The sensibilities of rhythm and shoot ’em up gameplay have been blended successfully on more than one occasion in the past, with Harmonix’s Amplitude and United Game Artists’ Rez both serving as popular examples. It seemed like a passing fad of the early 2000’s, but the idea seems to be making a comeback over the past little while, considering that both Amplitude and Rez saw high-profile revivals recently. With nostalgia setting in for this experimental form of gameplay, it’s naturally not surprising that a debuting developer has taken advantage of Kickstarter crowdfunding to bring their own spin to the idea. Enter U.K.-based indie game studio, Mad Fellows, and their Kickstarter-approved rhythm-based rail shooter, Aaero.
Even being built from some familiar parts, Aaero adds an especially solid amount of freshness and polish to the idea of blasting foes while keeping a beat. The modern popularity of electronic dance music, or EDM for short, also seems to make this kind of gameplay feel more relevant than ever in 2017. Like any rhythm-based shoot ’em up worth its salt, Aaero is packing a superb licensed EDM soundtrack that’s just as cool and satisfying as its fast-paced gameplay too!
On the flip side, Aaero is certainly not for the impatient or the unfocused, since the game is quite challenging, even on the default difficulty setting, and only gets tougher with every step of progress. It is addictive for those willing to appreciate it however, especially since even failed runs will at least treat you to some standout EDM tunes. If you believe you’re up to the challenge, Aaero will keep you busy improving your scores across its handful of stages for quite a while. This is a game that comes highly recommended to fans of both EDM and arcade-style shooting that don’t mind the difficulty, with no shortage of challenges to achieve and scores to chase, even if you might wish that the tracklist was a bit more extensive at the same time.
Aaero’s visual assets are fairly modest on their own, unfolding in something of a retro-chic polygonal style that effectively calls back to the Dreamcast/PS2 era that saw the rise of Rez and Amplitude. The game does sport plenty of stylish polygonal and lighting effects though, adding a lot of dazzling charm to successful shots and accurate skimming of the liberal beat ribbons that populate each level. It’s a smart visual design setup that provides enough flash and polish, without taxing the Unity Engine on unnecessary rendering demands.
Naturally, this focused and intelligent graphical template also ensures that Aaero runs at a slick and uninterrupted 60fps on all three of its hosted platforms, ensuring constant smooth and stylish game performance without a lick of slowdown! There’s no recognizable compromises made between PC and consoles either, with the PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions all looking and performing pretty much identically to each other. There are rare instances of hard freezes during load times between stages and the main menu, which only seem to occasionally occur after a while of extended play, but that’s about the only graphical hiccup that may cause issues for some.
Be advised as well that the PC version of Aaero demands a lot of RAM and processing power to effectively run, despite otherwise small-scale system requirements, and certain mid-range and budget rigs may struggle to keep up with the game’s performance demands. If you’re unsure about your computer setup and would rather completely avoid that potential issue, both console versions offer the exact same visual experience without the headaches, so you may want to stick with one of them for the most comfortable experience, especially since Aaero’s PC version forces you to play with a controller anyway.
Considering the simple visual assets though, Aaero nonetheless manages an effectively varied and distinct set of stage backdrops, making each song in the soundtrack feel especially distinct with the obstacles they throw at the player. The small handful of boss battles feel especially noteworthy, pitting huge polygonal beasties against the player that force them to furiously uphold a rhythm, lest the boss escape if they’re not fast enough. The blend of fantastical light and colour displays combines well with the stylized polygons, making Aaero almost feel like a classic gaming-inspired music video throughout its stages. It’s like your arcade memories were mashed together with a trendy night club, and it’s certainly very effective at giving Aaero a sharp sense of style!
The soundtrack of Aaero is just as important as the gameplay, considering its efforts to blend rhythm and shooting sensibilities. If the songs were no good, then the quality of the game design would be practically irrelevant. Fortunately, Aaero’s soundtrack is a joyous helping of impeccable EDM compositions, offering about fifteen licensed EDM songs to serve as the backdrop of its stages, along with a background electronica tune for the main menu. This is a bit scant, considering that each stage is only the length of a song, with each song being anywhere from 3-5 minutes in length, but I suppose that there’s something to be said about quality over quantity.
