Aeterna Noctis, the first game developed by Aeternum Game Studios, was originally announced back in 2020, via a Kickstarter campaign. The full release arrived in December of 2021, to much acclaim.
Promising to be a “demanding metroidvania”, Aeterna Noctis offers challenging platforming, slick combat, and hours of exploration. Players will find new zones, enemies, and rewards as they proceed. For those unfamiliar with the term “metroidvania”, it has come to be used to describe games that play like a blend of Castlevania and the Metroid series — as the name suggests. These types of games are plentiful. However, only a few stand out as being exceptional. One of those titles that has been met with almost universal acclaim is Hollow Knight and Aeterna Noctis clearly tries to emulate that experience, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Story & Setting
Aeterna Noctis sees you play as the “King of Darkness” having been defeated in battle by his opposite, the Queen of Light. He finds himself banished to Aeterna and must embark on a quest to reclaim his lost powers. Guided by various NPC’s who seem to revere the King of Darkness as a deity, you journey through the sixteen distinct, intertwined regions of Aeterna. Featuring hand-drawn art and good use of foreground assets, the world itself is very nice to look at. It’s also inhabited by a huge variety of enemies, traps, and obstacles that all need to be overcome in ever more involved ways.
As with many games of this ilk, each area represents its own sort of self-enclosed “biome”. From eerie graveyards, glowing crystalline caves, fiery furnaces and much more, there is a unique style to each zone, both visually and mechanically. The color palette is always vibrant and there’s a rich display of both beauty and desolation in the world. Areas provide their own platforming challenges and are topped off with a challenging boss, that demands you put to use all of the skills and techniques you have utilized so far. The bosses are always pretty interesting experiences and they frequently change their attack patterns, making each encounter a little different from the last.
It has to be said, the world is large! You have an actual world map, splitting everything into regions and a localized map, splitting said regions further into distinct areas. There is no shortage of content to explore in Aeterna Noctis.
Aeterna Noctis has a heavy focus on challenging platforming and enemy encounters. You are initially equipped with a standard sword and jumps. You can also make use of a “bouncing” plunge attack, which if timed properly, chain together and give you the upper hand. As you defeat enemies, you gather experience. When enough experience is amassed, it transfers into skill points which you can spend in quite a deep skill tree. You can go down the path of being a melee-oriented player, magic based, or just straight-pump your survival attributes to make the game a little more forgiving. That said, you’re never forced into one path and you can easily form something that’s balanced between the three. You can even reset your skills completely at any throne you rest at.
Your combat and platforming can be supplemented with gems that all offer different abilities or buffs. For example, you can find ones that increase attack damage, or more utility-based ones, like being able to cling to walls.
Another important resource you gather is blood, again gained by defeating enemies. The blood fills up a vessel and by holding a heal button, you can convert this blood into health. However, if you are defeated, your vessel will crack until you reach the point where you have perished or beat the enemy that felled you. This means healing is a little riskier, as blood gained from enemies will be lost over time until you reseal your vessel.
There are a number of weapons you can utilize aside from the starter sword, each providing a different option in combat. Downing enemies with the Scythe will make them drop more blood, the heavy axe gives you a crowd control option, the spear provides a devastating plunge attack, the katana can destroy projectiles and the shuriken offer a ranged bleed option. Making use of these weapons in the right situations is crucial to success in Aeterna Noctis. Not to mention, there are also a variety of arrows, which are essentially magical attacks, that provide powerful ranged options and are key to solving certain puzzles.
On this topic, the puzzle aspect of Aeterna Noctis comes in the form of platforming sections. They range from simple obstacle courses to using teleporters to move around and hit switches. There are many more variations on the puzzles and whilst they start off rather simple, as the game progresses and you acquire more skills, the puzzles scale to match. Forcing you to learn and think on your feet, I had more than my fair share of frustration with some of these puzzles.
All-in-all, when it comes to Aeterna Noctis, expect punishing combat and tricky platforming in equal measure.
