Rivals of Aether Review
Whether you are for or against Nintendo in their business decisions, especially in recent years, no one can argue about their ability to create fantastic franchises. From Super Mario Bros. to The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo had set the mark for what is to be expected in a new series. One such series, introduced in 1999, is Super Smash Bros. released for the Nintendo 64. The game where you could fight with Nintendo’s iconic characters proved to be a huge hit, spawning sequels that have helped the franchise become one of the greatest video game series of all time. Naturally, many developers want in on the action and attempt to clone the game in their own way using their own characters; most of these did not pan out as well (*cough* Cartoon Network: Punch Time Explosion *cough*). Introducing Rivals of Aether, the latest “clone” to be released. Originally released in 2015 as an Early Access game on Steam, Rivals of Aether has now been officially released on PC, with an Xbox One release to come out in May. Does this game finally give Nintendo a run for their money? Probably not, but damn is this a great game.
Created by Dan Fornace (Super Smash Land, Killer Instinct (2013)), the game is essentially Super Smash Bros in 16-bit form, minus the Nintendo characters. While graphics are one of the few subject matters that mean little to me, the old-school look to this game reminded me of the good old days back on the Super Nintendo. You can tell that despite the limitations, the graphic designers turned simplicity into beauty, from the characters to the stages. While going for a retro look can be hit or miss, this game manages to pull it off.
Nothing matters about Rivals of Aether (or any fighting game, for that matter) unless the gameplay and controls are crisp. Without these, the game is a failure. I am pleased to say that the game passes both of these tests with flying colors. The gameplay is nearly identical to the Super Smash Bros. franchise: the higher an opponent’s percentage gets, the easier it will be to defeat them. To defeat an enemy, you send an opponent off the stage far enough to where they cannot recover. This formula is what made Nintendo’s franchise stand out from other traditional fighting games, and Rivals of Aether wanted to follow suit. Each character has an array of attacks from normal to strong to special attacks, each mapped to their own button. As opposed to a shield, players instead are allowed to parry attacks which are executed when a player defends themselves at the exact moment an attack would normally land. This puts the opponent in a minor stun to where they are vulnerable for a follow-up attack. All characters are able to air dodge and wall jump, aiding in their recoveries. Gone are ledge grabs in this game. These minor differences help give Rivals of Aether an identity. Not to mention that the controls are responsive, giving players little to no frustrations.
At release, the game offers eight characters and eleven stages, some of which will be unlocked through normal gameplay. Each character represents an animal that contains the power of an element. These characters range from a fire-breathing lion to an ice-wielding polar bear. Each character also has their own stage dedicated to them. All stages have two different forms: Aether mode and Basic mode. Aether mode shows off how creative the designers were when creating these stages, placing objects and stage hazards that are implemented well with the base stage. These stages range from a blazing fire temple to an air-ship in the sky. Basic mode is essentially the “Final Destination” mode of the stages, removing these stage hazards in order to create a more competitive aspect of the stage. The character and stage choices are limited, for now, but the developer has stated that he plans to release more characters and stages in the form of downloadable content. The characters and stages that are present, however, effectively build off of each other.
The game offers five main gameplay modes: Story Mode, Abyss Mode, Tutorial Mode Local Versus, and Online Versus. The story mode is reminiscent of a classic Mega Man game: you have six different storylines (one for each of the basic characters already unlocked) that are all tied together in some way, shape or form. Once all six storylines are completed, the final showdown is parallel to the storyline of Super Smash Bros. Brawl in that all six characters, fighting each other beforehand, work together in order to stop the final boss. While I will not spoil what happens, the storyline adds lore to these characters, the type of lore that would work well with any potential sequels. One minor gripe, I should say, is that the story mode is rather short. Each character’s stories will only take you a few minutes each to complete, and you could beat the story mode in as little as 30-45 minutes. I understand that Nintendo’s franchise has the same style in the sense of their Classic Mode. However, when I hear the phrase “Story Mode,” I expect just that: a story. The story is there, and the story is well done, but the story is short. The developers decided to add in medals and leaderboards for Story Mode. This adds some replay value, but only for grinding for better medals, faster leaderboard times, or Aether Coins, a currency used to unlock characters and stages.
