I’m not sure if it’s insulting or just accurate to say that Tears of Avia is a game with a backstory that immediately feels more interesting than any game that could actually be attached to it. But, well… here we are now, and this one has an interesting backstory.
Tears of Avia is clearly a labor of love from a very small indie team, with a Kickstarter project back in 2015 that failed to attract enough support and ended with the person organizing the project admitting that he would keep working on it, but it wouldn’t be fast. Cue five years later, with the game in a finished state being published by PQube on Steam and Xbox One. Considering how many Kickstarted games fail to launch after meeting their funding goals, it’s pretty admirable that Tears of Avia kept going and is finally in a launch state.
But, well… sometimes you can admire the work that went into the game without admiring the game itself very much. So before you pick up the game for either Steam or Xbox One, you should probably check this review out; it feels kind of important.
For the record, the PC version of the game was played for this review.
Five Lines, All Waiting
The first nice thing you’ll notice about Tears of Avia right away is that you are helpfully given a choice between five different characters to head up the story. This is not terribly helped by the fact that after a brief character intro, you are tossed into the exact same scenario no matter who you choose… and then introduced to the rest of the main cast more or less with all the grace of a tabletop GM just shoving your characters together.
Of course, just as quickly you get a sense that the story is basically exactly what you’d expect from a tale being written by JRPG fans who are running through the clichés. There’s a war going on between two nations and gosh, everyone just hates the other nation but they aren’t aligned with the demon lord, I wonder where that’s going? Of course there’s a demon lord, too, and he wants the eponymous Tears of Avia for the usual evil demon lord stuff.
You know how it is, one day you’re just a happy self-made demon lord, and then you find out there are a fixed number of valuable plot coupons scattered around and you just have to go gather them up for Evil Stuff. Probably you’ll find some time to gather up a sympathetic backstory at some point. Gotta hit those notes, right?
What struck me about the story was how fast the intro is paced, as if the writing was worried you’d clock out right away unless you had immediate and definite evidence that the game was going to deliver the proper cliché storms. Oh, look, here’s the eccentric guy from the start, and it turns out he’s an important character from the backstory! That might mean something if we had been interacting with him for longer than ten minutes.
The story isn’t truly dire, but it is exactly the level of cliché storm you have almost certainly seen dozens of times without anything additional to back these character trains up or even to give them some extra hooks. I honestly had to keep looking back to remind myself of what many of the character names were; it’s easier to just refer to lots of them by their class. Which, uh… belies a different issue.
There Are Three Builds
Strategy RPGs have long had a complex relationship with classes and roles. In older games – your classic Shining Force 2s and older Fire Emblem titles – you tended to wind up with party lineups consisting of characters with very fixed classes and thus fixed roles along the way. As time as gone on, you have games allowing you to do a lot more, like Disgaea‘s character reincarnations and apprentice/mentor relationships, or Final Fantasy Tactics mixing and matching class abilities, or the complex promotional hierarchies in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
Tears of Avia does indeed have some of this. The problem is in the detail, starting with the fact that while many of these games feature a notable spread of abilities, Tears of Avia has… five. Five classes. Mage, Brawler, Priest, Ranger, and Warrior. That’s a kind of anemic lineup, but it’s enriched because each individual class has three separate trees of abilities, allowing you to customize individual characters into unique builds! Within their skillset, anyhow.
In theory, this could produce some pretty interesting builds. In practice… well, part of where this runs into trouble is the fact that the game has two difficulty levels, and “normal” is an absolute cakewalk if you have played any sort of tactical RPG before. There is only one build here that matters, and it is the build that does the most damage in the shortest span of time, leading to many victories taking place in only one or two turns.
It’s clear that there is supposed to be a lot of interplay going on between elaborate skill trees, managing conditions, and so forth. That simplicity flattens it all away, however, and without an intimate understanding of how the system is supposed to work, it also becomes basically impenetrable. You can choose to focus on a skill that hits harder and has a bonus effect if the enemy has Vulnerability, for example – but unless you know the character classes you’ll have and what their lineups look like, there’s no assurance you can reliably inflict Vulnerability.
A lot of the choices mirror this issue, especially as you only get one point per level to play around with. Improving existing skills is expensive and forces you to specialize pretty narrowly, but it seems quite possible to wind up screwing yourself over with early choices made before you understood their consequences.
At least, it certainly seems possible on Hardcore mode. On Normal, it’s almost laughably easy to bypass fights. Heck, most of the maps lack much in the way of height changes, line of sight blockers, or the like. They’re just… fields in which you hit other characters, making for little tactical consideration to be had beyond being unable to move through your own units.
Once again, this isn’t a case where the gameplay is truly dire, but the game kind of needed solid gameplay to elevate a rote story. When you have a rote story and a rather bland combat system…
Stiff and Weak
A lot of the game is shot through with off-putting design choices. For example, the game features hub towns… theoretically. In practice, they’re poorly laid out, devoid of much in the way of character, and offer no map as you roam around with bad tank controls to navigate. The controls themselves work, but they’re awkward just for being there in the first place.
All of the characters have remarkably stiff 3D models without much personality and a pretty limited animation scope. This might not be a big deal so long as you don’t have to look too closely at them… like, say, when roaming around town. Or when the game suddenly cuts away to an attack cutscene, which happens very often. It’s like shining a harsh light on the parts of the game that are least polished.
Equally odd, at least in my eyes, is the fact that damage is dealt and registered in a weird cadence. Rather than hitting an enemy and then seeing a damage number pop up as your attack lands, your attack goes off, then there’s a notable delay before damage pops up and the enemy goes poof. The steps are too disconnected to really feel contiguous.
One thing I did definitely and unequivocally like is the fact that you can pet a cat right in the first town. I appreciate that fact.
Most of the music is… there, but it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just kind of there, serving the explicit purpose and never really rising above that level. The victory jingle is pretty decent, to be fair.
In a lot of ways, I feel bad poking at this game. This is clearly a labor of love, as stated before, and that means the people responsible for the game were focused first and foremost on producing a game that mattered to them. I respect the hell out of that.
Still, respect doesn’t prevent a game from being a rather bland experience all the way through, and that’s what I kept feeling about Tears of Avia. The game never reached the level of being bad, but it also definitely never managed to be particularly good. Everything I wanted to like about it kept getting downplayed, and I found myself not looking forward to battles or story segments in any way.
What is most to its credit, then, is the fact that its full-price release is $20 on Steam and if you’ve already played a whole lot of tactical RPGs, that’s not a lot of money. And again, it’s not awful. It isn’t a dire game. If you want to support a developer putting out a passion project, more power to you.
But sadly, at the end of the day I just can’t really recommend Tears of Avia to anyone else. Not being terrible is not the same as actually being good, and while I understand that this was made with love, it is ultimately a love that has little to nothing to add to the genre aside from being more of it.
Review copy provided by PQube for PC. All screenshots courtesy of PQube.