There is plenty to admire about Aeterna Noctis, that’s undeniable! The visuals really are wonderful. The developers’ attention to detail and the obvious care they have put into their hand-crafted aesthetic make Aeterna Noctis rank up there as one of the best metroidvanias in this department. The areas manage to capture a world in transition, a universe that is entering a new phase, whilst also being ancient and rich in history. Always vibrant, always lively, and never dull, I cannot overstate how great this game looks.
The story is also something to be praised. In essence, it’s a simple story of opposition, of good versus evil, light versus dark. However, as things progress, you come to realize that things are not that simple. The King of Darkness is a brooding, arrogant protagonist, but as you play, he becomes likable. You notice that at heart, he isn’t truly a villain, but more of an anti-hero. A character coming to terms with the situation he is fated to endure. That said, whilst Aeterna Noctis does attempt to craft a story of intrigue, I have to say, it never quite hit that level of mystery that makes something like Hollow Knight (a very obvious influence on this game) so gripping.
Sound design is also on point here. The music compliments each zone really nicely and helps give each new place you reach its own character.
Something else I really enjoyed about Aeterna Noctis was the fluidity of movement. Games that demand pixel-perfect precision and varied combat need to provide the player with movement and mechanics that feel responsive. The devs absolutely nailed that here. It feels great to dash, jump, climb, attack, and any combination of these to make your way towards your goal.
Special mention goes to the quest system. A log of main quests, side quests, and completed quests can be accessed at any time, which is really useful when navigating this sprawling world.
It’s clear then that there is a lot of good here in Aeterna Noctis. That said, and despite all of this, it became clear to me at around the 10-hour mark that deep down, I wasn’t truly enjoying the game. It’s such a shame because I desperately wanted to be engaged with this one. However, it never really happened. For a number of reasons, Aeterna Noctis didn’t “click” with me.
I understand that the hallmark of a metroidvania is the challenge. I have no qualms with that whatsoever. On this occasion though, I found that the game relies far too heavily on the tropes the genre uses to introduce difficulty. In any metroidvania you’ll encounter traps and obstacles that may take a few attempts to overcome. They’ll also be used the right amount of times. In Aeterna Noctis, the challenge is not in the obstacles themselves, but in the density of them. You’ll finally leap your way through a certain spike trap that repeated itself five or six times, only to discover yet another similar setup in the very next room. The over-reliance on this kind of stuff means that it seldom felt rewarding to make it through the room. Instead, I found myself getting through things out of pure spite. The Tower of Light was a prime example of this. I get it, it’s a huge tower and it’ll take some time and effort to ascend. However, it was far too long and then once you emerge onto the roof, you of course have the area boss. This about sums up another more general criticism I have of Aeterna Noctis — it’s too long! I wanted to enjoy Aeterna Noctis, genuinely I did. But there was a very obvious point where I ceased to have fun with it. With a game of this length, that means playing on becomes something of a chore.
Again, I have no issues with lengthy games, but only when they are paced correctly. This isn’t the case with Aeterna Noctis. The game is so large that everything is spread too much, meaning combat takes too long to open up. The weapons feel underwhelming for such a long time and I found that nothing truly comes together until the late game. By this point though, I was no longer enjoying the game, so it all seemed inconsequential. Pacing is very important in games of this scope and it all feels wrong in Aeterna Noctis. Sure, there’s lots to do, but I was never engaged enough in the core gameplay to truly care.
The simple things here are just okay, though they’re fairly standard. On the whole, and whilst I can’t quite put my finger on it, something feels stale with Aeterna Noctis — “Limp” even. What makes metroidvania’s so fun is not merely the challenge but the pace, reward, and sense of impact your upgrades give you. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Aeterna Noctis tipped the scales heavily in favor of repetitive challenge that rarely feels rewarding to overcome.
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Many thanks go to Aeternum Game Studios for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.