When a new game is released in Early Access status on Steam, it will usually be there indefinitely. Very few of them ever make it out to their full 1.0 build, let alone have continuous support from the development team behind it. Enter Dan Fornace, of Super Smash Land (the Smash Bros. demake fan game) and Killer Instinct (2014 reboot on Xbox One) fame. He had the vision to make a proper spiritual successor to Super Smash Bros. which actually respects the competitive fighting game community and utilization of advanced techniques hidden within all of the playable characters. Initially launched in Early Access back in late 2015, Dan and his team saw his vision through Rivals of Aether, which had its first step into full release on March 28, 2017.
To catch the people up who haven’t played or heard of Rivals of Aether, it is a platforming fighter where the objective is to attack your opponent, get them up to a significant enough damage value and then hit them off the stage’s boundaries. It plays very similarly to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series, but with a unique cast of characters, called “Rivals”, and a couple of changes to the core formula: parries instead of shields, and no more ledge grabbing as a recovery option when trying to get back on stage. Otherwise, the gameplay is nearly identical down to the recommended controller being the Nintendo Gamecube controller; the de facto controller used in the Super Smash Bros. competitive scene.
Having played Rivals of Aether since its Early Access release, I was very impressed with the amount of content that was added in the full release. A full (albeit short) Story Mode, a wave based Abyss Mode, a relatively respectable Tutorial Mode, and earnable currency to unlock things on top of the solid Versus and Online modes the game featured previously. Additionally, Leaderboards have been implemented for all of the major modes, granting the most competitive players more challenges to conquer. The currency, as mentioned before, is rewarded at the end of each battle whether single player or multiplayer, win or loss, online or offline. It is used to unlock two additional characters (who were removed from the list of initially playable characters in the Early Access build), stages, and various items for enhancing the Rival in specific modes; more on that later.
The Story Mode has the player pick one of the original six Rivals and fight against five CPU controlled opponents in a Super Smash Bros. “Classic Mode” inspired gauntlet. A short story segment related to the chosen character plays in between all of the fights explaining the reason for fighting the last Rival in the chain of opponents. Some of the stories seem hamfisted and rushed, but it’s passable as this isn’t “Rivals of Aether: A Telltale Game”. They all tell of a purple blight which is infecting the land of Aether, leading representatives from each of the main races to investigate it. This leads to all of the Rivals making knee-jerk reactions, immediately challenging the first person who isn’t of their race to a battle, and I’m always down for a flashy fire-tiger vs land-whale battle as a result of bad judgement calls. After clearing all six stories, the Competitors of the Elements Rivals meet in the middle of the world map, the Aethereal Gates, to face off against shadowy creatures responsible for the purple infection. No other explanation needed, this final boss fight should be huge and really tough- Oh… It’s already done. After a laughably easy fight against two purple, laser-happy eyeballs, which apparently are the root of the entire world’s suffering, Aether is safe and everyone is happy. When all was said and done, the game presented my final Story Mode time score (22 minutes) proceeded by the credits of the game with a fun break the targets themed minigame. Just as you think you’re going to be sent back to the main menu when the credits end, the screen pans down quickly and all of a sudden you’re in control of the character you selected for the fight with the death-eyeballs along with a prompt: “Enemies Left: 10”; Welcome to Abyss Mode.
Abyss Mode is an endless departure into the depths of the land of Aether where you must complete waves of challenges which vary from beating a swarm of enemies, staying within a spotlight, not touching the ground, besting armoured enemies, fighting Purple Eyeball McLaser Bros again, and others similar to those. The objective is to survive to the furthest wave while collecting experience points, which are rewards for beating each challenge. The experience points level up the controlled Rival, unlocking Rune Slots which you purchase Runes for using the game’s currency. The skills are character specific and range from enhancing moves, adding new movement options or overall buffing the character. The Abyss Mode makes for a great break from the standard battle modes while allowing you an opportunity to get better at controlling your favourite Rivals. That being said, the Runes offer an interesting RPG element, but they could make the player reliant on them, which could be an issue as they cannot be used in standard play.
I wouldn’t normally discuss a Tutorial Mode in a game, however Rival of Aether’s Tutorials left such a lasting impression on me that I felt I was obligated to. It is broken down into basic, intermediate, advanced, and character specific sections. The first three cover all of the main movement, defensive, and offensive options that are available to every character. These range from parries and dodging, all the way to directional influence and wave dashing. The character specific tutorials cover moves that only apply to one character, as the name implies, but require precise controller inputs from the player. Some of them get quite difficult to pull off as the timing window requires frame perfect inputs. All of this is presented with an AI character named Orby who gladly will act as a combat dummy for you (but who could also be the strongest character in the game) in a computer simulation themed environment. The thing that really stood out to me is the true acknowledgement and encouraging use of “advanced tech”, or high-level competitive techniques. Nintendo has a history of playing dumb to the advanced tech within the Smash Bros. games and being difficult towards the competitive scenes which rely on these techniques to exist. It’s really refreshing to see a game that has implemented these moves be upfront about using them and promoting high-level play, because that what this game is: the platforming fighter that seriously wants its competitive scene to thrive.
The Online Mode has seen some serious upgrades since the Early Access days. What used to be a very haphazardly implemented beta of a feature with constant lag spikes and even more disconnections, has now become one of the better online implementations in a fighting game I think I’ve played. When booting up the mode initially, it asks you to select a server closest to your global proximity. I assume this is to narrow down potential opponents to ones closest to you to eliminate unnecessary lag. That being said you can choose to fight people in your friends list regardless of the distance between you. While battling online, a connection meter is constantly visible to monitor the quality of the connection between you and your combat partner. From my experience, as long as your connection value stays above a 70, the gameplay remains smooth and there is negligible input lag. You can play in either ranked or exhibition modes where playing in the former contributes to your global ranking based on your wins and losses and the latter is a free-for-all mode. Either way, it seems like everyone has mastered their characters regardless of the mode as I got absolutely decimated in most matches I played online.
The music and sound design in Rivals of Aether is spot on, perhaps some of the best I’ve heard in a long time. Engineered by flashygoodness, each song in the extensive tracklist is an energy filled, chiptune infused tracks with an extra serving of omfg-this-is-amazing. They each add to the vigor required for a fighting game and help make each stage come alive with character. These are the kind of tracks I could hear myself rocking out to on a daily basis. In fact as soon as the soundtrack becomes available for purchase I will be picking it up. All of the sound effect fit perfectly whether in game or in menus as well and lend themselves to the impressive sound work found here. In the end, I have to give the sound design a perfect score.
Aesthetically, the game features pixel art for all of the characters, stages, menus, and effects. I’ve heard some people say that a fighting game with low-bit pixel art for its characters detracts from the presentation and overall quality of being able to track the action and moves from your opponents. I can see the argument in some cases, but wholeheartedly disagree when it comes to Rivals of Aether, as it’s a perfect example as to how it can be done properly. The pixel work here is done very well and the characters are animated beautifully. The colour choices and palettes selected are also great as I can’t recall a time where I lost my character in the background or foreground, nor did I ever feel there was too much going on in the screen space to feel visually overwhelmed. Dan Fornace and his team struck a very nice design balance here and still images just don’t do it justice.
Rivals of Aether is available for the Xbox One and PC (via Steam).
Thanks to Dan Fornace for providing InformedPixel with a digital review copy!