REVIEW: Aeternum

Bullet Hells and I have a rocky history. I generally enjoy them and the challenge they represent, the attention to shot patterns and the repeated deaths that are a rite of passage. Aeternum (240 MSP) encapsulates that hard truth with scary efficiency, crushing egos of any and every size (on normal difficulty!). Sometimes you have to be put in your place, and here it’s done with hundreds of bullets, knowingly humorous dialogue, nice tunes, and an enjoyable cast of witches and many cats.

The game has four levels, split into two sections each, with a mid-level boss and end boss that come in multiple forms, all preceded and followed by dialogue bits that fill in and animate the surrounding storyline, win or lose. Gameplay flows accordingly to the shooter blueprint and it’s easy enough to figure out, but take two minutes and play the tutorial. The controls are solid and don’t let you down, at regular or half-speed (a slow-down move that focuses fire and exposes your heart / hit-box in order to navigate near-impossible shot streams), and you’ll learn what makes it all tick, in terms of Panics, Power, and Grazes.

Grazes work as simple score multipliers, earned by avoiding close calls. Enemies and bosses drop ‘power’ orbs when defeated. That ‘power’ is nuanced, and works as a health bar and a currency for shields (50 orbs a pop). Pull off an impressive stretch without getting hit or using those orbs, and you’ll instead build towards an additional ‘panic’ shield, which is freely and automatically-administered in the event you’re hit. You can start with varying amounts, depending on the difficulty chosen. The ‘panic’ shields are by far the most important stockpile you can own. Whenever possible, sacrifice orbs for shields instead of wasting a ‘panic’.

The concept of ‘power’ and having it is similar to Sonic’s nearly-narcotic dependence on ‘rings’; keeping some in your possession at all times amounts to life. Get hit, and you’ll lose power (some or all, according to how much you had), with the chance to pick up some of that scattering life to prolong your game. It’s an interesting tactic and trade-off that will reward skilled players with extra ‘panic’ saves, while at the same time giving some much-needed breathing room to those of us that are less-fortunate in the face of so much adversity. And it’s less torture than you might think. Looking at my first ten run-throughs, both my score and distance-traveled went up at each attempt. Believe me, I still worked to reach the third stage. A small victory.

Unfortunately, there are no continues in Aeternum (EDIT: The first post-release patch adds continues, at the cost of resetting your score). That both hurts and helps, forcing you to replay (but improve at) the earlier stages and bosses, either in ‘practice’ mode or the surprisingly-helpful ‘pacifist’ setting. Everyone’s patience level is different, however, making the game’s brutal difficulty a question of taste. I stuck with it, and while I’ve failed (thus far) to reach the credit roll, the route getting there is now considerably less-bumpy. That said, I can’t even fathom the skill I’d need to move up to a higher tier of difficulty.

Aeternum - Screen

One of the easier fights, actually.

In the end result, Aeternum is a bullet hell with personality, and aptly labeled as such. It’s a scant four stages deep, but it requires the sacrifice of your pride and more than a few hours to considerably build a tolerance to its difficulty. Therein lies the reward, of course, so long as you do not approach it lightly or with any expectations of besting it right away. Instead, adherents will find a complex ballet to dance around and a worthy shooter to add to their collections.    

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13 thoughts on “REVIEW: Aeternum”

  1. I’m in the middle of reviewing this game right now and spotted your review from the dev’s website. I think this is one of those times where I needed to keep pushing through and finish a game to really get a sense of whether I liked it. I was ready to hack it to pieces after floundering through level 2 over and over again. That one ended up being more difficult for me than the remaining two. I can’t imagine how much of a pain in the ass it would’ve been pre-patch, because it was still brutal afterwards, so kudos to you for toughing it out.

    1. Thank you, sir. I remember my struggles in the second stage quite well, so I can feel your pain there. You deserve the kudos, though, for beating the game. 🙂 I haven’t been able to get back to it since the update that added continues, so the end still eludes me.

    2. I think it’s kind of interesting that you had the biggest trouble with stage 2. My three biggest testers all kept giving me feedback that stage 3 was the real bear. Nate still speaks of the “dreaded cat barrage” of stage 3.

      One of the things I’ve learned developing this is the utter subjectivity of difficulty. The fact that what some people find difficult and what they find easy, may be the opposite for other people. Just another thing to take into consideration in trying to develop balance.

    3. I would revise that now to say that stage 3 is my undoing. 🙂 Stage 2 had its own set of difficulties, but I would agree that stage 3 is trouble from the start and doesn’t get any easier.

      Bullet Hell types are rightfully hard to balance, and I’m sure there’s a sub-set of people out there that couldn’t pass the first stage and are cursing your name as I type this. 🙂 There’s the opposite as well, no doubt. Either way, it’s worth the trouble it takes to improve at it, and that’s probably the best compliment you can receive.

    4. I think that what happened in my case is that the game finally clicked. After retrying stage 2 about a dozen times over 2 days it finally made sense and I finally found that groove that I mention in my review. I only had to do one or two retries the rest of the game.And once I realized the game had that left-side slider to indicate the boss position, all I had to really do was focus on dodging while holding down the fire button.

      I think the problem I’ve had in the past and most likely others have as well, is that they don’t want to or feel like they should have to take the time to learn the system. A year or two ago I was reading a book on game design and gratification was a big topic. Shmups aren’t designed to throw players a softball to let them acclimate, have some early success, and feel compelled to play on. From the reviews I’ve read, it seems most people feel like this is a quality game, just not one everyone is going to enjoy. Hopefully more people give the game a fair shake.

  2. You know, I was going to make my first post back to Gear Fish a rough guide/general tips on how not to suck at Aeternum. Then you went and wrote pretty much everything I was going to say. (And don’t think I didn’t notice the tag – you flatterer 😀 ) Nice review though: fair and honest as always.

    Just as an FYI – we are planning on adding a continue system of sorts – more of a “Retry Stage” option, really. It wouldn’t be Aeternum if there wasn’t -some- level of brutality left, but the ability to retry a stage means that if you do struggle into the library and fall to the dreaded Cat Barrage…at least you don’t have to start over from the beginning if you want to see how the ridiculous story pans out.

    Once we iron out a few more details, that should put at least a little bit of healing salve on the hard burn of bullet hell fire.

    1. Well, thank you. Fair and honest is the goal, even for a friend’s game. The tag is just the truth; reading the interview you guys did at IndieGamerChick, I can see you went through quite a few revisions. 🙂 The final version works really well. It’s a shame I haven’t been able to reach the conclusion yet…

      …so a continue system would be welcome. I’ve practiced the third stage a few times already, but actually getting back to it is a challenge on its own. I know you guys are looking to add a bit more to the package as well, so I’ve got more than enough incentive to keep at it.

    1. Absolutely. Knowing the group that’s working on the game you’re reviewing can be hard to separate and judge without bias, but I was glad to see there isn’t anything here to harp on, really, outside of the difficulty, which comes with the territory. Brooks and crew did a fine job.

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