All right, let’s be honest. What else could a game called Echoes of Aetheria really be, other than a loving throwback to JRPGs of yesteryear? Nothing, of course. With a title like that, you can almost see the pixelated overworld sprites materializing before your very eyes. And that’s okay, because that’s exactly what Dancing Dragon Games — the developer also behind surprise Steam hit Skyborn — is going for. Like that last game, Echoes of Aetheria was built in RPG Maker to bring us back to the classic SNES era of role-playing — and likewise beats back the negative stigma surrounding Enterbrain’s creation software by providing another fun turn-based adventure.
Before we get to that “fun” part of the game, though, let’s get the most painful element out of the way: Echoes of Aetheria’s narrative, which is as shamelessly derivative and predictable as it gets. It’s a shame that games leveraging the nostalgia of JRPGs’ Golden Age continue to make the critical error of borrowing elements from their 25-year-old stories. You can call it a “tribute” if you want, but it’s hard to ignore the parade of cliches that goes by in the first hour of the game: two warring nations, a kidnapped princess, a superpowered baddie that kicks your ass in an unwinnable scripted battle and yes, of all things, a jailbreak sequence.
And when the game flashes back to show the main hero, Lucian, bonding with an unnamed little girl, would you believe it might happen to be the quirky female lead who says she grew up in the same area? Now, of course, it’s well-nigh impossible to make something completely original in this day and age, but there isn’t even an attempt here to rise above narrative devices that went out of style two decades ago.
Thankfully, the game’s use of old gameplay elements comes off feeling a lot less dated. First of all, it’s nice to see a game willing to include puzzles and other interactive elements in its overworld and dungeon areas. That’s not to say these are anything revolutionary, of course, but many games take the path of least resistance when honoring gameplay from the JRPG’s dominant age — often focusing on winding pathways and treasures just off the beaten path rather than a truly interactive environment.
As an added bonus, the game isn’t afraid to ditch some of the annoyances of old-school role-playing either: you won’t find any random encounters here, as every enemy is clearly visible on the map, and you don’t need to bring up the menu to manage health since you start every fight with a full bar of HP.
This latter boon allows every battle to feel like its own struggle. Since you’re not worn down over the course of your exploration, enemies can come as hard as they want at you during individual fights. These turn-based confrontations play out on grids similar to the battle system in Breath of Fire, and they’re a ton of fast-paced fun.
You can use the grids to arrange your characters in various strategic formations; for example, an early suggestion is to hide long-range fighters and healers behind more robust tank-type combatants. There are also a plethora of unique skills and abilities for your party members to take advantage of, and the battle system expands to reveal new layers — such as a “stagger” system that allows you to throw an enemy off-balance, canceling their moves — as you move forward through the story.
But there are even more combat options at your disposal off the actual battlefield, where you can take advantage of certain characters’ crafting abilities. For example, set sarcastic female lead Ingrid up with an anvil and some materials and she can put together a truly staggering number of weapons. This system is about as intuitive as it gets, making it a great option for both those who want to quickly upgrade their arsenals and those who insist on meticulously crafting the best possible tools of war.
If the combat systems gel perfectly together, by contrast there’s a bit of dissonance in Echoes of Aetheria’s presentation. When it comes to graphics, the game’s two aesthetics simply don’t work together — on the one hand, you’ve got the gorgeous, fluidly-animated isometric sprites and detailed that go with the Breath of Fire-style battle system; on the other, you’ve got a set of janky-looking overworld tilesets that don’t stand in stark enough contrast to RPG Maker’s generic defaults. It’s strange to wrap your head around the transition when you move from the field to a battle and back, watching the visuals get an instant upgrade and downgrade in a matter of minutes (sometimes seconds). Thankfully, the battle sprites are truly a pleasure to look at; it’s just a shame they stand in such sharp contrast to the ones you’ll be looking at while exploring.
Special kudos has to go to the game’s composer, who has put together a surprisingly eclectic and whimsical soundtrack. One of the biggest complaints leveled at many JRPG “tribute games” is their lack of effort in the music department — after all, tunes from cherished series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were a huge part of what made those games masterpieces in the first place. While this effort isn’t quite on that level, it’s undeniably strong work, communicating the flavor and personality of the game’s environments much more effectively than its graphics can.
Echoes of Aetheria stumbles in a couple of key areas, ruining its narrative with a liberal use of exhausted cliches and presenting its overworld with garish, generic-looking sprite work. Thankfully, it makes up much of this ground with an engaging combat system, a ton of customization options and a fantastically whimsical score. If you’re able to ignore the derivative nature of the story, you’ll have a much better chance of getting into the meat and potatoes of Aetheria’s stellar gameplay.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with.
Echoes of Aetheria's dated, cliche-laden narrative and garish overworld sprites are a shame when you consider the rest of what the game has to offer: fun, strategic combat, gorgeous in-battle art and a surprisingly masterful soundtrack. If you can get past some of its less-polished elements, you'll probably have a great time.