I’m Just a Boy, and Life is a Nightmare
As multiple famous historians, philosophers, and fans of aphorisms have said over the years, “History is written by the victors.” This legendary historical line calls to mind extinct civilizations and extinguished cultures. History isn’t simply a list of events that have transpired. It is a record of successes and failures, of hope and tragedy. Above all else, it is the truth, unwanted though it might be.
A historian recounts the events that led to the Uncovering, a calamitous event that preceded the equally ominous Dark Fall. Beginning six years before those events, Legends of Ethernal tells the story of a young boy named Wilfred and the desperate circumstances in which he finds himself. After an afternoon of fishing at a lake near his home, he returns to find his parents are missing. Their home is in shambles and something large seems to have torn its way through the roof. As his panic subsides and despair sets in, silence becomes his only companion. He leaves his family’s home with one goal in mind: find his parents no matter the cost.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone…
Ethernal’s side-scrolling action-adventure gameplay is linear and straightforward. One button attacks, one jumps, and one rolls, which is the only defensive move you’ve got, and it can’t be spammed either. It requires a second or two to cool down, so plan accordingly. Much like in other games of this type, Wilfred eventually acquires different weapons, which is nice because a fishing pole is not a great weapon. Great for fishing, bad for slaying.
Each primary weapon has different abilities (assuming you find their upgrades), and there’s an interesting array of secondary weapons such as healing potions, explosive grenades, and a blow gun. Ether, a unique material found all across Arkanys, fuels abilities and secondary weapons. It comes in four different colors, and each color is used for a specific purpose. For example, healing potions are made solely of red ether. Enemies drop ether when they are defeated, and it can usually be found in barrels and boxes, too, so it’s not especially rare. This design encourages you to liberally use your abilities and weapons. Activating either is just a simple push of the shoulder buttons.
Nowhere to Go but Forward
Simple puzzles are also scattered throughout the game’s environments. These are familiar to most gamers: finding keys, flipping switches, moving objects to jump on, and so forth. Things get a little more complicated than that as the game advances, but I didn’t find any of the puzzles especially difficult. I could have gone for a few more, actually. Boss fights are an exception to this. They’ve got a few surprising tricks up their mostly metaphorical sleeves, and it’s definitely not all about raw strength, which I appreciated.
The game itself isn’t about raw strength either. Normal enemies only take a few hits to kill, and they don’t require a complicated strategy to beat. Some are resistant to specific attacks and, some weapons work better than other ones. However, the game generally doesn’t reward an aggressive playstyle. Running into an area swinging your weapon around will get you killed.
Legends of Ethernal’s flow reminds me of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It’s oftentimes better to let the enemy come to you than to make a hasty advance—this is not a hack and slash. Attacking from a distance or rolling through and backstabbing an enemy is far wiser than fighting head-on. It’s also important to learn the enemy’s attack patterns and movements. Knowing exactly how far one of the Brüwig (an intelligent frog species) jumps can mean the difference between life and death. The game’s difficulty is less about you killing enemies and more about them killing you.
The developers released a patch to tweak the game’s difficulty in response to player feedback, but I suspect the difficulty these gamers experienced arose from not respecting the game’s flow. Even that aside, the game is quite forgiving. There are checkpoints literally everywhere, so when you do die, you rarely lose that much progress. You don’t have lives either, so you can just keep trying until you figure it out. I played on normal difficulty, and at no point did I think the game was unfair.
A Heart of Darkness
Part of the reason for this difficulty lies in the story itself. Wilfred is just a boy. He’s not a knight or the chosen one foretold in the prophecies of yore (or in countless other games). His abilities are limited to those of any other boy (the ether moves notwithstanding). His youth and inexperience weave into the major story arcs as well. Despite Wilfred’s youth, Legends of Ethernal tells a surprisingly mature tale, which caught me off guard. I was easily hooked by it.
The story begins as a moralistic exploration of what happens when fear and desperation push good people to do bad things. Story arcs explore exploitation, cultural differences, ignorant prejudices, and the limits of language. Most significantly, Wilfred actually reflects on his actions. The irony that he unintentionally destroys families while looking for his own is not lost on him. His desperation is practically palpable. An ether spirit named Sao eventually joins him on his journey, and despite the language barrier, it tries its best to act as a friend and conscience to the poor kid. And while redemption is always within reach, it too is not without sacrifice.
Beauty is the Beast
The world of Arkanys is simply beautiful. The hand-drawn art is frequently breathtaking. It has the aesthetic of a kid’s pop-up book, which is quite the juxtaposition to the story. The world appears to be composed of seven layers that are all stacked on each other. I frequently found myself just staring at the environments; I couldn’t wait to get to the next area just to see how it looked.
The game’s soundtrack is also commendable. It’s often a folksy mix of piano, drum, flute, and strings. It’s always appropriate for the story and is a wonderful compliment to the game’s aesthetic. The stand-out track to me was the quiet, contemplative forest theme and its lonely piano. Much like the environments, I often stood around just to listen to the songs.
As much as I enjoyed my time with Legends of Ethernal, there are a few shortcomings. Wilfred’s story is captivating, but you don’t get to see much of the world in which it takes place. There are very few people with whom you can interact, although, there’s a valid story reason for it. Scattered throughout the world are historical pages that provide insights into the various creatures and locales, but they’re brief. There’s a great deal of foreshadowing that takes place; I wish I could have experienced some of it.
The game’s dungeons are relatively large but straightforward. They’re not quite complex enough to make the game a Metroidvania, even if you do use weapons and items to access and explore new areas. And while the variety of weapons and items does give you multiple options during combat, it’s a bit too straightforward for its own good. Same goes for the puzzles.
Ethernal’s linear design also means there’s little reason to take the journey again. There are the collectible pages to find and some trophies, if that’s your thing, but nothing substantial after the credits roll. I finished the game in eight hours and thirty-eight minutes, which is a respectable length for this kind of game and the price point. There are five difficulty levels, so you can definitely make it harder if you want a challenge. Hardcore mode certainly lives up to its name.
The Beginning of a Legend
Legends of Ethernal is a starting point for an even grander game. All the pieces are in place. The compelling narrative, captivating visuals, and engaging soundtrack all help to create a vivid and living world that’s enjoyable to experience. While the gameplay can lag at times, the aforementioned elements admirably make up for these small deficits. A cliffhanger ending all but ensures the developers have something else planned. Wilfred’s journey has really just begun as the game ends, if that historian in the opening is any indication.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PC, Xbox One, PS4; Publisher: Natsume; Developer: Lucid Dreams Studio; Players: 1; Released: October 30, 2020; ESRB: E 10+; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: The developer provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.