I’ve got a pretty wide range of likes when it comes to video game genres. I’d say most have a common thread in that I like adventure which taps into RPGs, JRPGs, action games, open world games, survival horror games and metroidvania games. I also like a challenge within reason, so platformers relying on skill and rogue-likes are my jam as well. I’ve even enjoyed racing games. Why am I mentioning this? Well Aeterna Noctis, the game this review is about, seems to be a metroidvania, and it is. There’s more to it than that however, as not only is the difficulty higher than most but it quickly becomes apparent that tough platforming sections are key to progression. This will put off some but if you’re intrigued then read on.
Aeterna Noctis is quite story heavy and starts with a tale of Chaos granting immortality to two warriors, one of light and one of dark. This is to sustain balance, with both fighting it out until one is defeated. The defeated warrior then returns in order to fight the other and the cycle continues. You take control of the King of Darkness who has returned to take his run at the Queen of Light. The world is both familiar and different as time has passed but he’ll need to explore it fully in order to regain his powers anyway. Told you it was a metroidvania.
As you’d expect you start off with a pretty basic move set although you quickly have access to a basic attack, a jump and a dash which can be executed in mid air. The controls take a bit of getting used to as they aren’t as tight as you’d quite like for the precision platforming they’re asking from you. You will get used to it however and soon you’ll be dashing between spikes in mid air and landing on a tiny, crumbly platform on the other side. New powers will make those sections easier but also unlock new paths for you with far tougher obstacles. You get your usual double jumps and wall jumps but there are other tools introduced that the game will expect you to chain together to get through. It can require a bit of finger gymnastics as you press a combination of buttons in quick succession but whilst difficult the game is quite generous with its checkpoints.
Rather than a health bar you have pips of health which you can find more of as you progress. Getting hit by an enemy takes away one pip as does hitting spikes, but if you hit spikes you will be despawned and placed back a little, generally on the last flat surface you stood on. That’s where the challenge comes in with the platforming sections as you’ll have to complete the whole thing in one or be put back to the beginning unless there is a rest area in the middle. If you run out of life pips then you’ll be returned to the last checkpoint you hit but these are pretty frequent too.
You’ll drop your experience when you die (thanks Dark Souls) so you’ll have to get back to where you were to retrieve them. It doesn’t disappear if you die again but it blocks out certain abilities until you collect it again. If you can’t reach it (it happened to me only once) then you can return to an NPC who you can pay to get it back, which is a bit of a pain to be honest. There is a fast travel system but apart from a one use item which will teleport you back to your last checkpoint you can only do it to and from thrones which are few and far between. The game could have done with a few more littered around to make getting to the key areas less of a chore.
There are plenty of enemies as well as the aforementioned platforming sections and these grant both money and experience once you defeat them. Money can be used to buy items like maps and upgrades whilst experience will eventually level you up which will earn you a skill point to spend on a tree. It’s not the most exciting one in the world with more damage or increased chances of positive effects, the game changing abilities are all found and not in the tree.
After you’ve made your way through the platforming gauntlet you’ll invariably get to a boss. These are, much like the rest of the game, quite challenging and require a lot of pattern recognition. The primary reason for their difficulty is that they tend to go on for a long time, longer than you’d expect at least. If you have the boss’ pattern down then it doesn’t really matter but if you’re getting hit by the odd attack then those will really add up over the course of the battle. You won’t be able to brute force these.
In case you haven’t already realised, Aeterna Noctis is difficult. It’s designed to be punishing and rewards pinpoint accuracy. I don’t mind that. All movement is on the left analogue stick which for a precision platformer is a no-no but the dpad is used for other things and certain moves do require analogue control so I get it, even if I don’t agree with it for this type of game. What I do have a problem with is the lack of direction the game gives you. Huge amounts of my time with this game have been wandering around not sure where to go and just stumbling into things, good and bad.
The first objective the game marks on your map is far, far, far to the right and high up. It’s so far away that it doesn’t seem like there’s a straight shot to it so I would nip into everywhere I found in case it would move me closer. In hindsight, now I know how the map works, it is relatively straight to the area you need to get to, but I had no idea. Exploring in metroidvanias is a massive part of it, generally I go out of my way to do it rather than progress, but walking around blindly is another matter.
This has bit me a few times, wasting hours. I went into an area, a forge, which branched out into three sections. I went down one for a while, fighting and getting through the traps only to finally reach something I didn’t have the ability to pass. Ran back through where I’d come from to check out the other two areas and the same thing happened. Massive waste of time and begs the question why there wasn’t an ability check prior to having the player go so far in.
The other time was what I assumed was another ability check to reach a primary target. It looked like I had to use an ability three times to get across a spike pit and I only had two charges. Seemed odd to have what would normally be an optional upgrade be mandatory whilst not collecting it on the main path but I went back to pretty much every area in the game hoping to find something, anything. Hours later I hadn’t and it turned out you didn’t need three charges but just had to use the two in a very specific way that the game had not in any way suggested to you.
It blew my mind that it had been designed this way. I thought perhaps I had forgotten one of my powers or something as the game gives you a screen showing everything you’ve collected but only represents them with symbols without any text, explanations or tutorials beyond what you get when you initially receive it. I know I picked up something in one of the optional challenge rooms and I have no idea what it did. Challenges I like. Being stuck because the game doesn’t give the necessary information is just tedious and a waste of the player’s time, which I hate.
When I was making progress I was enjoying myself. The challenge bar is set very high but the checkpointing is relatively kind. Wandering around areas you’ve already been hoping to find something you’ve missed is not fun. On top of that the further you get into the game the more it’s prone to crashing and on top of that the game also developed a tendency to lose progress whether you crash or close the game down correctly. It autosaves as you pass the checkpoints normally with a symbol appearing to show that it is doing so but the next time you turn it on you’ll be further back, perhaps before a difficult platforming section or multiple. That’s not good.
It’s a shame as there is an obvious design philosophy here and it’s strong. The visuals are also fantastic in general with great 2D environments, bosses and NPCs. The main character I don’t like however. The animation is smooth but it is far less well drawn than other elements which is odd since it’s what you see the most. The screen, as nice as it looks, can also get incredibly cluttered with foreground elements covering up important parts of the screen which in a game this challenging is infuriating. Yes it looks very nice but when it gets in the way of gameplay you need to tone it down a little bit.
So Aeterna Noctis is a very mixed bag. It looks great and in general the challenge is pitched high but not unfairly so. The lack of hand holding is fine but the world design should guide you in a certain direction, with it being your choice on whether to step off that path rather than wandering blindly. Abilities should be labelled and if they are required to be used in a certain way then that should be explained rather than left to chance that someone will stumble upon it. It’ll take some work but this can be tightened up in a patch and the game will be far better for it. Add some more warp points for the player’s convenience as well and you’ve got a very strong game. At the very least the crashes and autosave not working needs addressing.
Aeterna Noctis has its moments. The difficulty will mean it’s not for everyone, not by a long shot, but those who like the challenge will be well catered for. It can be a feast for the eyes and there’s loads to explore but some design decisions and technical issues bring down the experience quite a lot. I’m still going to rate it quite highly as I’ve had fun with it at times and in a patch or two it can be an excellent title but as it is it’s a recommendation with a lot of caveats.
+ Some gorgeous visuals
+ Lots of content
+ Boss fights are well designed
- Some tedious design decisions
- Technical issues