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.
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.