There's no denying Steam is a dumping ground for games. Between Valve's hands off approach and refusal to properly moderate releases, the company has allowed no shortage of rubbish thrown together by talentless morons onto their store page. Along with being a waste of space however, it's turned many great asset systems into almost an online social taboo. When anyone sees anything put together via Unity, via Unit Z or via RPG Maker, they'll almost immediately pass over them as bottom of the barrel "faux retro RPG" junk. However, there are always a few exceptions, such as today's example: Echoes Of Aetheria.
Made under developer Dancing Dragon Games, this serves very much as a spiritual successor to Skyborn. Set in a world of magic and steampunk technology, many of the same tropes and elements appear from the airship engineering girl with a mouth to the militant Imperial conquerors. However, what makes it stand out is a much grander scale, a very different way in which battles play out and ultimately a different perspective on the world as a whole.
The world is set to enter a new golden. With Empire of Verdia and Kingdom of Sayunaa preparing to wed their heirs to the throne, two of the world's great powers are about to fully merge. However, foul dealings are afoot. As the ceremony is stormed by several guards and Princess Soha is kidnapped, it is left to an unlikely alliance between the duty-bound knight Lucian and tech-savvy thief Ingrid to rescue her. Yet, even as they complete their ask, they soon find their world making less sense with every passing moment. Each is left questioning just what is truly at work here.
While the old kidnap the princess plot is one which has been done to death, there was at least enough at work sense here to play with events. It's just used as a spark, a starting point to reveal the bigger machinations at work, and to really get the ball rolling. Honestly, it's not just the chase you have to contend with, along the way you also have to foil a bomb plot, fight your way through a small army of guards, discover you can trust little to no one and work your way through a hidden fortress. Plus, by the time you get there, the Princess has freed herself via Jedi mind trick methods and joins you as the mage. While normally this would make the opening feel a little overly rushed - and it does admittedly make it hard to ease yourself into the lore - it's nevertheless the right kind of rushed. It's akin to Final Fantasy VII's opening attack on the mako reactor, where you have little to no grounding but it's exciting enough to make you want to know what the hell is going on. By the time you do start to get some real grounding and understand where the plot is going, you're already hooked in.
The story itself is much vaster in terms of scale this time. Whilst Skyborn mostly stuck to a single city and a few surrounding lands, Echoes Of Aetheria sees you trekking across an entire continent. Every area really feels as if the developers were just given a blank cheque and told to cut loose with their creativity, and focus more upon a running narrative than areas to grind. As such, you end up with things like the Victorian steampunk version of Omaha Beach, artillery and all, and an airship dock brimming with guards. Many of these areas are designed for you to only run through once and never come back, which comes with two advantages. First and foremost, it means that while they're admittedly a little linear, there's more up-front engaging events, character moments and scenery to keep you interested. Secondly however, it emphasises the fact that the game has been made to avoid grinding as much as possible. While you still need to grind here and there for irritating boss encounters, but it's not nearly as bad as the JRPGs of old and leaves you racing through the experience without too many issues.
Another interesting point to note is that the game isn't afraid to split the party as well. Several scenes and major events feature a single character heading off away from the others or the role of central protagonist shifting to someone else for a while, which allows the game more of a chance to really explore more if its world. The one chance you truly get to explore Sayunaa stems from Soha personally visiting the regent, and it does allow for some truly great character moments. While they're certainly not going to win any awards any time soon and do fall into the same old categories we've seen plenty of times over, it's thanks to these moments that each of them are given a little more depth. Well, that and the flashbacks Lucian undergoes which reveals more of his personal history.
Now, some of you probably have more than a few alarm bells going off in your head at this point, and I wouldn't blame you. A lot of this does sound very much like Final Fantasy "THIS IS A CORRIDOR GAME AND YOU WILL LIKE IT!" XIII. It's certainly true that the two share many of the same elements, but it honestly seems that Dancing Dragon were taking notes as SquareEnix blundered about making every error possible. For starters, there's no Snow and Lightning, by which I mean there's no unlikable sociopath or glory hog blind to collateral damage stealing the spotlight. Besides Ingrid herself occasionally becoming overly cocky, none of the characters ever grate upon your nerves and it's genuinely interesting to learn more about them. Because of this, the game offers brief pauses once in a while to learn more about them as you progress. There's no driven rush to force you into progressing down a single narrow path, and the story repeatedly stops to offer the player a chance to visit outposts and small settlements to rearm, explore and talk more with the characters. It's akin to what you'd usually expect of a Bioware game, such as Dragon Age: Origins' camp or the SSV Normandy; somewhere which serves as a place to settle down and just learn more about your party.
