Aphelion: Episode One begins an epic adventure

Review of Aphelion on XBLIG: Buy
Mixing gameplay and story elements from both American and Japanese RPGs, Aphelion sets a high bar for XBLIG RPGs.

I think the best way to describe Aphelion is a mixture between American and Japanese RPGs. The look-and-feel, stat system, and sci-fi storyline reminded me of Mass Effect, while the interface, turn-based combat, music, and character concepts were reminiscent of later Final Fantasy games. I make these comparisons only for reference, because Aphelion isn’t a cheap knockoff of either genre—it blends all of these disparate elements into a complex and unique game.

The game opens in the distant future on Ereit, a colony of Earth which has won its independence.  Savion and Ashley, soldiers in the Ereit military, are sent to rescue a captured ambassador from the planet Lacori.  From there, their quest will take them all the way to Earth and bring them into contact with a dreaded alien race known as the Crimson.  I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Episode One ends with a cliffhanger (with Episode Two billed as the conclusion). I like the fact that Lunatic Studios is using an episodic model to tell such a long and well-organized story on XBLIG.  Overall, the story does seem to be well-written. It’s not terribly deep, but it is complex, making use of common sci-fi and RPG tropes without being too clichéd (although Savion experiences some inner turmoil that makes me worry future plot threads will take a melodramatic Final Fantasy VII-style turn.)

The gameplay itself should be self-explanatory if you’ve played a turn-based RPG before, although there were a few nuances (such as the combo system) that eluded me.  What’s surprising is the level of detail that’s gone into this game.  Damage is first dealt to Shields and then Health, which each require different skills or items to restore.  A party-based limit break system evens the odds in battle.  A crafting system allows for the creation of weapons, shields, and accessories (which turn out to be important to keep ahead of the power curve), as well as the ability to find and assemble more powerful unique items.  A “Databank” system collects various bits of game instructions and flavor text, much like in Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

Unfortunately, there are some rough edges in Episode One.  I found the Level Up screen functional but a bit clunky to use, as was the Databank screen (it’s hard to tell which items are new and which are already read).  Long lists of items didn’t seem to scroll as expected, and overlapped other important on-screen text–frustrating, but not a game-breaking bug.  It’s a bit of a shock to see these issues in a game that shows such attention to detail in its design. Ultimately, that complexity and attention to detail make it easy to forgive these smaller bugs.

Aphelion: Episode One gets a Buy from me.  The game advertises 5+ hours of content; I spent over 7 hours, but I did quite a bit of leveling up and exploring.  Once I learned a little bit about the world, I found the storyline rather engaging and I’m excited to see what happens in Episode Two, which was released as part of the Indie Games Winter Uprising.

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