Pros: Atmospheric soundtrack and beautifully elaborate environments.
Cons: General path finding issues, and touchy control scheme
Verdict: Buy this if you like the classic Metroid or Castlevania gameplay
When you look back at the annals of gaming history, an era that is rarely explored is the time where the Aztecs where at the peak of their power in Central America. Short of several different puzzle games and the obvious exception of turn based RPGs like Civilization, this is a very interesting group of people that have been left relatively untouched by game developers. This all changed when Aztaka was released for PC back in March of this year.
Developed by the newly formed independent game studio, Citeremis, the game is set in Mexico during the year 1328. Using a basic interpretation of what academics believe about the people of the region, the game is a side scrolling role playing game that draws immensely from the mystical practices and beliefs of the Aztecs. Core concepts of magic and enchantment help set in motion the central conflict of the game.
Players are dropped into the sandals of Huitizilo, an Aztec warrior that has the single goal of protecting his people. Through the long and winding road that follows, he learns of his magical abilities to cast spells and even call upon the wrath of gods. In order to bring peace and security back to his people, Huitizilo has to find seven hidden keys that will restore things to the way they once were.
As in any other game, there is a force that tries to impede the player’s progress as much as possible. In this case the enemy takes the form of a serpent woman that goes by the name Chihuac. Not only is she trying to prevent the sacred keys from being recovered, but she is also responsible for murdering his mother. Driven by the overwhelming desire to avenge the death of his mother, he pushes forward on his quest.
If you have ever played a PC game that uses the W, A, S, D control scheme, then Aztaka should feel like it is right in your wheelhouse. To the uninitiated, navigation, platforming, and combat all use the control scheme of A and D controlling moving the character left and right, respectively. The S key is then used to make the character crouch, while W enables jumping. It should be noted that the left and right buttons can be hit in close succession (think double-clicking) to force Huitizilo to dash or run for a limited amount of time. Mastering this mechanic will be the key to tackling certain platforming portions of the game.
Much like other classic Metroid or Castlevania inspired side scrollers, Aztaka offers a large variety of different experiences over the course of the game. Most blatant homage to these forefathers is the inclusion of several different backtracking sections. A keen eye, good memory, and completionist’s mentality will be helpful in solving these puzzles of the mind.
Luckily, the puzzles extend beyond merely backtracking, offering many environmental challenges as well. Are you carrying an item that is necessary to open a locked door? Do you have the ability to reach the seemingly unreachable platform? Simple trial and error will be the best methods to see if you have what it takes. Just remember that your mystic energies are the keys to solving just about anything.
Probably the most critical component of any Metroid-vania clone is the combat. Whether you are pouncing on the head of a goomba or blowing away grubs with your proton laser, this is where a game can live or die. In Azteka attacking is mapped to the right click button on the mouse. Combat will be quick and furious, frequently involving lots of jumping and ducking, and is ultimately very satisfying. You will also be able to call on an enchanted hummingbird that can cast different spells.
Churning through the 21 different levels that are available in the game will give players the opportunity to upgrade Huitizilo’s skills and gear. Leveling up also allows for new magical attacks to be unlocked, which are critical in the later stages of the game. The benefits of putting in the time to complete side quests make them well worth your time, rewarding players with awesome power ups and items that come in handy down the road.
Though this is an very deep and well structured experience, it seemed to expect too much from the player. The path finding while exploring between different locations could prove to be very confusing. This is further exacerbated by the need for backtracking and a complexly interwoven collection of side paths that end up leading to dead ends. However, once you become familiar with the layout of a region, this becomes a relative non-issue, but it could prove to be very daunting to task for those that are new to the genre.
Despite the fact that this is the first title developed by an independent studio, Aztaka has a level of aesthetic polish and attention to detail that would put its peers to shame. Everything from the hand painted art style to the outstanding soundtrack reinforces the untamed nature of Central America, long before the arrival of European settlers. As long as you have an appreciation for what makes side scrolling RPGs great, there is no excuse for not making this a permanent fixture in your game collection.