AER Memories of Old is a unique and aptly named experience. It is a quiet puzzle-based adventure game with no combat, but a lot of life.
At a certain age, all bird shifters must complete a pilgrimage in the Land of the Gods. When Auk begins hers, she finds that strange events begin pursuing her and her world becomes actively threatened over the course of her journey. She relives her dying world’s curious history by illuminating fragments of the past in the form of “ghosts” whose words are sometimes preserved, and her pilgrimage begins to stretch much further than other bird shifters in the past.
Its world is standard fantasy fare, with a slightly Medieval-yet-mythological feeling to it. The biggest difference in the world from many other fantasy stories is that it is made up of islands floating in the sky. As Auk can transform into a bird (presumably an auk) at will, travel is much easier for her than others.
The game is good looking. It’s highly stylized, and the aesthetic of the environment almost reminds me of an HD take on an N64 game like Space Station Silicon Valley. Exploring the world had a fun nostalgic feel to it because it made me think of the sort of video games I played as a kid, but it never felt like it was pushing the nostalgia angle. Each island I landed on had something to be discovered on it, whether it was a ghost or two or even just a pond with a frog. Everything felt familiar but fresh, and the act of discovery was joyful, no matter how small the discovery actually was. (Finding lambs that imprinted on Auk had me stopping at one island every time I flew by.)
The characters are creased and pitted, making them resemble carved wooden figurines, though Auk and the other humans and animals of the game move naturally. It’s an interesting look and it’s mostly successful, save for the fact that none of the characters have faces.
With the animals it isn’t too alarming: the game is pretty realistic in how it presents them, so you barely even notice that a doe running by has no eyes, just a naturalistic indent where the eyes ought to be. But the people? Well, humans do a lot of communication with our faces, and we sort of expect that even simulations that resemble us are going to do the same. Whenever you talk to anyone, the camera reorients itself, so you have to look into that nothingness no matter what. It never stops being unnerving, even if the lack of faces keeps the design style consistent.
The main story is interesting enough. It’s possible to miss out on a lot of game world history if you don’t bother interacting with the ghosts of the past, which you do by holding a lantern up near peculiar white marks in the air. Ultimately, though, the ghosts provide very little illumination on the main story. I’ve never seen a game mechanic quite like the ghosts, and I enjoyed them for that, but they only retell stories of how the game world fell into its current state. Though these stories are interesting, they follow familiar mythological tropes, retelling stories that touch upon the dangers of hubris, man’s greed, disdain for tradition, and so on. The main story is a similarly interesting tale, but if you love mythology and fantasy, it’s not the newest one.
The controls are simple, the game is extremely easy to pick up. Each button, save one, has a single job. What really got me was how easy it was to fly: Tell me underwater and flying levels in games don’t fill you with dread. Not so in AER, you just jump, turn into a bird, and you’re off. No struggling for altitude, no weird inverted controls, no fall damage… It is actually fun to fly, and the simple controls give you the freedom to enjoy the world below and sky around, which does have moments of real beauty.
Related to flying was the compass, which was also the best I’ve seen in any game. Compasses and maps in most other games that are orbs or move with your player tend to confuse me more than assist me. AER’s compass is a simple bar at the top of the screen. Need to go north? Just point Auk towards the north and lift off. The bar slides from side to side as you move, but it’s harder to get off track and the 2D movement is easier for me to manage than a 3D model.
As for the game’s puzzles, most of them were simple logic puzzles. That’s not to say there weren’t any challenging ones, but more often than not, my biggest hurdles came when I hadn’t explored an area thoroughly and had missed a switch or button somewhere. It made me think, but it didn’t frustrate me. The game is very good about guiding with lights or other visual cues without spoon feeding solutions.
The game did have some downsides. I found a couple weird glitches during my playthrough. The game would stutter and even froze once when I got a low battery warning for my controller/plugged it in in response to the warning. If you have your lantern out and you fall from too great a distance, Auk puts it away when she hits the ground. In the second to last major dungeon, this would cause the game screen to go totally black if she landed in certain spots. I could still pull up my map, but I had no other choice but to restart the game. Flying through the final dungeon’s entrance way instead of walking caused a similar problem. Though the game autosaves, you also have the option to save whenever you want (thank goodness!) so just get into the habit of saving regularly.
I also found the end of the game anticlimactic. Auk confronts the evil force bent on wrecking her world, the way these kinds of stories usually end. The final “boss”—Void—is terrifying and his design is great. I will give him that; I physically recoiled from my TV screen when he showed himself. But the ending is ambiguous and not open to interpretation. Why? Well… There’s an extreme lack of character development.
Auk is a well-designed character, but she doesn’t have a character. We know she’s a bird shifter and she’s unusually talented, but… that’s about it. She doesn’t ever speak, not even to grunt or express frustration, and, as I mentioned earlier, she doesn’t even have a face. Even facial responses could give us an idea of her character, or at the very least, give us something to interpret. A lack of information about Auk’s character makes it impossible to determine how Auk would end her own story. No possible ending I’ve thought of seems like it could be the ending because there’s just no evidence for it.
AER ended up being a fresh experience that, as the title suggested, did make me recall the sort of games that nurtured my love of video games when I was very young. The exploration aspect was exhilarating, and it felt like I was entering a world that had a legitimate history, if a familiar one. Although there were some downsides, such as the lack of character development, I found myself hoping there would be a sequel of some kind, or that the game would at least become popular enough to find fan-made merchandise. Even the thought of seeing a cosplay of Auk is exciting to me. Though the game isn’t perfect and lacks in a key area for me (character), it won me over, and I hope it sticks around.