Once you complete Story Mode for the first time, you are then automatically placed into Abyss Mode, a horde-like game mode where you go through wave after wave in order to go as far as you can. Each wave gives you a different task to complete, ranging from defeating ten weak enemies to defeating a “super-armor” character and mini-game-like waves such as staying in a circle of light as much as you can. The higher you go, the more difficult the waves get. Also, you only have one life and no items to heal yourself, so you better stay on your toes throughout. This endless game mode feels like something Nintendo should have already done. The one downside is that each run of the Abyss Mode is the same. Wave one will be the same every time. Wave nine will be the same every time. Wave 27 will be the same every time. While this is a good way to prepare yourself for what is to come (as you can choose which wave you want to start on), I would have preferred the waves to be random. That way, you will never know what is right around the corner. A minor flaw, however, as the game mode is still loads of fun.
Tutorial Mode will be the mode that many competitive players will enjoy, spending countless hours practicing their combos and tech chases. Tutorial Mode is exactly that: a tutorial. Here, you will find tutorials for how to play the game, as well as a practice mode to practice what you have learned. In this area, Rivals of Aether blows Nintendo out of the water. For starters, there are multiple tutorials to go through. There are beginners, intermediate, and advanced tutorials in offense, defense, and movement, as well as character-specific tutorials. These character-specific tutorials will help newcomers find which character best suits their playstyles as well as teach them specific move sets and combos for said character. The practice mode also offers something that Nintendo fails to do: more customization on the AI. In practice mode, you can determine how much the enemy will DI (directional input) your attacks, how often the enemy will tech your moves, and whether the enemy will tech towards or away from your attacks. This simple option is a game changer for competitive players and newcomers alike, as they can adapt their attacks and combos to specific movements from their opponents.
Local Versus and Online Versus will be the main attraction for this game. In Local Versus, players are able to fight in a two-to-four player battle to see who reigns supreme. These battles can be a free-for-all or a team battle. If no one else is available, players can opt to play with a computer AI. One thing to note is that the game offers something that more and more games are straying away from; couch co-op and couch versus. The fact that you are able to play with your friends in the same room on the same console is a major plus for this project. Another great feature is what the community calls a “button check.” While your opponent is still choosing their character, you are able to test your movements and buttons to make sure everything is synced up. In the competitive scene, this will save time at venues. In the casual scene, this will give players something to do while they wait. Both Local and Online Versus give you the option to ban stages to play on. This is a great feature for competitive play, as a visual on which stages are available for your choosing is greatly beneficial. Casual players, however, may just see this as a minor feature they might not even use. During my experiences with the online aspect, I had little to no troubles finding someone to play against. There was only one match in which the battle lagged, but Dan Fornace placed another simple but great feature: you are able to see how strong your opponent’s internet connection is. This is great because, with this feature, you are able to see if your opponent does not have a strong connection or if you are just bad at the game. All other online matches ran just as smooth as if I played the game offline.
Dan Fornace did such a splendid job with this game. From a project that began in 2014, the time and effort put into this project truly shows. There are a few minor tallies against the game for the single-player modes, but they are definitely not deal-breakers. The gameplay is addictive, the online runs smoothly, and the single-player modes are great additions. But the plethora of small features, from button checks to the tutorials, show how much passion the developers and creators have for this game. Also, the game has a thriving eSports community that is growing day by day, tournament by tournament. With Fornace stating that more content will be released in the game’s lifetime, the game can only go up from here. I do not personally see this a game that will kill the Super Smash Bros. franchise, but Rivals of Aether is certainly a game that can hold its own. Now, if you will excuse me, Wrastor and I need to defeat some more people online.