In my tenure at Finger Guns, I’ve reviewed a fair few Metroidvania-like titles. No matter the protagonist, it usually involves that age-old battle between good and evil. Even the likes of Guacamelee! 2, where one is an undead luchador, is still a morality tale about good fighting evil and all that. So imagine my surprise when Aeterna Noctis turned that on its head.
No, you’re not an alive luchador, but you are in fact a king of darkness trying to reclaim his throne. Sounds pretty Legacy of Kain-ish, right? Well, the twist is that this is one of those battles that rages on forever. Good versus evil, one denounces the other… the cycle repeats.
Whilst that sounds like a story spoiler, it’s not. But what it does leave us is a Metroidvania that sees the bad guys try to win, for once. The question is: is it any good? Let’s find out.
As far as stories about good versus evil goes, you can’t get any more on the nose than deities. They are the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, the subject of fictional books written thousands of years ago. There’s a famous one that causes a lot of conflict, for instance.
But with Aeterna Noctis, this is the tale of time. The oldest battle between good and evil, but this time, we’re on evil’s side. Beings born of Chaos, the light and the dark are in an endless battle to hold reign. One wins, the other loses, the cycle repeats. We start the game on the loser’s side, as he falls from grace once more.
Determined to regain his throne once more, as is foretold, the King of Darkness fights his way to the Queen of Light… again. It’s not the most original of framing devices, but it’s nice to play as the “bad guy” for once.
Cut From The Same 2D Template
Let’s make no allusions; Aeterna Noctis is a Metroidvania through and through. If the clever title pun didn’t give that away, every screenshot will. I won’t be coy and suggest that it has “hints or homage” to what came before. Sometimes imitation succeeds in flattery, or we wouldn’t have that saying.
If you’ve missed Metroid or Castlevania games over the last thirty years, that would be surprising. Also, you’ve missed the basic gameplay tenets: side-scrolling, multi-roomed backtracking, locked off until certain skills or requirements have been found or met, respectively. Pitfalls and deceptively-hard enemies litter the paths, and if you’re lucky, a boss fight will be airdropped onto players.
Aeterna Noctis is no different, erring more on the ‘vania side of the portmanteau. It’s challenging, frustrating at times, as well as being steeped in dark and broody imagery. I mean: the protagonist is literally the future/recurring King of Darkness. That’s a Castlevania staple in some games.
Oldest School Of Frustration
Of course, when I say it’s a challenging game, it’s all about perspective. I know people can speedrun Symphony of the Night, whereas it took me a few attempts on the first boss. Not when it came out in 1997 and I was eleven, mind, but much later as an adult. Aeterna Noctis has a similar kind of approach: as if to say, “You know exactly what kind of game this is”.
The Prince has a few blocks of health, with most enemies dealing at least one block of damage on contact. Health potions are limited, and to add to the challenge, will only refresh one block at a time (at least initially). Various nasties will lock on to you as you enter a room, so there’s not usually much chance to get the upper hand.
The other challenge comes with the platforming. Again, you shouldn’t need me to tell you there are dangers in a side-scroller, it’s as ancient a concept as Pitfall. But I’d be failing at my job if I didn’t tell you that the gothic castles, graveyards, crypts and other spooky locales will kick your ass too.
So, imagine how frantic it gets in rooms with baddies and booby-trapped platforms.
An Old God New Tricks
Whilst firmly rooted in old school platform-action, Aeterna Noctis isn’t above taking on some modern trappings too. Thankfully, it doesn’t have some shoehorned equipment nonsense, nor anything as insipid as a pay-to-win mechanic. But it does have a skill-based progression system, which fortunately isn’t too intrusive.
What that means is that every kill brings experience, which means that in turn, new skills can be bought and upgraded. Most of them are part of the story, such as a dash that requires usage to get across larger gaps. Later methods are introduced, giving the game that Shadow Complex/Guacamelee! level of fiddly challenge to it.
Combat skills are also worth mentioning, as is de riguer in these games, but I found myself sticking to a sword-and-dashing-about routine that mostly seemed to work. Again, there are later abilities to get into, but I didn’t finish the game to be able to fully explore them all.
I do have a good reason, and it’s not because I’m lazy… well, much.
The Devil’s Platformer
As I mentioned earlier, Aeterna Noctis is a tough game. It’s not like I’m adverse to finishing difficult games (he says, as Blasphemous is still unfinished), but sometimes a game is just too much. Not so much in challenge, but frustration too.
The lack of health and high damaging enemies don’t help, nor do the checkpoints placed far enough from challenging rooms upon death. If you’re a fan of attrition, then this might be the next one for you after the likes of Hollow Knight and Sundered. I’ve played the latter, barely scratched the former, so don’t ask me for direct comparisons.
What doesn’t help is that there are a few minor response bugs in here too. Jump inputs not registering at the end of ledges, causing damage or death. Sword attacks also not swinging true, essentially seeing the Prince just waltz into enemy attacks.
Given this game has been out a while on other formats, you’d think they’d have been smoothed out by the time the PlayStation 5 copy was released. But apparently not.
Damn Pretty Damnation
Yet whilst it feels that I’m sending the game out to die, Aeterna Noctis isn’t all negatives and gloom (from me, at least). What is does having going well for it is the art direction. It doesn’t have that high-studio refinement that other titles do, instead looking more like an advanced Flash game from yesteryear.
In fact, the game it most reminded me of was Dust: An Elysian Tale. That too had a hand-drawn, original-content-do-not-steal look to it. The backdrops are colourful, as are the main characters. Enemies look a bit lacking, but I guess limitation runs out when it comes to these lower budgeted titles.
Overall, the presentation is nice, if a little repetitive. The theme is darkness, as is evident in the level design. But the gothic attitude throughout is at least visually appealing to make it bearable. That’s not meant as a backhanded compliment, I mean that it makes the struggle at least attractive to an extent.
It’s just a shame that the challenge outweighed the visual stylings and it put me off seeing it through to completion.
Make Deals With The Darkness
In conclusion, I did enjoy what I managed to get through in Aeterna Noctis. Don’t let that just because I didn’t complete it deter you, I just didn’t fancy banging my head on a wall that much.
It’s a very stylish game, one that fits the mold that Symphony of the Night, Hollow Knight and all that ilk have made. However, the double-edged sword here is that it’s just as difficult as those it apes. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is entirely down to you, dear reader. If you like a challenge, then go and reclaim that throne!
If you fancy something a bit easier, then renounce that claim and let the light shine on eternal. For me, I’m quite content with not becoming the King of Darkness anyway. Eternity is fine in fictional tales, but not in my real world constraints.
A beautifully dark throwback to the classics, Aeterna Noctis revels in its classic charm. The difficulty also apes that of its forebears, which for some they might enjoy, others it might be too much. For those impartial, it’s another in a massive catalogue of Metroidvania titles.
Aeterna Noctis is available now on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.
Developer: Aeternum Game Studio S.L.
Publisher: Aeternum Game Studio S.L.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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