Hands On: Aer
Now With Wings
I can only imagine the sighs that must have emanated from all working on Aer [official site] when Ubisoft's Grow Home was released last month. Not because the two games play alike - the similarities are only slight. But wow, do they look the same. The polygonal design of both renders gorgeous green foliage against cerulean skies, growing on floating islands. Aer, of course, has been around since late 2013, while Grow Home was announced then released within the same few weeks. Were Aer due to release soon, its thunder could have been considerably stolen. So it's perhaps oddly fortunate that the flying/exploring adventure isn't out until 2016.
Also rather fortunate is it's already rather lovely to play. You play as a girl who can transform into a bird, on a pilgrimage in the Land Of Gods. This girl is a Whisperer, a term given to a chosen few who can talk to animals, and indeed turn into another one. Exploring a collection of thirteen island clusters, she is tasked with waking the ancient tech of a long-lost civilisation, while appeasing the old gods.
Which is to say, flying around incredibly pretty landscapes, and sneaking about in puzzle-filled old temples.
In such games, the most important thing is the flying. If it feels stilted or weird, then the whole game falls apart around that single mechanic. So I bring good news when I report that when I played, I found it to be very pleasing. Swift, natural, and satisfyingly swoopy. And, importantly, not over-easy. You'll need to remember to flap wings, but as well as that, time your glides, so you don't fly smack into the sides of rocks and buildings. Do so and you'll just change back and fall, to no great harm, but it dents your pride.
This early demonstration build had a single island to flit about, and one enormous temple to explore. The transition between the two elements of the game is quite striking. Outside is about freedom, exploring at your own leisure, looking for secrets and hidden areas, and generally shooting the breeze. Inside is on-foot, filled with danger, and requires your brain. Reminiscent of any number of third-person tomb adventures, you must align objects, find switches, bounce beams of light around chambers, and so on, while tiptoeing past threats and avoiding traps. The demo temple was surprisingly large and sprawling, which bodes well for the final game - large, elaborate confined puzzling will be just the counter to the open nature of the outside islands.
Each temple will be themed, I'm told, to the god it represents, which should also offer variety as you progress. And another element will be the main character's lantern - a magical item not only used to magic darkness away, but also reveal ghostly memories from the past, through which the game's story will be told.
It's hard to get a better impression of things at this early stage, but from a brief hands on, it's certainly already very charming. How much fun it is to explore, how much there is to do in each island cluster, and how satisfying those temples are to complete, will very much decide how well it all comes together.
Developer Forgotten Key has teamed up with Daedalic, more usually associated with developing and publishing adventure games. It'll be great if this extra investment, and the time it buys, can ensure the game be fleshed out enough to make best use of its elements. We've over a year to wait to find out. And to hopefully shake off the unfortunate uncanny similarity to Grow Home.