Fall currently permeates much of the world. The air is not yet what one would call cold in most locations. Each push of wind or passing seasonal storm carries a hint of something more. The breeze has a lingering touch. Much as spring is to summer, fall is a precursor to something more in winter. AER: Memories of Old gives off a similar impression, in that the game is lovely, but feels more like a small taste of what Swedish Developers Forgotten Key may have for gamers in the future. AER is definitely a worthwhile experience, but one that is short and maybe not fully representative of the capabilities of the makers.
AER is all about light touches, similar to the touch of winter cold dancing on the edge of a fall breeze. The game makes use of a very simplified visual style and palette that works to great effect. Models are hard-edged, faceted displays of polygons. When combined with the game’s bright color palette and a little bit of smoothing, the aesthetic looks fantastic. Forgotten Key did an excellent job of nailing the graphical presentation, providing rich visuals with a simple underpinning.
The minimalistic design is fully realized in the world-building as well. AER, as is not so subtly suggested in its title, has a significant aerial component. The world of AER is made up of floating segments of land: the remnants of a planet torn apart by war and then later by a heavenly being. Bright green floating land masses are populated by colorful trees and interesting wildlife. Water cascades over cliff edges of hovering islands, while massive greyish, pink clouds populate the air space between areas of the map.
Travel between the areas of the game is achieved through its main mechanic, flying. Players control Auk as she navigates the skies of the Land of Gods. With her power, she can go wherever the winds carry her. AER has no limitations on where players, and Auk, can go, aside from specific “dungeons”. The dungeons, or, more appropriately, temples and caves, all share the same limitation as the game’s tutorial opening— no flying. Each of these indoor areas uses simple jump-based platforming in stark contrast to the free-flying world map.
This enforced handicap provides the story progression gameplay elements, which are simply puzzle rooms made up of locked doors. When young Auk emerges from the introductory area, magical lantern in tow, the player learns of her ability to take flight. Flight is as simple as tapping the jump button a second time once in the air. The music morphs slightly, Auk transforms, and a short flight tutorial sends the player on their way with only the slightest notion as to where Auk should go next.
Flying and jumping is everything in the game. AER has no combat, instead being built for exploration, something that some players may feel limits the experience. The game relies on its complete openness, yet still tight and refined experience to engage the player. Obviously the lack of combat narrows the demographic of players to a degree, but Forgotten Key mostly succeeds in this measured risk.
For those used to the generally linear experiences of modern gaming, the lack of direction might be a little off-putting at first, but the method is a refreshing trend amongst indies. Temples, and thus virtually the entire game, can be completed in any order the player chooses. For many players, their aerial wanderings will see them finishing areas technically out of order. The lack of forced progression is a simple thing, but important to the representation of player freedom.
Story remains key to the game’s experience, but is difficult to discuss without spoiling, as the title is so short. In many ways, the world is the story, uncovered through exploration. AER’s history is told through scrolls, tablets, and simple dialogue boxes, the majority of which are optional. These dialogues have the feel of biblical texts, while their content is at once Shamanistic and akin to any number of religious mythologies. The text features more than a little touch of the whole ‘humans have forsaken the gods, so the gods broke the world’ thing going on.
Again, the little elements of larger ideas work together to great effect to create AER. The sound design is extremely minimal, with most effects being aural caricatures at best. The music is atmospheric and heavily tonal, dancing around quietly like the tradewinds in the Land of Gods’s skies. Each of four regions of floating continents has two themes, one for land and one for the air. The themes blend on the fly as Auk takes flight or comes in for a landing. On the music’s margins are soft impressions of electronic, almost synthwave tunes. The sound is just as pretty as the visuals.
Fall is a beautiful season. The changing of the leaves and the rest of the autumnal palette paints a gorgeous picture. Despite this beauty, once the leaves are all gone and the skies have gone grey in most places, the season has little to offer. The barren fields and landscapes of late fall can easily receive a visual boost thanks to even the lightest dusting of fresh snows; they just need something more. AER is a brief experience that the developers peg at three-to-five hours. Experienced players will be on the lower end of that estimation, but the expanded lore of the world found through exploration can easily push towards the further end.
AER: Memories of Old, like fall, is a sampling of something more to come. Little touches of so many things to like permeate the game: beautiful design, lovely music, straightforward mechanics, and an interesting backstory. The problem is that these pieces are not pronounced enough. All the influences are present. Whether players see Bound, Flower, or The Legend of Zelda, the developers are starting to play with the elements of something really impressive. Just like fall creating anticipation for winter, being excited for what they do next, now that they have a released title under their belts, is easy. For the gamer who enjoys a good “walking simulator,” this flying and jumping simulator is an affordable and interesting entry into the genre.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.