Challenge is central to a truly great game. Narrative can only get you so far, especially if you don’t have the mechanical ingenuity to back it all up. That’s not to say that all great games blur their focus on story, but you can only play so much of The Last of Us before you just want to play something else. The simplest games are often the best, but there are some that tread the line perfectly. Dark Souls has one of the most fascinating stories I’ve played in an RPG, and it’s treated as a sidestep to the firm (but fair) challenges it offers. I bet half of the people who played that even knew that it has a story.
Unfortunately, this style of game – often dubbed ‘Souls-like’ – has become rotten, cut tragically from its branch of genius by the rot of mediocre imitation. Indie and publisher developers alike have fervently attempted to replicate From Software’s magnum opus over the last seven years. Yes, it has been that long. Fortunately, the worst of it seems to be over. Nioh and the newly-kinda-released Dead Cells are fantastic adaptations of the Souls-like, treading that line perfectly between narrative and gameplay.
It’s from this school of careful treading that Azuran Tales: Trials enters the fray. Romanian developer Tiny Trinket Games promises an ‘old-school platformer […] with a modern take on it’. The game itself wastes no time in showing you how it wants you to play: with great patience. Azuran Tales is a title that wears its difficulty as a badge of pride, while still giving players more than just sore thumbs.
Immense attention to detail is found in almost every aspect of the game’s design
Time to pay your enemy tax!
The very first thing that absolutely needs to be praised is Azuran Tales’ level design. Procedurally-generated levels have become somewhat of a running joke, a price paid for their misuse by time-strained indie developers. Azuran Tales, on the other hand, has levels that have been so carefully crafted that they’re honestly overflowing with character.
Despite the visual limitations of Azuran Tales’ 2.5D platformer role, it manages to put out some seriously gorgeous stuff. Immense attention to detail is found in almost every aspect of the game’s design, simply in the games’ backgrounds! Stefan Nicolescu deserves as much credit as he can get for his single-handed design work on this game. Give it up, everybody! Give it up. While there are only fifteen levels, each and every one of them is a blast to explore and die in. And you’ll be dying a lot.
Traps can and will one-hit you. Enemies are an obstacle that must be overcome with careful planning, lest you be cut down by their enormous damage dongs. Yet, it’s never quite that unfair. The only real punishment for dying is losing time and/or sanity – losing shards used for stat progression becomes a non-issue in the late game. Enemies each have a weak spot to exploit, which you can get quite good at. Azuran Tales doesn’t just wear its difficulty as a badge of pride, it shoves it in your face and laughs at your feeble attempts at not hitting yourself. But, in the end, you realise that it was only giving you swirlies because you were being a bit of a dickhead and he wasn’t a bad game after all.
Eagle-eyed readers (or those without short-term memory loss) will remember how I mentioned Dark Souls’ hands-off approach to storytelling, and it being the key to its beauty. Azuran Tales has officially raided Dark Souls’ makeup case and ‘borrowed’ their foundation. For what you see in the game, here’s a quick summary: the god of the dead has picked your soul out of the lucky dip to do away with an evil man who wants to take over the world. You’ll do this by gathering pieces of an amulet with the power to vanquish no-gooders from the land. Generic, to be sure, but that’s not where the focus is. The game’s plot is essentially non-existent, but there’s plenty to go through in your own time if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s hands-off backstory at its finest.
Combat is where the hands are firmly placed, and where Azuran Tales’ real bulls**tery lies. Enemies do have weak spots that can be methodically exploited, but the hitboxes often aren’t your friend. Some enemies in particular are teeth-gnashers in this regard. Let’s just say that you’re going to not like sharks after a while. Trial-and-error is the name of the game, to be sure, but it’s a frustrating endeavor when you’re unsure about what even penetrates your shield. Movement fares about the same: Satisfying as anything when it works, but an absolute bastard when it doesn’t. For example, you can perform dodge rolls in the air that will save your bacon countless times but moving vertically in any direction is a case study in frustration. Just wait until your first monster group sits on the only ledge available for you to try getting up it. Just ****ing wait.
Despite minor hiccups, Azuran Tales: Trials manages to be a finely-crafted game in almost every way. Tiny Trinket has another game in the series coming, and I’ll be very excited to see how they can improve on what they’ve got here. Their mantra of making games is ‘first and foremost fun to play but also challenging and rewarding for the player that is skilled enough to complete them’, and that rubs me the right way.
Reviewed on Windows | Review code supplied by publisher
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