The Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace continues to explode by leaps and bounds as each day passes. The advantage to this growth is that a genre that might be underrepresented one day can suddenly have a healthy library in a few weeks' time. Take, for example, the RPG. In just a few short months, the genre has grown from one game to being close to 10. Despite the number of games for the genre, the best one on the XBLI service remains Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, an early title that uses an old formula and tweaks it enough so that it's much more enjoyable than the games that served as its inspiration. Recently, Lunatic Games has brought out an RPG that hopes to stand side-by-side with the indie classic. Aphelion: Episode 1 - Graves of Earth might not be able to dethrone the current king of the Xbox Live Indie Games RPG scene, but it does a good job of being a good RPG.
The plot basics are fairly standard even for a sci-fi RPG. Far in the future, the people of Earth and its first space colony have had a peace agreement in place for quite some time. During one of the peace talks on the colony's cities, a surprise attack was launched by the Crimson, a robotic race bent on the destruction of humans throughout the universe. You play the role of Savion, a private in the colonial army who's been sent to check out the disturbance. Throughout the six-hour game, you'll pick up more members to your party and uncover a conspiracy that involves more than just the Crimson.
If you're familiar with any of the JRPG games from the PSOne era, especially ones that do away with overworld maps, you'll be familiar with the basic mechanics of Aphelion. You have a view of the battlefield, complete with random items strewn all over the place, and enemy encounters occur randomly — with the exception of boss fights. In combat, you're presented with a standard layout, with enemies occupying one side of the screen and the heroes on the other. A chart on the upper right of the screen shows how many turns a character has and the order in which turns will occur. Any hits being given or taken helps to fill up a bar labeled Break. When you initiate a Break attack, every party member unleashes his or her own powerful attack combos on the selected enemies. Special moves have Energy Points governing them, while the player's health is determined first by Shield Points then by Energy Points.
Aphelion features a few different hooks that put it on par with some of the bigger RPGs in terms of what the player can do. You have the ability to craft items, so you can pick up elements along the way and transform them into new weapons and shields for your party; you can also create key items to progress the story. There's also the presence of optional boss fights outside of the story path, and a coliseum exists for the sole purpose of giving players a challenge while grinding.
For those who beat the game, there's New Game+, which lets you play the story mode all over again, but your characters retain their powers and levels from the previous playthrough. There is also a variable difficulty level, should you feel that the game is too easy. Finally, the leveling system gives you attribute points as each character levels up, so you can control whether the points should be spent on something beneficial for the individual character or the entire group.
That last point about the leveling system becomes one of the game's major setbacks. In the grand scheme of things, the personal stats that get leveled don't seem to be too beneficial. The later levels start bringing in substantial benefits for each character, but considering how much grinding it takes to get to that level, most players will be spending their time beefing up passive effects, such as small shield increases after every move or an increase in how many moves a character can take before the enemy attacks. Even then, the stat increases are almost inconsequential because the passive effects are so powerful that you could easily beat most enemies before they can lay a finger on you.
This segues into the title's other setback: the Break attack. The attack is great and powerful, but it remains a flaw because it can be unleashed without penalty. For example, if your team has three turns before the opponent attacks, you can perform two attacks, unleash the Break attack, and, if the enemy army isn't dead yet, then use the final turn to perform another attack or healing move. It takes away from the strategy in using the attack. Since multiple attack moves and combos fill up the Break bar quickly, it makes almost all of the fights easier than they should be. Combined with the abundance of healing items, you'll soon realize that the balance favors you significantly more, making the title a struggle only if you aren't paying attention to your party stats or combat situation.
Like any good RPG, the controls in Aphelion are intuitive. As expected, the controls are rather responsive, but there are a few things that seem to be curiously absent. The first is a cancel button during combat and during point distribution. Once you select a move, even by accident, you're forced to go through with the choice; RPGs are slowly moving away from this mechanic. The missing cancel button also becomes an annoyance when you accidentally distribute a point to a category you didn't want to power up in the first place. The other curiosity is with the menu system, which doesn't let you go between choices in a sub-menu. For example, if you want to update the abilities for two of your characters, you have to first manipulate one character and then back out all the way to the primary menu before navigating your way forward again to the second character. Being able to select different characters in sub-menus would have made the experience a bit smoother in execution.
The graphics are immediately arresting for both good and bad reasons. The character designs which are anime-like in appearance, and they definitely make the game stand out. There isn't an abundance of characters with large eyes, but the unnatural hair colors and costume choices make one think of games like Star Ocean or Phantasy Star Universe. The environments match the style perfectly, and some places like the Earth forest at night, look great thanks to the use of lighting and transparent textures. The colors used throughout the game are bright, also lending to the anime-like look, but can become distracting in some environments. The space station, for example, has such bright colors that some of the NPCs can blend in rather easily.
Animations almost look good, if it weren't for a few things. The running animation looks "off" since it goes fast, but plenty of steps are taken to cover very little ground. Combat animations look nice until you notice that some animation frames are missing, making you wonder if the development team was trying to go for a more sprite-based system instead of a polygonal one, since missing frames in sprite games are more accepted than polygonal ones. Finally, there's the interface, which looks very clean but contains small fonts and combat arrows that are hard to see unless you really concentrate on the screen.
The sound has a few issues that keep it from being flawless. The issues come from the effects, which sound underpowered and, at times, late. The first fight shows that even though your plasma sword makes contact with the enemy, it's not until the sword swing ends that we get the hit sound. The sounds for rifle shots and sword impacts also seem to lack any impact. They're serviceable but won't exactly get you involved in the game. What will get you involved, however, is the soundtrack. The score is high-quality material and perfectly suitable to every level from beginning to end. Very few indie games pay much attention to how good the score can be, and Aphelion should be applauded for making sure that it sounds as good as it looks.
There is already word that a sequel is in the works for Aphelion: Episode 1 - Graves of Earth. On one hand, this should be expected since it is being billed as an episodic RPG, but on the other hand, the nature of indie gaming doesn't always mean that anything is guaranteed. This is a good sign since the game is quite enjoyable. There are some technical issues to overcome, some balancing needed for fights, and some improvements that need to be made for item shopping. However, the pacing and quality everywhere else show developer's commitment to creating a standout experience. If you've become a fan of the smaller RPG experiences on the Indie Games service, be sure to pick up Aphelion.
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