AER: Memories of Old is a perfectly fine game. It does many things that can make it a good game—it’s just missing that “secret sauce” that actually makes it a good game.
Small teams can do big things. For example, Super Meatboy was originally developed by a two-man team, N++ was another two-person team (four people, if you include the feline corporate fat cats), and both were award-winning indie games. Of course, this list could go on. So at this point in videogame history, it’s no big surprise when good things come out of small studios. And this was my initial response to AER: Memories of Old when I first played it at Gamescom 2017. Unfortunately, by the time I finally played it in full, the expectation for greatness I had built up in my mind wasn’t exactly fulfilled. Not to say that AER is a bad game—it’s still worth playing for a lot of reasons I’ll get into—it just kind of fell short.
AER: Memories of Old was made by Forgotten Key: a team of five out of Sweden. It started out as a team of four students of the Blekinge Institute of Technology. Over the course of five years, this team set out to create an open world game with a heavy focus on exploration. The studio mandate is to create atmospheric games, and they achieved that.
AER is set in a beautiful world with gorgeous illustrations. The hexagonal character design makes for graceful AI interactions and kinetic movement throughout the gameplay. The stylised, airy environment creates an immersive experience with its sunset hues, dark, claustrophobic caves, and crystaline-fantasy caverns. It creates the feeling of warmth and cold progressively as you move throughout the different regions. You feel exactly the way you should in each space, from the sunny, friendly homestead (those baby sheep that follow you around with hearts over their heads made me squeal with joy), to the frost-bitten cave of the Bear that made me physically shiver when I entered it. Although the details were sporadic and spaced out, the ones found were eye-catching and made me want a closer inspection.
The soundtrack that perfectly punctuated AER: Memories of Old was calm and peaceful. It never became repetitive, and when I was getting really annoyed with the quests in the temples, it was probably the only reason I didn’t shut the game off and give up mid-playthrough. It had a light, tranquil quality that matched the mood, mechanics, theme, and art style—but wasn’t memorable. I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I write this, listening to REO Speedwagon, which is kind of overpowering my musical memory to be fair. But at no point after I turned off the game could I recall one song from the game. Honestly, that doesn’t matter, because at the time, it built the ambience so successfully that I didn’t need to recall the music because it made it so easy to recall the feeling of each place I visited.
The vastness and weightlessness of the environment felt even more expansive through the character’s movement. On the ground, the main character glides and jumps as if she is unrestrained by gravity. This is in part due to her ability to shapeshift into a bird in the open world. She uses this ability to fly through the shattered sky islands. And it’s a really fun way to get around, although slowing down is difficult which makes it really hard to stick the landing. And landing accurately is kind of an important thing to get right, considering the whole goal of AER is to explore the islands for fragments left behind to try to piece together a story about the world, its former inhabitants, and the key to saving the world.
So let’s get to the exploring portion of AER: Memories of Old. In a word, it was “lacking”—there were few things to actually find. I get it if some of the islands were barren—I mean, that’s what you’d expect from a world broken into pieces, but it was obvious when something worth exploring was on the island. It kind of made looking for things in the not-so-obvious islands pointless. Once you came across something that looked like it could be explored, you could use your lantern—gained in the opening of the game—to unearth sacred texts and shadows of people of the land who had long passed. The text was engrossing as it was never completely expository, but there were just too few instances to find. You were given bits and pieces of a story, with just enough information to get a general idea of what happened to the world of AER. I think the shadows I liked best were the dialogues from people who clearly had their own story in the world: a couple who met for secret rendezvous or several instances of refugees trying to get away from various political strife. To me, those were the best part of the world. I wanted to see more of that.
Even after finding all the pieces of text, there was very little payoff. You never find out why things happened. I became engaged enough to care about the backstory, but was left disappointed with how little I could learn. The devs say that this was intentional, and I imagine that this was to create the illusion of a real-life treasure hunt/archeological dig to piece together a history. But this is a game. I need some kind of payoff.
Getting into the story of AER: Memories of Old, our female protagonist, Auk, is on a pilgrimage to uncover the words of the old, forgotten gods, following in the footsteps of her grandfatherly mentor. This motif is getting a little stale. Why are female protagonists in games always on a spiritual quest? We find out later her job is to save the world through this spiritual quest. She has to do this by flying throughout the land making allies of the former gods. She peacefully seals the big bad away. This is great, but kind of an old narrative. If you’re going to go the spiritual route (*cringe*) why not keep it spiritual and introspective? I look at the narrative in Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture where the only end goal to the game was to piece together the story. That sort of idea would have worked so well for AER. Throwing in the whole “you are the chosen one who must save the world” narrative felt really tacked on, and actually took away from our protagonist’s empowerment by making her a glorified delivery person. The team at Forgotten Key had really great building blocks for a very exploration-driven game, but this end-game quest turned it into something linear and frankly, kind of over done in many ways.
And now the quest itself: you find various temples dedicated to guardians/gods who have lost their power as the people of the land forgot them. When you enter the caves, you must explore and solve various puzzles to find their last remnants. It’s here where the map mechanic’s lack of usefulness is glaringly obvious. The puzzles are simple enough, but I kept getting lost, overlooking entrances I missed in the dark environment. It would have been extremely helpful to have a map—even a simple one—that I created as I traveled through the cave so that I could keep track of places I might not have fully explored. At one point, I got so frustrated with going down the same path for the, I’m going to say, 9,736,848,727,684th time, that I left the cavern. I went back in and it reset my entire progress. It was a lot easier to follow the progression the second time, since I had a lay of the area, and was finally able to complete it. My happiness over this accomplishment was marred by the fact that I had wasted over an hour completely missing an obvious path. It made the time feel drawn out for no reason and took my attention away from exploring other parts of the world.
While I like that there are teams out there who are trying to explore the walking-sim genre and evolve the depth beyond the story itself, I feel like AER: Memories of Old tried to add too much to a game that should have stuck to the goal of exploration. I am glad I played it, though. For the time investment, it was refreshing to play a game as serene as this one. With the slew of face-paced, action-packed titles released at this time, AER is the perfect palette cleanser. If Forgotten Key can make improvements on some of the details that take away from the complete success of this game, they have the potential to become a studio that produces games to look forward to.