Like most of you (be honest), I know almost nothing about Cameroon. I also know precious little about communing with ancestral spirits, launching fireballs, or punching dudes in the face. How fortunate, then, that Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan exists.
Released in April this year following a successful Kickstarter by Kiro’o Games, Aurion is many things. It’s a fusion of a side-scrolling beat’em up with a JRPG. It’s the first release by a small games studio in central Africa. It’s a long, winding, and philosophical story inspired by several cultures and genres and forms of media. But what ultimately matters is that it’s pretty damn fun.
Developers Kiro’o openly state that their work is inspired by Tales of Symphonia, and Aurion leans on all sorts of RPG tropes. Enzo and Erine Kori-Odan, newlywed rulers of Zama, are deposed, and to retake their throne Enzo must go on a journey of self-discovery, which of course means periodically ruminating between frequent bouts of extreme violence.
This goes how you’d expect, broadly speaking. You visit each of the world’s nations, always stumbling into civil wars, sinister plots, criminal enterprises, and generally having a ridiculous time. Powerful people will exploit you, bandits will ambush you, idiot peasants will suspect you, and almost everyone who’s nice will betray you or die. Y’know, adventure!
It’s refreshingly not open world, although you can wander a bit once the opening is done. The world map features settlements subdivided into multiple screens, some filled with NPCs to chat to, others with enemies who offer not-quite-random battles. Their sprites lurk or patrol, and will lunge to trigger a ruck, but can often be avoided if you’re not in the mood for the grind. A minority must be fought to pass through to the next area, and of course, plot encounters are non-negotiable.
If the prospect of a turn-based JRPG stimulates your groan valve, fear not: while Aurion is modelled after them, combat takes cues from proper real-time fighting games. Instead of taking turns to wearily kick each other in the nards, this is a fast-paced button-mashing brawler. Enzo is able to leap and dash and pummel, and can burn through energy to activate his “Aurion” – a special power central to the plot, functionally analogous to techniques or stances in many fighting games – and unleash special attacks. Fire off enough of these and you’ll charge up an “ultimate legacy” attack, something of a misnomer considering how many you’ll need.
After the somewhat slow start, combat options expand with the plot. Enzo’s communion with his ancestors reveals parts of his identity, adding a new set of moves, each of which must be levelled up through a little grind to be really effective. Ideally, then, combat consists of switching between these Aurions while dashing and leaping and blocking away from danger. It’s big on flashy power moves, cool animations, and shouting the name of the thing you’re about to unleash.
To complicate matters, most attacks require AP, which can be freely charged if you can keep everyone off your back. That’s where Erine comes in as the heavy artillery: a summons lets her heal you and/or unleash devastating magical attacks to merrily fling foes around. She gains XP for bringing the thunder, and if a fight is going badly it’s probably because you’re forgetting that she can blast out 12 foot ice stalagmites and devastating spears of burning light without all this ‘charging up’ nonsense. She more than pulls her weight in the odd cutscene too, making me hope for a sequel where she takes up the sword.
Then there are the bosses. Every now and then you’ll encounter another Aurionic: a fighter with powers like yours. If you’re familiar with Dragonball Z (or preferably the vastly better Abridged series) you’ll be right at home here, except for the absence of 2 hours of filler while someone charges their attack. It’s here where Aurion flirts with perfection as you scout each other out and tentatively trade simple blows while you work out a strategy. It was remarkably unsettling when one boss started calmly walking towards me; he proved a tricky foe indeed and I was pleased to work out a strategy to hurt him that felt natural without trial and error or an esoteric, fiddly Mortal Kombat-style special move. (The controls demand a gamepad, but are simple and quickly grasped). These fights build slow, until one of you gets scared or impatient and activates your Aurion, and lo, the gloves are off. Before long you’re knocking the hell out of each other with boulders, whirlwinds, flurries of knives, electrical storms and all that over the top cartoon goodness.
Unfortunately, these fights have a habit of going on. And on. And on. I was fighting one guy for 33 minutes, and never in any danger of losing. Thirty three!
