Developer: PM Studios
Release Date: November 16, 2005
"... A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. ... If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- for ever." -George Orwell, 1984
In a distant future, mankind has discovered a source of nigh-infinite energy in the form of a mineral called chroma. That power brought unlimited progress, and then spawned the doom of society in the form of a silent plague that killed without mercy anyone who lived outside the immediate vicinity of the chroma mines. No one has ever figured out why this power and this plague are so interconnected, mostly because no one has ever had the time to give it much thought. Humanity was bound at first through a united purpose: survival. Sadly, power corrupts, and what was left of earth split into several factions, all of which have since gone to war unending. In this time of militaristic brutality and savage enforcement of the status quo, no one may question the new world order. Obedience: the word as law. As ever, there are shades of grey that permeate the black and white. What happens if an elite son of the empire is enlightened despite the best efforts of the government? How do you suppress a flame set to a dry field? Can the basic drive for freedom be maintained forever? These are just a few of the questions that PM Studios attempt to touch on in Etrom: The Astral Essence, their debut PC action-role playing game.
Stylistically, Etrom can be roughly described as "Diablo meets 1984," which may illustrate why I chose to quote that chilling vision of the future to begin this critique. The gameplay mechanics are similar to Blizzard's venerable mouse-destroying action-RPG, but this game is set against a dystopian future, not medieval swords-and-sorcery. With this title, you play Etrom, a recently exiled solider who has found that everything he once valued is now hollow and empty after encountering a being he refers to as "the Astral Essence" while on a mission in the void-lands outside his precious city-states. This being of light has filled Etrom's head with visions and prophecies, leading him on a series of quests to unlock a massive hidden temple that conceals many secrets regarding reality that the state would just as soon keep secret.
He is one man versus what remains of the entire world, working to undo governmental tyranny and release spirituality back to the people. Along the way, Etrom must use every weapon at his disposal, from the munitions of modern warfare to a mystical psionic axe that seems to be a residual effect of the Astral Essence. This axe is elemental, and as you progress through the game, you will be able to upgrade its capabilities by opening up new facets of that primeval power: ice, lightning, and even the potency of blood; the astral axe will become infused with all of these and more. Etrom must also struggle with another side to his new world - an inner demon that he can tap on in times of extreme need. The transformation is startling; you become a massive-hoofed devil physically capable of crushing a tank, yet the longer you remain in this form, the greater the stress to your natural body. Push it too far, and you can even die. The will of the State does not include acceptance of a psychically sensitive half-demon who went renegade from the military and began a holy quest to abolish the carefully maintained balance of ignorance that's been in place for years. Etrom must die.
This may sound ambitious, and it is. The size, scope, and scale of Etrom is vast indeed. Sadly, PM Studios have over-extended itself on just about every level, and the spectacular potential of this game is but a phantasmal wisp in the wind. Mistakes, oversights, and poor design execution is prevalent from the moment you first load this game. Let's begin with the graphics: This is a 3D title, but it doesn't benefit from being such at all. The vehicle and character models are blocky, with an almost primitive low polygon count and little to no texture-mapping at all. Architectural models fare much better when it comes to textures but are even more box-like; highly detailed cubes are hardly more impressive than the plain NPC avatars. There is a rich bloom-lighting effect that does add a great deal to the overall polish of the world; turning it off leaves an extremely bland array of mono-chromatic tiles to stare at. However, this is an on/off feature and oftentimes, the bright glow it provides becomes blurry and difficult to look at. Finally, some graphics are just missing completely, like icons for power sets, such as invisibility.
One of the most important aspects of an action-RPG is avatar customization. Etrom has none at all; you cannot choose your name, your race, your sex, your hair, your eyes, nothing. Even once you're in the game itself, very little ever truly alters on your avatar. You have a magic psychic axe that has three different particle effects that cover all 13 of the powers available to it, and a grand total of three different armors: blocky chest plate, blocky chest plate with blocky legs, and blocky chest plate with blocky legs and a blocky helmet. I should mention that these do come with a stunning variety of colored stripes: red or blue. Etrom can also carry ranged weapons, but these don't have any more variety of models than the armor does: all pistols look identical, all chainguns look the same, etc. One reasons to continue playing a game like this is to see what cool new loots you'll get, but Etrom robs you of that joy by not including enough variance to your treasures to really make a difference.
Easily the single greatest flaw in Etrom is a combination punch: infinite re-spawns and the extremely poor travel system. Basically, all enemies refresh every time you zone out and back into an area. If, for some reason (like the desperate need to go re-stock on healing drugs because there simply isn't any other way to heal), you need to leave a sewer or other such "dungeon," you will have to re-fight your way through everything you cleared on the way in. It more or less breaks down like this: finish a mission all the way through the first time, or prepare to repeat yourself, very much against your will. My first agonizing exposure to this effect came after I spent approximately two and a half hours working through a lengthy underworld labyrinth, only to discover that PM Studios expected I would have any interest whatsoever in repeating all two and a half hours just getting back to where I was when I took a timeout to go sell and refresh my health juice. I believe the most polite way to express what I felt was "intense frustration."
Overall, I was exceptionally disappointed in Etrom. I wanted so desperately to love this game, as it seemed to have all the makings of a rich, rewarding play experience. (Post-apocalyptic dystopian future?? Sign me up!!) However, the ocean of poor design ideas slays all of the potential before it can even begin. I could forgive PM Studios if their only shortcoming was a failure to live up to their ambition, but in this game, they've tallied up a lengthy list of flaws that reads off like a spreadsheet of what not to do when coding a game: poor camera controls, no keyboard re-map functionality, lack of avatar variety, low-grade graphics, insufficient level variance, repetitious enemies, even more repetitious sewer crawls, no AI at all, and poor overall pacing on a general scale. This isn't even counting the bugs still crawling around, like the "vanishing ammunition" glitch that removes your ability to use a ranged weapon, the audio settings that don't save and need to be re-set every time you load the game, or even the powers that just don't work at all, like the "invisibility" power. In the end, I still applaud these stalwart developers for their superb backstory and written lore, but that is the only true plus to Etrom: The Astral Essence, and thus, I cannot recommend this game to discerning fans of the action-RPG genre.