I love RPGs, but sadly, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from in this genre on XBox Live Indie Games, especially when you consider that the service is almost two years old. There’s our game, Breath of Death VII. There’s Light’s End which is decent and sort of an RPG (although despite its RPG-esque visuals, it really has more in common with the old graphic adventure games that Lucasarts & Sierra used to make). There’s Dungeon Adventure which is supposed to be a decent rogue-like (but all things considered, I’d rather just play Nethack for free). Then you have Star Cross, ZenHak, and Legend of the Rune Lords, all of which have major issues. And that was pretty much it for the RPG genre on XBLIG, up until yesterday when Aphelion: Episode One – Graves of Earth came out.
Aphelion looks great. It’s by far the most professional looking RPG on XBLIG and wouldn’t look out of place on XBox Live Arcade. It’s not perfect, and the indie nature of the game peeks through here and there (like in the running animations which feel out of place), but overall, the visuals are one of the game’s strongest points.
The music is solid. Everything ranges from decent to good, with one or two great song. No complaints here.
Story is a mixed bag. The banter between the 4 playable characters is entertaining enough and their personalities are about as fleshed out as you would expect with a 5 hour game. On the other hand, the plot is fairly cliche. Yes, the big bad guy of the game is a mysterious silver-haired swordsman. No, Aphelion isn’t going for parody. Even worse, though, is that since this is an episodic game, there’s no real resolution. The game ends with a climactic battle, but it felt like I had just finished disk 1 of a 4 disk game. Nothing is answered and I didn’t feel like I understood the overarching plot any better after beating the game than I did halfway through the game. Plus, since this is an indie game, who knows if the future episodes will ever get finished?
Gameplay has serious balance issues. There’s a Break bar that fills up as you deal damage or are hurt and after it’s full, you can unleash a crazy powerful attack that can target multiple enemies, deals massive damage, and doesn’t even cost a turn. It’s as broken as it sounds, especially when you consider how quickly you can fill up the bar later on in the game after you’ve gotten several multi-hit techniques. Sadly, the unbalanced gameplay doesn’t stop there. Restoration items are dirt cheap so I was never in danger of running out of EP (the game’s form of MP) so I just unleashed my strongest attacks & spells all of the time. Because of this, random battles would frequently be won before the enemy even got a chance to move. Similarly, I rarely used healing magic in battle since I could just use one of my many powerful Full Party heal items.
The game uses a fun LV-Up system similar to Mass Effect, but here too, the game is unbalanced – each character has 3 skills that they can upgrade to gain new abilities, 3 skills that give party benefits, and several additional skills that just give stat bonuses. The problem is that the stat bonus skills give such small bonuses like +2% per level. Admittedly, these add up over time, but it’s just not very fun to waste a LV-Up on something that has no real discernable effect on your character.
There are a couple annoyances that detract from the game. Random encounters are frequent. Font sizes are rather small, to the point where I leaned forward slightly to make it easier to read. I’m playing on a high quality 32″ HDTV so I can only imagine how difficult it would be to play on a small low quality SDTV. These problems don’t render the game unplayable, but they do make the game a little less fun.
The game took me a little over 5 hours to beat. After beating the game, you unlock a New Game+ mode that lets you restart the game at new, harder difficulty levels while keeping your LVs and equipment from your previous playthrough(s). Between that and a few optional harder bosses near the end of the game, Aphelion could keep you playing for quite a while if you’re so inclined.
Despite Aphelion’s flaws, I had some fun with it. Not enough for me to want to replay the game (although I’m mildly tempted to try skipping straight to the highest difficulty level in New Game+ to see if it offers a challenge), but I had fun getting new equipment (the game has a ton of equipment for a 5 hour game) and utterly decimating everything that stood against me. There were a couple of parts where your party splits up for a short period of time which were kind of cool and a nice change of pace. On the other hand, I can’t help but be disapointed by Aphelion. It’s obvious that many people spent a lot of time making this game so it’s disappointing that the gameplay and story aren’t up to the same high level of quality that the graphics exhibits.
Aphelion: Episode One – Graves of Earth was released on July 7th, 2010. It can be purchased for 240 MS points ($3 USD).
EDIT: This review was done based on a peer review version of the game which had horrible load times. I just tried out the version that you can purchase on the marketplace and I was shocked to discover that the load times are drastically better and are actually rather short, all around. I’m really surprised that there was such a huge difference between the ccg file version that people were playtesting & peer reviewing and the version on the marketplace. I’m sure my overall impression of the game would have been slightly more positive if I had played the version with the short load times.