Developer: Scarlet City Studios
Publisher: Scarlet City Studios
Price: $9.99 per episode, $19.99 for single episode family pack; $24.99 for single family pass, $49.99 for family season pass (whew!)
In a world where electronic media is likely to occupy the attention of most youths much to the chagrin of older generations thumbing their noses as they reminisce about using their imaginations while playing outside and with toys, some of these youths and elders have joined forces to embrace modern trends. We have been covering Kingdom Games’ FIVE series as they are released, but here we introduce a new challenger. Scarlet City Studios, a New Zealand-based developer was founded in 2012 with one goal in mind: “to take the greatest story ever told and re-tell it for a digital generation” Their brainchild, The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance is the product of their vision.
Scarlet City Studios makes it plainly known that The Aetherlight is a massive biblical allegory designed for pre-teens. Thus, there is no coarse language, all characters are fully clothed, and violence is mitigated by roboticide. Did I mention that this game is a biblical allegory?
Within, the Great Engineer (God) is said to have formed the land of Aethasia just by speaking it into existence. In the present, a malefactor named Lucky (Lucifer) has unleashed an army of robots (demons) upon the land as it is being consumed by a fog (sin). Players will find themselves fighting for the Resistance, a group working to restore Aethasia to its former glory as the Great Engineer intended. Though Alexander(Abraham) is the group’s leader, he himself is being shadow-mentored by the Scarlet Man (Jesus). The climax of Episode 1 involves Alexander taking his son, Irving, atop a mountain at the behest of the Scarlet Man. The image above is actually cut short, but those who know their OT should be able to figure out who Irving is, in addition to the reference story. No spoilers here, though!
I should note that the usual message that modern gamers are familiar, “online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB” is absolutely applicable here. One day, my children were accosted by a user who ran around saying “I love you; will you marry me?” I found this behavior to be strange for a game targeting Christian adolescents. Scarlet City Studios does have a report function, but without going to the website, most would not naturally know how to police strange online behavior in this game.
It might be time for not only Christians, but also the gaming industry at large to evolve from the perception that games with a biblical focus are ostensibly poor in quality. Final Fantasy, The Aetherlight is not, yet there is enough material in this game to maintain the interests of a veteran gamer such as myself. For example, I typically abhor crafting, yet this game consistently provides materials around the map and after battles to minimize the tedium of grinding. Crafting is a central theme in this steampunk-infused game, and by the midway point, crafting benches will be nearly ubiquitous.
Along with providing crafting materials after every enemy encounter, Aetherlight forgoes gaining experience from battles altogether, and encourages quest completion to gain items and levels, though I know not the benefits of level progression besides one quest that did not unlock until I reached level seven—there are no explicitly indicated stated “stats.” This miscue is amplified by the inability to determine the difficulty of a new enemy encounter before getting wrecked in battle. The game is very forgivable however, as Aetherchambers allay this flaw by reviving players without effort, much like the vita chambers in another steampunk game, Bioshock.
Aetherlight attempts to offset its lack of tutorial information with loading screen messages in between sections of the map, but explaining to me that I can craft an item that was expensive to make in the early game to clear status ailments during the late game of Episode 1 comes en retarde.
Combat is classically turn-based, and attack damage is determined by a spin-the-wheel mechanic where players must click ideally when the needle is in the “red” for maximum damage, while grey results in a miss. The greater difficulty the encounter, the faster the needle seems to spin. The grey area also expands depending on status ailments in addition to the power of the chosen weapon—the more powerful, the greater chance for failure. Additional status effects include making the needle spin randomly, increasing the “miss” area on the wheel, or turning the wheel completely black so that players must make a guess. Overall, I find combat accessible for the target audience, but mediocre compared to other games within Aetherlight’s genre.
