of urgency to get back on the ribbon. This is pretty easy for exactly one level, and then the difficulty cranks up immediately. If you want to stay in the ribbon, you're going to have to learn how to do really quick and precise movements with the analog stick, going back and forth and all around. This is especially difficult when you're in the middle of a spiral movement that will spontaneously change the rate at which it spirals, which is extremely hard to notice without some practice. The levels in general require a bit of practice to learn and master the ribbon, but it's satisfying when you finally get a good percentage of it. The only problem is that sometimes the level twists and turns while you're trying to catch the ribbon, which can make it nearly impossible to predict where it's going to be.

Destroying enemies is, in theory, a simple affair. You hover your cursor, controlled by the right stick, over the enemies in order to lock on to up to eight of them. Once you fire the laser, however, it will slow down slightly, or enormously, in order to ensure that all enemies or missiles explode on the beat of the music. And while the laser is traveling to destroy the enemies, you are completely unable to lock onto other enemies, leaving yourself vulnerable. This forces you to develop a very good sense of timing, firing the laser just before the beat to ensure that you have no downtime in destroying enemies. Once you master the timing, however, you can lay waste to the enemies in your path, and you feel awesome about it because you've mastered the game mechanics.

You'll need to learn how to shoot effectively in order to destroy the game's giant bosses. There are three of them, and they require a ton of shots to take down, and if you don't have the proper timing you'll end up destroyed by the bosses at the end of the level, since you only have until the song ends to finish them off. They're a lot of fun to fight, especially when you have a large amount of uninterrupted time to lay into them. On the lower difficulties, though, you can destroy bosses without a second thought by getting the proper timing down, which is a little bit of a letdown.

When a level is done loading, the game will still prompt you to start with the X button. I wasn't sure where else to put this in the review, but it's a very considerate thing to do that nobody else ever thinks of, and I wanted to make sure I mentioned it. Clearly this game pays attention to the details.

At the end of the level, you get a score and are ranked between one and five stars. The more stars you accumulate, the more levels you can unlock, and it can take multiple tries to five-star every level. In addition to the stars, there are optional bonus targets to be located and destroyed in each level, which are counted and accumulated on the main menu screen. Higher difficulties will unlock different colors of stars, but the targets accumulated remain the same. This is the best way to unlock more trophies/achievements, so go for as many as you can. Along with your score, you're also shown the global leaderboard so you can see how you measure up. It's unfortunately a pain to see where you are on the leaderboards, though; there's no way to immediately see what rank you got, no button to press to immediately jump to your location, so you have to scroll down and figure out where your score would be slotted in, which takes a while and is cumbersome.

The game has great visual design to it. The menus are very clean and simple, and pleasing to the eye, while the levels run the gambit from busy technology to open ocean views; they all look pretty great, and even with so much going on there's very rarely visual confusion, which is impressive. You never have trouble seeing the ribbon, or the enemies, or the missiles, or the extra targets. In the meantime, the game gives you a handful of opportunities to rest and take in the look of an ocean structure, or a decayed city with buildings all around you. The graphics are a bit stylized and artistic, not trying for photorealism, and overall it's very nice to look at. The game's music is very heavily dubstep, which is not surprising for a modern rhythm game, but it's pretty varied within the genre. Some tracks are pure instrumentals, while others feature prominent female vocals that really offset the rest of the music and provide good variety. For some reason, however, I get a strange audio glitch sometimes when I pause, where a strange loud sound slowly escalates until the level loads. The game has almost no technical issues to speak of besides that, however; the tutorial hung on me once, but that's about it. I wish the loading times were a bit faster, but they're not excessive, rarely longer than 15 seconds or so.

You can get to the game's end credits in a matter of a few hours if you know what you're doing, but after that there are still two more difficulty levels to tackle, and with how difficult the main game already is you're going to have a very hard time completing this game 100%. Looking back at my notes, I'm seeing a lot of things about how much trouble I'm having shooting down enemies, which is a testament to the game's difficulty. Ultimately, however, you learn how to master the game's mechanics, and the feeling of satisfaction just makes the game that much better. I found myself constantly saying I was going to play just one more song, going on for another hour, until I found the end credits within the first night of playing. If you're interested in tackling every challenge the game has to offer, then it's worth your money.

Aaero is a unique but delightful take on the rhythm game genre. The mechanics are simple to understand but very difficult to master, and once you do master them you feel like a champion. If you enjoy rhythm games, and you don't mind listening to a lot of dubstep, this is a game you absolutely must check out.

Final score: 9 out of 10

A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.

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