STAFF REVIEW of Aeon Must Die! (Xbox One)

Monday, November 1, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Aeon Must Die! Box art Aeon Must Die is quite a unique beat-em-up, not really like many others I’ve experienced. A brawler at its core, you’ll be fighting against plenty of enemies all trying to stop you along the way in risk-versus-reward combat, a unique blend of balance of offence and defense. There’s so many ideas here that at times it can feel like Aeon Must Die lost track of what it was trying to be, as if it’s trying to do too many things at once. Certain things I really enjoyed, others I detested, so let’s get into it.

Aeon was the Emperor of the Void Armada, and I say "was" because he was overthrown and defeated, left for dead by his most trusted generals. Why was he betrayed? Why would his inner circle turn on him? You’re drip fed these answers throughout the twenty or so chapters along the way. With Aeon destroyed, he somehow survives in some form, almost like his soul or power, merging with a nameless husk called a Starspawn. With Aeon’s rage filled soul merged with your body, you now must work together to extract revenge for Aeon, but also find a mysterious entity, Nebula.

You’ll need to work together as you progress, as you still have some control of your body and mind, though that won’t last long as eventually it’s almost guaranteed that Aeon will take full control over your body, but more on that shortly. Aeon is on a revenge mission, and to get to his generals who betrayed him he’ll need to destroy anyone in his way, practically the whole city of Pantheon where he ruled over.

You don’t particularly enjoy the fact that Aeon has taken control over your body, yet you’re still conscious about it and constantly bicker and debate what you should do in situations. Forced on a path forward, you decide to work with one another for now, but every time you fall in battle, Aeon becomes closer and closer to shutting you out and taking complete control over your body. What begins as an interesting give-and-take internal battle, eventually it simply devolves into a revenge plot for Aeon extracting his revenge, but until that point you are able to decide who lives and dies if you manage to take down bosses before Aeon takes over your body completely.

There’s a surprising amount of dialogue that takes place between each chapter, and while I really did enjoy the premise, the writing itself seemed to drag on and on. Your goals and objectives as the Starspawn is really intriguing, but it eventually gets ignored once Aeon takes over, which is what happens once you die a handful of times. Not having the dialogue voiced made the whole experience fall flat as well, as there are a few parts where certain words are voiced, but that’s about it, and it's usually screaming and grunting. Given that its setup and plays out like comic book issues, I get its intention, but there’s so much to read that some voicing would have pulled me into the immersion a bit more.

In most beat-em-ups, you generally walk from one side of the screen to the other, bashing everyone’s heads in along the way. Aeon Must Die does things different though, instead having you fight one on one within a single static area as enemies take turns and swap as they all try to defeat you. It’s like being surrounded by a dozen enemies in a circle around you, but only one step in at a time to try and fight you instead of bombarding you for the easy defeat.

Combat is really the only thing to talk about here, but there’s so many mechanics in place that it’s really confusing, even after the opening tutorials. This isn’t a regular brawler, and if you try to simply spam your attacks and mash the buttons you’re not going to get anywhere. You also need to mix up your offence, as enemies will learn from the same moves being used over and over, also relying heavily on dashes and parries to survive.

The basis of combat revolves around your two different attacks, mapped to ‘X’ and ‘Y’. Your regular attacks fill a cold gauge at the bottom of the screen, where the more attacks you land with ‘X’, the closer to the left edge of the screen the bar fills. The same goes for your flame based attacks with ‘Y’, as if you use them too much in succession the bar will fill to the right of the screen. Why does this matter? When the bars fill completely to one side or the other, you become powerful in certain ways for a short period of time, but also leaves you susceptible to single-hit kills. You generally never want to fill the bar for the most part, so you need to constantly juggle cold and heat based attacks so you can’t get one-shot and die instantly.

On top of this, you also have to be defensive at all times, as you can get hit with some combos and take a lot of damage. Instead of your typical health bar above your and enemies’ heads, instead, getting hit further increases your heat or cold meter one way or the other. So attacking fills your bar, as does taking damage. It’s a really interesting design but it feels cumbersome to constantly juggle the different attack styles as well as having to be defensive with dashes to gain distance and parrying enemy attacks. The problem here is that dashing out of the way adds to the cold side of your meter, so if your bar is almost full and you need to dash out of the way from an attack that can’t be parried, you’re either going to take the damage, putting you in critical condition, or dashing which also fills your meter, also putting you in critical condition as well.