The game is almost entirely comprised of fetch quests, but the world of No Man’s Landing is a size such that players can be tricked into thinking that they are not, in fact, performing a series of unrelated miscellaneous tasks to gain experience. These quests are not completely without purpose, as they do contribute to character development. Alexander is certain in his conviction that the Resistance is needed, but is uncertain in how the organization should proceed without the Scarlet Man’s guidance while his wife, Selina, remains supprotive of the operation but skeptical of its potential. Lukas is the archetypically brilliant but aloof scientist, and Irving is full of hope but obedient to his father. I was able to piece this together through the quests, but Episode 1 ends regrettably right when I began to feel competent in the game’s mechanics. Additionally, the ball had just just begun to roll with meaningful plot development. I am disappointed that I barely know who the woman in purple to the left of the logo is and the brown woman on the right of the logo is not even in this episode; I feel juked by the marketing team.
Here, it is time for some exceedingly candid transparency. During my tenure with with Geeks Under Grace, I try my best to avoid “episodic” games because I vehemently oppose the format—like all forms of entertainment that I consume, I want a finished product all at once. However, I stumbled upon Aetherlight earlier in 2016 during its beta phase, and though I did not get an invitation, my wife became intrigued by our children playing a game with strong biblical themes. Scarlet City Studios approached us (GUG), and I agreed to take on the assignment: business mixed with pleasure. The developer provided GUG a key, though it was not until my oldest son advanced ahead of me during a quest requiring players to recruit Lukas that the free demo of the game ended (which lasts a few hours) and required a code to proceed. I enter it so he can continue playing. When I catch up to him a week later, I am required to enter the code again.
I begrudgingly paid for my own key to press on and finish this episode because I needed to finish the game for review purposes. I understand the expectation that this game could appear on computer centers in libraries, Sunday School classes in churches, and various family homes, and Scarlet City Studios would like to be (and should be) compensated for every unique player, but I discovered the pricing structures only after I spent the $9.99 for myself. I would rather have spent the $49.99 for the family pass so that my son, daughter, and wife could also participate if this information were more explicitly stated rather than a simple message for me to buy the episodes individually to continue—the “Buy Episode” and “Buy Season Pass” buttons respectively are inadequate compared to the complex pricing structure available on the website. This is another reason why I abhor episodic content, for Aetherlight at first appears economical, but in reality, it costs the same as a full-retail game for families. I am now contemplating if I should press on with purchasing the family pack for Episode 2 and Episode 3, which would put me at $59.98 in total investment of the saga (to my knowledge, there are no discounts for partial completion).
As I decide if I am going to finish the entire game, I do plan on purchasing the companion Bible for my kids, and downloading the companion app on my tablet. Yes, Scarlet City Studios has gone all-out with the launch of this IP, though I should not be surprised that Episode 1 is playable on mobile devices. After all, parents these days appease their kids with cell phone and tablet apps, so it would make sense for Scarlet City Studios to make Aetherlight as widely available as possible. That said, this cross-compatibility explains why the graphics of the game are acceptable, yet dated by today’s standards. After encountering a mad scientist-like character in some mines, the screen zoomed in onto his face, and I felt as though the textures were from the Dreamcast era.
All of that said, my nine and seven year-old absolutely adore The Aetherlight (the latter also recently experienced the letdown of the crushing purchase wall when he tried to recruit Lukas for the Resistance). Parents who judiciously monitor their children’s screen time should find it encouraging that this game can function as a family activity not just because kids will have the tendency to gather around when the game is on, but also by logging onto an additional device such as an iPad or Android and joining their children on the same server. While I do find The Aetherlight charming enough, it is not the kind of game that I would find myself returning to for multiple playthroughs due to its lack of innovation and depth. Still, it is encouraging to see that the quality of games with a strong Christian message has taking a drastic leap in the direction of production value.
The Bottom Line
For seasoned gamers, The Aetherlight offers a very middling experience with its simple mechanics, dated graphics, and strongly allusive story, yet the game is more than adequate for its target pre-teen audience, who may not even realize that the gospel is literally at play.