The rest of the audio work in Aaero is fairly limited, allowing its soundtrack to completely shoulder its audio in almost all respects. Small sound cues will play for successful destruction of enemies and shooting of ‘Secret’ collectibles, but beyond that, every element of Aaero is carried by its music, which manages to easily tell you on its own exactly how well or poorly you’re playing. The EDM compositions will fade out and become disturbed if you fail to keep your ship on the rhythm ribbon in various stages for example, just as destroying enemies on cue will add more bass and punch to each song. This effectively involves players in the artistry on display, and also succeeds at making Aaero just as much fun to watch and listen to as it is to actually play. If you love great EDM music, then Aaero will definitely sport one of the best licensed soundtracks in any video game released this year for you!
Playing Aaero is incredibly simple, with each stage being played using just the two sticks and a shoulder button on a controller. As I mentioned, you don’t even have the option of playing with a mouse and keyboard on PC either, since Aaero’s PC version won’t let you past the title screen if you don’t have a gamepad plugged in. Fortunately, if you are opting to play on PC, the PC version seems to support both Xbox 360/Xbox One controllers and PS4 controllers with no hassle. Both Xbox controllers and a Dual Shock 4 serve as equally comfortable playing options that handle well with Aaero to boot, so you can’t go wrong either way, and that’s obviously also true in the case of opting for either the PS4 version or the Xbox One version.
The objective of Aaero is to have your ship proceed along an on-rails stage for the length of an EDM song, as it runs afoul of various enemies and obstacles. You use the left stick on your controller to steer the ship, while the right stick aims a target reticule, which automatically locks on to any enemies, projectiles or collectibles that you move it across, with a tap of the right shoulder button launching missiles to obliterate anything you’ve locked on to. As long as you effectively keep rhythm and lock on to enemies and their own missiles, as well as fly around any oncoming obstacles, your ship should be safe, though one hit from anything will destroy it, eating up one of your extra lives. If all of your lives run out before a stage has concluded, then you’ll fail the stage, and must re-attempt it.
This style of gameplay is simple on paper, and it’s certainly easy to just pick up and play, even for less initiated gamers, considering the simplicity of its inputs. The sharp, uncompromising design of Aaero is very much hard to master however, with the game tasking players to make use of the simple controller inputs by having their ship skim along rhythmic ribbons that mimic pitch in the EDM songs, while also shooting down any enemies and missiles with properly-timed right stick movements and shoulder button presses, to emulate bass and percussion. If you keep the beat, then you should keep your ship safe, but if you fire off missiles at the wrong instances, or find yourself failing to fly your ship at the right angles, even just briefly, then you’ll find yourself burning through lives pretty quickly.
As previously mentioned, Aaero doesn’t pull punches with its difficulty either! Right from the start of the game, it throws a lot of fast-paced rhythm challenges at you, necessitating at least some degree of strong reflexes and aptitude with keeping a beat. If you don’t possess both, you’re going to have a very tough time with Aaero, especially in its positively punishing later stages! In fact, it might have been prudent for Aaero to soften the challenge at least a wee bit on the default ‘Normal’ setting in some places, with its default difficulty level serving as more of an automatic ‘Hard Mode’ that throws you right into the deep end, rather than a true ‘Normal Mode’. If you’re not looking for a stark challenge, then Aaero probably isn’t for you!
As difficult as the game can be though, the challenge is satisfying and addictive, especially since Aaero does a good job of rewarding practice. After a few runs at a particularly tough stage, you’ll start learning the beats of the song and anticipating obstacles, which will get you that much closer to victory. Watching a player play the game well is a genuinely awesome experience too, making Aaero a great game to stream for a wide online audience, should you become skilled enough at it!
Keeping ribbon accuracy and successfully shooting down enemies at the right intervals will all contribute to boosting your Score Multiplier, which nets you greater increments of points, so long as you don’t die. If you do die, you don’t lose points, though your Score Multiplier ends up considerably reduced, making it harder to amass Stars for every stage that you clear. Completing a stage will net you anywhere from one to five potential Stars, depending on your final score, and Stars are necessary for more than achievements/trophies as well! You’ll need a certain amount of Stars to unlock subsequent stages, and if you find yourself not earning enough of them, then you’ll be barred from progressing further, until you replay former stages and increase your overall Star count.
