A Bit of Panache
When you get down to basics, the rhythm game genre is a very simple one. Most of the time, you’re doing nothing more than pressing buttons along to the commands a game gives you. Really, it sounds quite boring when you strip it down like this; rhythm games aren’t much more than a more intricate version of Simon Says.
In this genre, everything really comes down to presentation. How do you make it so that following a series of commands is actually fun? Some make use of special controllers (the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises), mimicking the feel of playing an instrument. Others may simply use unique graphical presentation, styling levels like music videos or performances (the Hatsune Miku games or Parappa the Rapper) or a crazy audio visualizer (Audiosurf and Audioshield).
Some popular rhythm titles choose to fuse basic rhythm gameplay with other genres. A popular choice is, surprisingly, rail shooters and space shooters. Turning simple commands into enemies that have to be defeated is an easy way to put a twist on the genre, with titles like Rez and Beat Hazard coming to mind.
The game we are looking at today is of a similar thread. It uses some traditional “follow our commands” gameplay, along with the inclusion of some rail shooter aspects.
Developed by Mad Fellows and published by Reverb Triple XP, Aaero was released on April 11th, 2017 for XBox One, PS4, and PC via Steam. The Steam version was played for this review.
Go Into the Light
As I mentioned, Aaero is a rhythm game at heart with some rail shooter aspects. Each song included in the game (out of fifteen total) is its own stage, and each stage will present you with two distinct challenges.
The first challenge is purely rhythmic – following along with the beat. You play as a ship flying through various landscapes, and portions of these areas have ribbons of light strewn along the borders of your flight path. When you come across these, you have to control your ship to follow these ribbons, which change direction to the beat and lyrics of whatever song is playing.
Control of your ship is handled with the left analog stick on a controller – and yes, if you’re playing this game on PC, you’ll need an analog controller. Your ship’s movements are 1:1 with analog stick position, and as these ribbons appear on the edges of the screen, you’ll be following them by rotating the analog stick along its edges.
Player movement is incredibly tight and precise since its all mapped to stick positioning, but that doesn’t mean that these portions don’t present a challenge. As you progress further in the game, ribbon patterns become more complex, requiring jumps around the screen and fast rotations just to keep up. You’ll want to make sure you have a controller with good grip on the analog sticks. I played with both the Steam Controller and a basic PS4 controller, and had constant issues with my thumbs slipping while trying to keep up.
The second challenge comes in the form of combat. Enemy ships will appear throughout the level that must be destroyed, and the combat mechanic is fairly simple. Your targeting system is controlled via the right analog stick, and passing it over an enemy locks a target on them. You’re able to lock about eight targets at once, and launch an attack on all targets with a pull of a trigger.
Of course, the rhythmic gameplay here doesn’t make battle quite that simple. Enemies will only be hit and/or destroyed on the downbeat of whatever song is currently playing, and your attack speed is affected by this. Launch your attack too soon before a downbeat, and your shots will meander toward your enemy. Attack right before before a downbeat, though, and your shots will connect immediately. As you can only launch one barrage at a time, ensuring your attacks match up with the rhythm quickly becomes important.
These two challenges aren’t mutually exclusive; enemies can appear on screen during ribbon segments, requiring you to maneuver and lock attacks at the same time. This begins to occur more and more often as you get further into the game, especially on higher difficulties. However, the difficulty curve here is relatively forgiving, with the game introducing these moments early and easing you in to the challenge.
One thing I found odd about Aaero was its focus on accuracy over perfection. A driving force behind many rhythm games is achieving a perfect score, hitting every note and command with 100% precision. This game downplays that, instead encouraging you to just try and be as accurate as possible, prioritizing the chase for high scores over just hitting every note. You gain score multipliers the longer you accurately play the ribbon-chasing portions, losing them if you fall off track. Destroying enemies with accurate timing also rewards you with multipliers, although failing here usually means your ship is destroyed.
The Bold and the Beautiful
Put simply, the graphical presentation of Aaero is a highlight of the experience. The game opts for a very sharp, industrial, and polygonal art style, which is an excellent match for the soundtrack and overall mood of the game. Each song has its own distinct stage, with patterns and structures designed to match the feel of the track.
The game can become relatively chaotic, what with the light ribbons around the screen and enemies flying in and launching projectiles from all over the place, but I found it relatively easy to keep track of everything happening on screen. Just about everything is projected by a sound cue, letting you use the aural experience to help keep up with everything happening around you.
Of particular note are the “boss battle” songs, which throw in a large creature to deal with alongside light ribbons and normal enemies. These enemies imposingly tower over their stages (and, in once case, occasionally become the stage) and are crafted in such a way to feel somewhat off-putting and surprising. The unique camerawork that goes into these stages adds strongly to the experience as well.
Short and Sweet
Of course, a rhythm game lives and dies by its soundtrack, and I am happy to report that Aaero presents a very strong tracklist. I don’t even consider myself much of an electronic music fan, but the songs here and the way they’re integrated into the game are catchy as all hell.
The songs here aren’t originals made for the game. Rather, Mad Fellows licensed their tracklist from various EDM artists. I won’t pretend to recognize the artists, but a couple that are featured multiple times in the tracklist are Flux Pavilion (whose song, I Can’t Stop, was the only song I had heard before), Habstrakt, and Noisia.
The soundtrack here runs a scant fifteen songs, but there’s a nice variety of electronic genres here. A little bit of dubstep, some industrial influence, and a couple with more pop and R&B aspects. There are three difficulties for each song, each with a slightly different stage map, which does help to extend the life of the relatively short selection.
There’s only a couple songs I didn’t enjoy much here, and that has more to do with gameplay integration than the songs themselves. With much of the soundtrack being very bass-heavy, making picking out the rhythm and downbeats fairly easy, the lighter and poppier tracks tend to make the actual gameplay more difficult. These require more focus on the song to keep the rhythm, causing a distraction from the gameplay on screen.
Just One More Hit
Overall, Aaero is an incredibly polished and addicting rhythm experience that I sorely wish there was more of. While the stage charts here will present plenty of challenge for newcomers or casual gamers of the genre, for someone like me who considers rhythm games my lifeblood, it was much too easy to tear through the game in one sitting. I had perfected standard difficulty in my first session with the game, and unlocked the master difficulty a couple days later.
I’m not trying to brag, but rather point out that the content here is a bit slim for rhythm gaming regulars. What is included, though, is simply excellent and well worth the entry price. The entire A/V presentation, mixed with solid and tight gameplay, create easily one of the most addictive games I’ve played lately. Aside from a couple songs being weaker in gameplay integration, there’s very little I can fault with this game.
…also, I’m still near the top of the leaderboards on a few songs, if you feel like trying to take me down.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by Mad Fellows for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.