It’s worse in the opening act, when your attacks are so limited, but while much of the fighting in Aurion is entertaining and satisfying, at times the pacing and balance is all wrong. Some enemies take far too much killing, and some are resistant to most attacks or too dangerous to engage in melee. Despite the lovely artwork, at arm’s length it’s tricky to tell who’s hitting who, and while the tutorials emphasise guard breaking and stunning attacks, it’s too difficult and dangerous to reliably pull these off, and far too easy to get stunlocked (repeatedly hit and unable to respond or flee). Add to this the tendency for badly hurt enemies to pull out powerful ranged attacks while running or teleporting out of reach, while their teammates continue to get in your face, and things can quickly become more frustrating than fun. This goes double for a few Auronic duels, at least one of which became an absolutely infuriating test of how many healing items I’d bought rather than any kind of skill or tactical nous. It’s almost retro in that regard.
The far bigger problem, however, is the loading times. Dear god they’re bad. Starting the game is my cue to start chopping vegetables, and worse, between each screen and bookending every fight are delays so long I was soon avoiding random encounters for that reason alone.
So did I ever think of giving up on it? Not for a second. Firstly these frustrating, overlong fights are in the minority, and secondly, I wanted to know what would happen next. I wanted to see more of the world, meet more of its characters, uncover more of the philosophy and story of the game. It’s not the greatest story ever told (and there are some messy translation and proofreading issues), but its world is big and colourful in every sense. Self-discovery through facepunching is nothing new, but Enzo and Erine are likeable, and deep enough to carry the narrative.
From the start it’s clear that Enzo isn’t the mindless non-entity distributor of ellipses and interrobangs that schleps its way into the ‘protagonist’ slot in too many JRPGs. He’s well-intentioned but naive, insecure, and initially kind of a dick to Erine. Erine’s own arc relates to her relationship with Enzo and doubts about herself. Both naturally find resolution in supporting one another. It’s a bit of a shame she doesn’t quite get equal billing, but she’s well-defined and by no means token. Her devastating battle powers and tendency to figure things out first (cleverly represented as her offering optional hints if you screw up the occasional puzzles) work systematically, while on the story side, she gets regular dialogue and many heroic acts. I was intrigued by a particularly interesting revelation from Enzo’s mentor (who is far too busy with her own story to tag along) that he can only use a particular “power” because he doesn’t love himself.
Women are well represented in general, as business owners and warriors and powerful rulers both good and bad, and let’s not pretend that it’s not significant that almost everyone in Aurion is black. This is not a story about a black Goku in a reskinned Elysian Tale. For all it took from games both Eastern and Western, Aurion is African through and through, to such an extent that it’s not even necessary for the game to make a point of it. There’s a noticeable absence of excessive preamble and you’re not confronted with acres of dull backstory every time you visit a town. The world reveals itself as needed; there’s no insecure attempt to preach about what the continent’s fantasy and folklore have to offer. It’s comfortable with what it is. This is a vision of a Fantasy Africa before and without the devastation caused by external invaders, with neither forgiveness nor condemnation of the white man. It’s an exploration and celebration of African ideas, culture, and people.
Several hours in, when an advisor starts the first real exposition, the writing makes the gently poignant subtext clear even through the sometimes stilted translation. This world’s history is one of bitter tribal conflicts, slavery, genocides, and the cruel ironies of global economics. But it’s always told from an intra-African point of view, not as a sob story about white guilt. For all the tragedy and injustice of the world, it’s also filled with pretty, bustling towns, proud kingdoms, brave heroes, and kindly wandering griots all tied to the narrative and combat with an arrestingly existential creation story. It’s as a wellspring of stories and characters and whole worlds, not a mere battleground or gritty backdrop, a place to alternately pity and fear. That’s the kind of thing RPGs need. That matters.
So when I say that all this is reason to forgive the frustrations, rough edges, and excessive loading times, it’s not some patronising pat on the head nor a self-congratulatory attempt at charity. Even without acknowledging the unusually huge difficulties Kiro’o faced in getting it released at all, Aurion suffers a major blow but stands up as an original, memorable, and rewarding game that deserves every success.