It’s nice going into a game without having prior knowledge about it. Usually. However, if the game is Aeterna Noctis, I advise you against it. This is a tremendous game, a huge, sprawling metroidvania that’s hard as nails. Typical games of this subgenre take some 10-15 hours to finish. Not this one, though. In what is quite probably the biggest map ever seen in a metroidvania experience, Aeterna Noctis has you trekking around many different places, fighting a lot of enemies, unveiling secrets and jumping around, for tens of hours. Really, you will need more than 30 hours just to finish this game. If you want to see everything, well, you’re looking at around 70.
It’s impressive, then, how the gameplay doesn’t get boring. There’s a lot going on here, with a complex story about fallen gods and demons, ghostly knights, the king of darkness, gothic castles and with many gameplay ideas and mechanics to enjoy and master. Aeterna Noctis focuses on platforming more than you’d expect it to, making you overcome intricate obstacle courses and solve jumping puzzles. The thing is, the difficulty level is on par with some of the hardest 2D platformers out there.
It’s the kind of difficulty that makes you want to scream in agony after 30 tries, doing the same thing over and over, dying because you can’t do a perfect run. The same thing is true of boss fights, that are evoking Dark Souls vibes. It’s a shame that both the platforming and the fights are frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, the design is fantastic. The enemy patterns, be them bosses or simple mobs, are distinct, clear, fun to learn and to exploit. The enemy types are a lot, more than expected really, the weapons in your arsenal are enough, the skills too, and the overall progression is felt.
The platforming puzzles are great, too: cleverly designed, very hard but clear in direction and just a lot of fun. Sadly, the controls are not up to the task. The jumps are not responsive enough to tackle such a high difficulty, and some of the more complex features are a bit clunky. For example, late in the game, the skills you acquire start to stack, to be used in quick succession. You have to jump, throw an arrow, teleport to it, all in a few seconds. Again, these are excellent mechanics. You have to be in control of the timing, height and duration of jumps and dashes, and most challenges are tough but fair. However, more times than should be allowed, you will turn around without wanting to, you will lose a jump for a millisecond because of the slow response and, in general, you will get annoyed.
The worst of it all? There’s a prominent bug that erases some of your progress. Meaning, you will manage to overcome a hard part of the game, a boss or a particularly difficult ascent on a tower, and then you’ll lose the last checkpoints, and you’ll have to do it again. This happens a lot, mind you, and you can’t manually save, so there’s that. Normally, the checkpoints are frequent and correctly dispensed, but this bug absolutely destroys your soul every time it occurs.
Visually, Aeterna Noctis is a delight. You will explore flaming caverns, moonlit castles, crystal caves, underground molten steel factories, eerie caves and you’ll meet dwarven blacksmiths and bearded oracles, talking in a made up language. The backgrounds are very interesting, filled with details and life, the character design is fitting and well-made, with only some parts giving off a less atmospheric vibe, like the character portraits in dialogues that are not on par with their models. A problem arises with the foreground clutter: some environments are so detailed that’s it’s hard to distinguish the platforms from the gaps and traps.
The huge world is beautiful, the music is fitting if forgettable. This is a dark metroidvania, inspired mostly by Hollow Knight -and doing it justice. It’s the kind of game that will terrorize you with its extreme difficulty, but will make you stand up and shout when you overcome a hard obstacle. Fittingly, there are some souls-like mechanics: you collect something-that-is-not-souls that’s used for leveling up skills and getting perks, and when you die you need to go find your corpse to regain what you had. It’s basic, it works, but it’s brought down by a boring skill tree that’s only serviceable.
There’s zero hand holding here, too. You will be thrown in the sprawling world and not know what to do and where to go, even though there are some helpful pointers. I am not saying this as criticism; it’s fun to get lost in such games, and this one nails the feeling. There are a lot of secrets, you will find many, many distractions that beg to be explored, you will get immersed and lose yourself in this dark world. It’s a well-designed map, very complex and memorable. The only real problem is found in fast traveling, that’s done on specific points which are too sparse and result in needless backtracking back and forth, getting through dangerous traps and huge enemies to find a dead end and going back, and then finding a key and going back again. It’s frustrating.
All in all, Aeterna Noctis is great. A game that’s sure to impress and delight its audience, the people who are looking for a very hard, huge metroidvania. It needed more polish to truly shine, but even as it stands it’s quite surprising, incredibly big, hauntingly beautiful, atmospheric and fun in a specific, agonizing way. If that’s what you want, you can’t get wrong with Aeterna Noctis. Just arm yourself with patience and you’ll experience an incredible game.