Even after you’ve completed every stage, blasted away all 100 ‘Secret’ collectibles, and earned Five-Star rankings on each level however, Aaero’s challenges are not yet done. In fact, you’re just getting started! Earning at least 90% of the Stars on Normal Mode will unlock an Advanced Mode that toughens up the gameplay even more, while offering even more Stars to collect! Only by collecting every Star on both Normal Mode and Advanced Mode can you unlock the especially prestigious Master Mode, which cranks the punishment to maximum, and will devour players alive if they have anything less than god-like skill! Naturally, it will take quite a lot of time, dedication and skill to complete all of Aaero’s challenges, which includes a brutal achievement/trophy list that also demands nothing less than perfection to get any degree of serious completion out of!
As much as the addictive, wonderfully painful challenge will keep you coming back to try and up your score and rankings just a little bit further though, there’s no denying that the overall package of Aaero is a little anemic. If you do have enough skills, playing through every available stage will only take you around a couple of hours, leaving you with no other choice but to keep replaying the same handful of songs to continue boosting your scores, and hoping to earn more accomplishments. If you’re the kind of player that savours the opportunity to continually push your skills to the limit in the eternal quest for self-improvement, that’s well and good, but if you’re hoping for a wealth of varied content, Aaero does run out of stages and tunes after a disappointingly short while.
Still, the addictive grind for more points will appeal to the right audience, especially when Aaero is quite tough, but also perfectly fair in virtually all instances. Even if you’ll wish there was a bit more to the game’s content, the developers also didn’t bite off more than they could chew in their first effort, focusing on perfecting the handful of stages that are present, rather than creating a lengthy campaign that might have eventually lost momentum. If you so choose, you can also activate a ‘Chillout Mode’ that takes away the need to chase points, and will simply allow you to practice on any songs that you have unlocked, giving you an ideal way to just focus on enjoying Aaero’s atmosphere and soundtrack. Perhaps an actual ‘Easy Mode’ would have been better, but at least those who struggle with the challenge will have some means of deactivating it, for as long as they don’t mind not progressing further.
Aaero doesn’t suffer amateurs, so you’d better bring your rhythmic A-game if you want to play it, despite how outwardly simple the controls and objectives are. If you can handle the intense challenge behind mastering the game however, you’ll find an exceptionally rewarding and highly enjoyable love letter to rhythm-based arcade shooters of the past, one that also carries a lot of smart and stylish modern polish. The consistently smooth and speedy play performance and thoroughly fantastic EDM soundtrack also ensure that the experience is never less than sublime in motion either, making Aaero a constant delight for the senses, even when you struggle with it.
The game doesn’t command too high a price either, standing at $14.99 USD, which helps to make its disappointingly small track/stage list a bit easier to swallow. There also isn’t any noteworthy difference between the available PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions of Aaero, as all of them boast the same speedy, engaging play performance, and simple, yet flashy visual design. The PC version does have a few exclusive caveats to consider though, considering that it doesn’t support mouse-and-keyboard controls at all, and requires both a high-end processor and large RAM count to effectively run. The PS4 version or Xbox One version might be slightly more recommendable due to the fact that they don’t have these caveats that you’ll run into on PC, but if your computer has enough muscle, and you don’t mind being forced to use a gamepad, you’re still getting the same great experience if you opt to play Aaero on Steam.
Aaero may be a bit wanting for raw content, emphasizing replayability over sheer length, but it definitely cements the early pedigree of developer, Mad Fellows, a small studio that boldly claims under its logo that it is the, “Purveyor of the Finest Video Games.” In the realm of cool tunes and fast-paced arcade action, I suppose the shoe does fit. I’d like to see the studio go a bit bigger with their sophomore offering, but it’s nonetheless satisfying to see that, if Aaero is any indication, Mad Fellows does possess the requisite talent to back up their confident slogan!
This review is based on an Xbox One copy of, “Aaero”, provided by Reverb Inc.
- Fantastic licensed EDM soundtrack
- Addictive, fast-paced score-chasing that rewards dedication
- Flashy, stylish polygonal presentation
- High difficulty can be excessive, even on the default Normal setting
- Small soundtrack/stage roster