While many of the locations themselves disappear or become unavailable after a time, many others are offer the opportunity for people to revisit and explore a little more of them. These are often made more like your common or garden pixel RPG location, intended to be fully explored and almost labyrinthine in nature. It makes them perfect for the odd occasion where you do need to grind, but it also ensures that sense of adventure in the game is never fully lost. With all this said however, even the supposedly linear locations are fairly open and surprisingly nuanced in their design. Even areas which, by rights, should have just featured you running in a single direction such as a supply train raid, which literally involves you getting to the front and freeing someone. An easy task to be sure and potentially a boring one, but Dancing Dragon turns it into something exciting by allowing you to explore the surrounding grounds, ambushing guards, jumping rail cars and looting everything in sight.
What's more, it's often counter-productive to simply run headlong through locations. Each and every one features a number of hidden treasures plus a very large and valuable chest. Those who actually bother to take the time to hunt down the key are often rewarded with a high grade weapon, a pile of moolah or even a few surprising items to help explore locations. It gives a major edge as you progress throughout the game, and its simple presence encourages anyone progressing through the game to leave no stone upturned before finally moving on. Like the character bits though, it's another moment where you don't have to do it but you're rewarded for doing so.
So, with all of the above in mind however, how does the combat hold up? In the contrast to Skyborn's minimalist look and relatively basic agro system, Echoes Of Aetheria has shifted gears and switched to a combat grid. Divided in half, each opposing group can now use their turns to alter their formations and shift about to allow characters a chance to use more varied abilities. For example, save for projectile attacks and magic, the front rank of each group can only be attacked, allowing the squisher wizards to hide behind the beefier tanks. However, as there's no solid "tank" class in the game and even Lucian can go down to a few blows, you're frequently encouraged to make full use of status buffs and blocking abilities. Dropping a turret down on the front row or even a pile of rubble can buy groups valuable time to heal, and it means the player can cycle in and out the characters they want to take the brunt of any assault. Plus, as some abilities can only strike in certain places or directions, it can legitimately allow you to nullify a frustrating ability if you're smart about placing characters.
The actual abilities themselves are equally surprising, as they abandon the traditional MP bar you might expect. Instead, each group gradually charges up points as they progress through combat, dishing out or enduring damage until the bar fills. The more bars fill, the more devastating abilities you unlock. Using these drains the bar itself and it turns combat into more of a case of patiently planning and waiting out certain strikes. After all, if you can't have your entire party hit the boss with every powerful spell in your arsenal all on the first turn, that alone's going to turn things into an uphill battle. What's also interesting is the staggering system, which allows the party to knock back a foes in turn order or delay their attack. If correctly used on the right foe it allows for a player to leave them in limbo, but for the most part it's useful for getting an extra turn or two in before they hit you hard.
The abilities themselves are certainly varied even if most are usually just some play upon the usual "Heal, Buff, Fireball" combos we know and love, but a few fun ones slip in there now and again. Really, name another turn based RPG which allows you to drop piles upon piles of junk in front of you so the enemy can't physically touch your characters. Unfortunately though, it's with the abilities that Echoes Of Aetheria reaches its first stumbling point. For seemingly no reason, you can only actually equip a few abilities at a time, six at most but only one or two early on. There's really no apparent reason for this arbitrary limitation, and ultimately it just results in additional pre-boss battle busywork more than anything else. This is only made worse as you unlock more skills, and you can be left second guessing what to roll into battle with. Then again, half the time you might even not notice this as you just breeze through events.
Even ignoring the combat issues though, what will likely frustrate many players to no end is how the game simply refuses to explain things as it goes along. This hits both the lore and gameplay fairly hard, and while it does a good job with the basics of both, the intricacies and certain key details are lost entirely. more than once you might find yourself walking out of a level, leaving behind that giant, precious treasure chest. However, as the game gives you no indication you only have that one precious opportunity to nab it, or that the door you walked through was even the exit, you end up losing some of the game's best loot. Jumping sections, the crafting system and even how certain enemies will fight are all plagued by these problems, and it can leave you taking a trial and error approach to almost everything.
The lore issues meanwhile are, sadly, the same thing Final Fantasy XIII has been criticised for. Way too much is just left for the codex or just general world-building articles. Rather than allowing them to compliment what you see in the game, it almost seems as if it's required reading in some way. This is especially evident early on as you're offered no chance to really speak with any characters or for the world to be slowly built-up, it can take some time to get to grips with things. There's excitement still, as mentioned at the start, but that's not quite enough when that starts to wear off and you just want to know what's what about the world. This does admittedly improve as time goes by, but there's still bits you'll keep missing without stopping to repeatedly read.
With all things considered though, even with the notable flaws which plague the game, that simply turns it from something which could have been fantastic into something simply great. It's saying something when a game which can be criticised for being too easy and not telling quite enough was still engaging enough for me to sink a couple of dozen hours into it. There's a truly vast world here, and a fascinating setting which is more than deserving to see a future sequel explore its kingdoms, nations and empires in-depth. If you're looking for a good RPG or even just an example of a truly great RPG Maker release, Echoes Of Aetheria one comes with a strong recommendation. Let's certainly hope it's the start of a new saga, and a promising new franchise.