STAFF REVIEW of Aaero (Xbox One)

Monday, April 10, 2017.
by Chad Goodmurphy

Aaero Box art Although Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem to be headed back out to pasture, their fate doesn’t mean that the music genre is dead. Nope, while it may not be flourishing like it once did, it’s still hanging in there, and for that I’m thankful. The latest entry into the once mega-popular genre is Aaero, a very stylish and futuristic game that comes from indie developer Mad Fellows Games. Having dubbed themselves as the “Purveyors of the Finest Video Games,” they’re right on track with their Kickstarter-funded debut, as it’s something no rhythm-loving gamer should sleep on.

So, what exactly is Aaero? Is it a Guitar Hero or Rock Band-esque type of note hitter, or is it something more cerebral, like REZ? Well, it’s definitely more like the latter, eschewing traditional instruments and note charts for something that mixes ‘ribbon’ following with some third-person shooting elements.

In total, there are around 15 songs to play, almost all of which are electronic in nature. What’s neat, though, is that each song has its own level designed around it, meaning that you’ll always be playing something different. Environmental elements, like lightning, are timed to the beat, and the same can be true of enemies.

Each of these three-or-so minute-long stages is comprised of two parts that don’t follow a specific order. One is directional in nature, and will have you using your left joystick to follow a line (well, what they call a ribbon) as it weaves its way through tunnel-like environments. The white line will go up, down, left, right, loop and curve, and you’ll need to follow it somewhat closely if you wish to stay alive (and earn enough points to move forward).

The other part? Well, it’s a lot like REZ, in that it’s a third-person shooter type of design where enemies will appear in front of your small ship and need to be dispatched of. Some will just float there, waiting for you to shoot them as score fodder, while others will go on the offensive, shooting projectiles or going kamikaze on your ass. Needless to say, you’re kept on your toes, and it’s imperative that you pay close attention because you’ll only have three lives per stage attempt. And, as you’d expect, each loss of life resets your multiplier, which increases up to a maximum of eight as you cling to the ribbon.

Shooting said enemies doesn’t require a lot of button mashing, but it does require skill, patience and a good eye. That’s because you’re usually better off shooting multiple targets at once, as opposed to firing one single bullet each time. Thankfully, the game makes this easy by incorporating a simple, straightforward and accessible shooting mechanic that involves using the right joystick to highlight up to six targets (if memory serves me correctly), before pressing the right trigger to unleash all of your bullets.

While only the latter stages are heavy on enemies, you’ll always need to be on your toes, because Aaero’s environmental hazards don’t pull any punches. Even on normal (the first of three difficulties which complement a ‘Chill’ mode that lets you enjoy each stage without worry), this game is quite a challenge. So much so that it’s perhaps a detractor, as it limits the title’s accessibility level. I honestly would have liked to have seen an easier starting difficulty, which would then ramp up to normal and so forth. Not that normal is unforgivingly difficult or anything – it’s just more challenging than expected and demands more from you than a starting difficulty should. It just drops you into the chaos and expects you to be good from the get-go.

In a way, it’s trial by fire, albeit an engaging, immersive and musically pleasing variation of that. You’ll watch the tutorial video (if you choose to), then get down to business, attempting to navigate challenging ribbons, avoid enemies and earn enough stars to move forward while doing so.

Yes, Aaero loves its stars, and you’ll need to earn 54 of them in order to unlock its final song. That won’t be enough to unlock its advanced difficulty though, as you’ll need to earn 90% of normal’s stars in order to progress. Up to five stars can be gleamed from each stage, and the best way to guarantee yourself the majority of them is to not die. That’s easier said than done of course, especially when levels throw moving blockades and other such dangers at you, but it’s definitely one of the main keys to success here. After all, dying resets your multiplier, and given that your score determines how many stars you’ll earn, it goes without saying that keeping yours as high as possible is of the utmost importance.

Another thing that can aid your cause – at least in terms of achievements – is trying to find all of the in-game collectibles. They appear in the form of red lights, which can be found in most stages and must be shot in order to be collected. Make sure to keep an eye out for them, but don’t expect to be able to get them all on your first attempt, because enemies will often distract you.

Not all stages are the same, of course, and a few even contain boss battles that last from beginning to end. One is a giant worm whose mouth you end up flying into, another is a massive mechanical spider, and the third is something from the deep sea. The latter comes out of the water, latches itself onto a nearby ship, then attempts to drag it down into the depths that are so prevalent in the game’s later stages.

What’s different about Aaero, however, is that its bosses don’t need to be defeated. You can still ‘beat’ their songs without fully draining their life bars, but you’ll miss out on points and achievements if you don’t. This is something that I didn’t notice at first, but I eventually realized that I didn’t completely kill the worm and felt compelled to go back and do just that. If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend some time backtracking in order to earn stars that you originally missed out on. It becomes almost paramount, because unlocking the final stage requires you to have four (or more) stars from most of the others. Three won’t always cut it, nor will two or one.

Moving on, it’s worth noting that outside of the above-mentioned ‘campaign’ there’s little else to Aaero. That’s not a bad thing though, because this is a game that sets out to do something and does it very well. It’s actually quite impressive, given that this thing was created by a team of just three people.

It wasn’t until I watched the credits roll that I learned how small the Mad Fellows team truly is. I had known that Aaero was developed by a small indie studio, but I didn’t realize, let alone think, that it could ever be that tiny. They deserve commendation for this, because what they’ve created is not only engaging and immersive, but also addicting and beautiful to look at. Truth be told, the only real downside to it all is the odd frame rate hitch.

The music is also perfectly fitting for the game. It encapsulates the look, feel and emotion that the developers were trying to bring forth with their futuristic cities, open landscapes, scary depths and ribbon-filled tunnels. This is all helped by the fact that each song is licensed, with many of them coming from well-known musicians, such as Noisia, Katy B, Flux Pavilion, Neosignal and The Prototypes. It’s not music I would normally go out of my way to listen to, but I enjoyed it a lot in-game.

With all that having been written, it goes without saying that Aaero is something that shouldn’t be slept on. While it may not have the big budget or heavy advertising of something like Rock Band or Guitar Hero, it’s a very impressive, engaging and standout addition to the music genre. One that I sincerely hope will end up receiving the appreciation it deserves, as well as an even longer sequel.

A more accessible starting difficulty.

Overall: 8.3 / 10
Gameplay: 8.4 / 10
Visuals: 8.1 / 10
Sound: 8.4 / 10


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