Aeon Drive Review: Jack Is Back
I’ve waited years for Aeon Drive to finally release. It’s a follow-up to Dimension Drive, a frenetic shmup with a dimension-hopping twist. By contrast, Aeon Drive is a speed-running platformer where you only have 30 seconds to beat every stage. The catch is you can warp to nearby platforms, and you can earn more time by collecting sufficient energy containers. Here’s the big question for this Aeon Drive review – does it manage to satisfy fans, despite the genre change? Or should it have done more to tie the two games together?
Crash Landing in New Barcelona
It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since Dimension Drive came out. Though I generally remember enjoying my time with it, I’d be lying if I said I remembered all the plot beats. What I do recall is it ends with Captain Jackelyne Tywood (Jack for short) flying through a hole in space, and landing someplace very different. While New Barcelona is free from the Ashajul menace, things quickly go wrong. The moment she arrives in this new realm, her high-tech Manticore ship crash lands, and in the process, loses all its Drive Cores. Worse, they’re all primed to explode, and she only has mere seconds to find them. Luckily for her, she has one thing on her side. Her ship’s modular AI, V.E.R.A., seemingly leveled up since the last game, and can now wind back the clock a few seconds at a time. This provides Jack a 30-second bubble in which to deal with this seemingly insurmountable task.
Racing Against the Clock
The most significant change in Aeon Drive is how it plays. Long gone are dimension-hopping antics, which makes sense since Jack’s Manticore is out of commission. Luckily, somehow in the wreckage, Jack finds a sword worthy of Sephiroth himself. Along with V.E.R.A., which you can literally throw at objects and then warp to, Jack has a lot at her disposal. You can slash through any robotic sentry with the sword, and V.E.R.A. has a lot of flexibility, hitting distant switches as well as her warp functionality.
Additionally, Jack can run, jump and slide through narrow apertures. Now, there’s another key mechanic that the tutorial somehow failed to mention. Jack can call V.E.R.A. back to her at any time with a press of the L button. The reason that’s relevant is that if you don’t recall the AI first, Jack will instead instantly teleport to where it is. Even if that place is one Jack can’t fit in, which results in her instant death. I only discovered this recall technique by watching a playthrough online and doing some trial and error.
Speaking of the tutorial, though it mostly worked, I felt it was incredibly barebones. It lacks any written component and is purely comprised of videos. In fact, I was unclear on the fact I had to actively press the Up button to add more seconds to the clock, which can only be done when Jack has collected at least four energy canisters. As such, I spent far longer than I’d like to admit trying and failing to beat the tutorial stage in time. Once I finally realized my error, the game went much more smoothly. But the fact one key detail was left out, and another was murky at best really frustrated me. As does the fact you can’t pause the game at any point to bring up a diagram of the controls.
A Lively Stroll Through Cyberpunk Barcelona
Those complaints aside, I really did enjoy my time with Aeon Drive. The gameplay is very tight and balanced. While Jack dies after sustaining one hit, I never felt the game was unfair. Part of that is because each of the 100 stages has alternate paths you can take through them. Generally, there’s an ‘easy’ and a ‘hard’ path, and usually, it’s well worth your time to pick the latter. The reason is that risk breeds reward, and the more challenging paths often are stocked with collectible items. They also usually wind up letting you get to the stage exit faster.
I felt the flow of the stages was really well-tuned, and I honestly didn’t start running into issues until the last 2 Sectors. That’s where they introduced a mechanic where you have switches you can only trigger with V.E.R.A. from a distance. Furthermore, you have to keep your AI in place until you’re past the barrier, and can then safely retrieve her. But as I said earlier, the tutorial neglected to explain this mechanic. Once I knew about it, these levels were easier, but far from easy. As you proceed through each Sector, they introduce new tricks and hazards—these range from laser lattices to buzz saws, drones, and turrets. There’s a good variety, and it does a good job of keeping you engaged as you run and jump along.
Better yet, there’s plenty of collectibles to keep you coming back for more. Each stage has a diamond deviously hidden within, but that’s not all. You can also find data cubes that reveal the lore of Aeon Drive. And I even found some floating hot dogs in one stage. Not sure what all of them do, but if you’re a completionist, you’ll have a very good time, even though the Switch version doesn’t include official achievements. And if that’s not enough, once you beat every stage, you’ll see what the rankings for the leaderboards are. Normally I’m not a fan of speed-running, but it works well here. At first, I had no chance of getting on the boards. But by the end of the game, not only had I graced several leaderboards, I even managed to rank #1 in a Sector 9 stage!
Visually, Aeon Drive isn’t just gorgeous, but it’s so pretty it puts Dimension Drive to shame. Which isn’t to say the original was an ugly game. Rather, the focus on lush and detailed pixel-art here is top-notch, and really a big part of the reason I wanted to play it. The only possible downside is that, on occasion you’ll miss a slow-moving foe when distracted by all the colors and details. Musically, the game has a good soundtrack, but nothing amazing. What’s far better is the voice acting when Jack and V.E.R.A. talk between Sectors. Overall, I really enjoyed the presentation of the game.
Most of Aeon Drive is a platformer fan’s delight, but a few small issues held it back. One time I paused the game and came back later. Oddly, it wouldn’t let me return to the action, and I had to quit to the Home screen to get it working again. A more egregious issue that I hesitate to call a glitch is that sometimes the leaderboards don’t load your score. Not sure if this was due to my internet connection or what, but as a primary driver of the action, it needs to be fixed. Lastly, as a fan of the story of Dimension Drive, I wish the plot here was more fleshed out. Often there are beats where V.E.R.A. warns of deadly gangs and other threats to your safety, but they never show up in any way during the adventure. Given how much being hounded by the Ashajul was a key component of the first game, I was hoping for something similar here.
Until Next Time, Jack
Aeon Drive isn’t a perfect game, but it has a lot going for it. It features precise platforming, lush graphics, and an interesting premise. Sure the plot isn’t as well-realized as I hoped, and the game even ends on a serious cliffhanger ending (again), but I still think this is an adventure that fans of the original will appreciate. It’s different, but not in any ways that hurt my enjoyment. Here’s hoping 2Awesome Studio keeps up the good work, and that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of Jack and V.E.R.A.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (reviewed), PC, PS4, Xbox One; Publisher: Critical Reflex; Developer: 2Awesome Studio; Players: 1-4; Released: September 30, 2021; ESRB: E for Everyone – Mild Fantasy Violence; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.