If you do fill your heat or cold meter, you don’t instantly die, but any attack during this phase will kill you, plus you’re unable to dash during this as well, so that’s why I suggest to try and avoid getting to this state whenever possible. There are enemies of different types, each having their own attack patterns and colors, but you’re constantly having to watch the bottom of your screen plus watching for enemy cues to time your parries that it’s all a bit hard to keep track of.

Even though you’re technically only fighting one enemy at a time, you’re not at the same time. The enemies on the outside don’t directly attack, but can assist their buddies in combat with special tag-like moves or place traps on the ground that you’ll almost guaranteed to walk over. The areas that you fight in are quite small, sometimes half the length when shields are placed down, not giving you a lot of breathing room to dodge and avoid certain attacks. Once you get the hang of combat after an hour or two it does become a little more manageable, though that goes all out the window when you reach certain bosses and generals that will kill you numerous times over.

There’s another interesting mechanic that had a good idea and basis, but in execution, needs a lot of rework to become useful. Instead of your typical 'lives', this is called “Purpose”. You begin with nine Purpose (lives), and each time you die, Aeon becomes closer and closer to consuming your will and completely taking over your body. If you lose all your Purpose, I rephrase, WHEN you lose all your Purpose and Aeon takes over, you do get the full suite of his movesets, but this also limits your narrative choices further in the game as Aeon can do whatever he wants now without you holding him back.

The Purpose system is a really interesting idea, and there are ways you can get Purpose back by completing levels with a certain rank or besting a boss that defeated you, but there’s generally no point, as the later bosses are so difficult I died dozens of times at each one. I know what you’re thinking, “git gud”, but I was unable to find anyone with the “good” ending where you complete Aeon Must Die with Purpose still, as you essentially get locked into Aeon’s ending once your Purpose is gone. That coupled with the achievement for even completing the game with Aeon’s ending (1%) is atrociously rare and a low percent, I’d love to see the ‘real’ ending one day (less than 1% of players have this).

The difficulty ramps up quite quickly, and once you lose all your Purpose the game does become easier to complete since there’s no real repercussions for dying anymore. Aeon is enteral after all, which I know because he says it every single time he’s resurrected. A mid-battle death doesn’t really matter, as you simply continue right where you left off. The only time you have to restart sections are during certain boss fights. I generally always look forward to boss fights as they’re usually a culmination of testing your skills that you’ve learned to that point and usually quite flashy and memorable. These boss fights against your generals are memorable, but only because you’ll never forget the frustration of dying dozens of times before figuring out how to actually defeat them. Coupled with Aeon’s generic goal of simple revenge, the dialogue between them isn’t all that compelling or interesting either.

What Aeon Must Die does get right is with its visual aesthetic and awesome electronic soundtrack. The artistic style is futuristic with sharp edged character designs and smooth hand drawn animations suit the comic book style binding it all together. While the soundtrack is good, the lack of voiced dialogue, especially when it’s very wordy at times, is more disappointing than anything. The little voicing there is generally has Aeon shouting, grunting or saying the few one-liners over and over again until the credits roll.

I even debated bringing this up in the review, but when doing my research about Aeon Must Die there was plenty to delve into, and I went down a deep rabbit hole. To say that there’s been drama and allegations during the developmental process is an understatement. I’m not going to go in-depth into it here, but I will say that it’s worth researching if the game does interest you to decide what you believe and whom to support.

I really do think there’s something unique here under the hood, but it feels like it just never came together in the way that was originally intended, which could be for many reasons. While I’m on the fence about recommending a purchase given the situation that is still yet unresolved, I’m not factoring any of this into the final score, simply judging it on the experience I had playing from start to finish, one that I was glad when the credits rolled instead of feeling accomplished due to its repetitiveness.

**Aeon Must Die was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 5.7 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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