Imagine flying a Wipeout-style ship along the musical ribbon from Vib-Ribbon, while dodging lasers, while playing a twin-stick shooter at the same time, and that almost sums up Aəero.
Aəero is part of a new generation of indie rhythm-action games that has sprung up since the over-saturated -Hero games met their demise and Beat Saber took VR gaming by surprise. It shares two foundations with other experimental rhythm games; a blend of various gameplay styles, and an aim of creating flow-inducing multi-sensory experiences. However, my first few minutes with Aəero felt more like a sensory assault. After reducing my TV volume, lowering the in-game volume to 40%, and lowering the vibration strength to minimal, I could then dive into its challenging and immersive gameplay.
The core gameplay of Aəero is balancing the duelling roles of the left and right analogue sticks. With the left analogue stick, players follow the ribbon of white light that traces out each song’s most salient melody. The ribbon can soar and fall with the singer’s pitch, or swoop and spiral to follow synthesizers and bass. For me, the most challenging songs are the ones which quickly swap between delicate adjustments and larger jumps or spirals. When the ribbon isn’t on-screen, players instead use the left stick to avoid obstacles and fly through narrow gaps in routes interrupted by burning lasers or crushing platforms. The right stick controls the aiming reticle, which players use to target enemies and projectiles, while the right trigger fires the ship’s laser beams.
The tracklist of Aəero covers a range of electronic styles, from gentler tracks with soft piano interludes to harsher dubstep and trance. Although I don’t generally listen to electronic music, I enjoy the electronic-based soundtracks of games like Rocket League and Descenders. These genres often work really well in games, especially for games which blend environments, actions, and soundtracks into an immersive synthesis.
My favourite tracks were the gentler ones with female singers, especially “Pure Sunlight“, while I disliked the more grating bass-led songs and also tended to find them more difficult. Each song takes place in its own variation of Aəero‘s style, a mix of glowing tunnels, abstract neon-lit plains, and softer low-poly environments. The background environments are varied but unobtrusive, to let the white ribbon and bright red warnings and secrets stand out clearly. Personally, I sometimes found these abstract zones a little too saturated. In specific sections of two songs, if I lost the ribbon for long enough for it to fade I then couldn’t easily find the faded ribbon to re-align myself.
While each song keeps its characteristic ribbon across the three difficulty levels, every other element gets more complex. At Normal difficulty, the gameplay styles stay relatively separate; ribbon sections, shooting sections and obstacle sections overlap sporadically, giving players a taste of the multitasking skill they’ll need later. Advanced difficulty increases the movement speed, enemy count and projectile count. It also features many more sections where players need to follow the ribbon and destroy enemies simultaneously. Master difficulty, unlocked by getting a 5* score on every base-game song at Advanced, blends the action together even further, increases how quickly players take damage from missing the ribbon, and also reduces the ship’s hit points from 3 to 1.
Performing well at Aəero depends on keeping the score multiplier at its maximum 8x by closely following the ribbon, avoiding damage, and targeting enemies as efficiently as possible. “Efficiently” here means “on beat”: firing just before a beat hits the targeted enemies near-instantly, freeing up the aiming reticle for the next targets. The track “I Can’t Stop” best showcases how important timing shots is, because it combines a fairly simple ribbon with clusters of enemies and an easily-audible beat. This song made the timing mechanic “click” for me. On my third Normal playthrough, when I aimed to hit every enemy on-beat, my score doubled from my previous run.
One uncommon aspect of Aəero, which I found confusing at first, is how players’ stick movement translates onto the screen. The playable zone is not the entire screen, but the marked circle surrounding the ribbon (roughly the middle two-thirds of the screen both vertically and horizontally). Players can never crash into the sides or floor of the level backdrop, only into obstacles that appear in the playable area. Moving the left analogue stick all the way left will move the ship to the left edge of the circle, not of the screen. Moving the right analogue stick fully upwards will aim at the top of the circle, not of the screen. (Aside note: one flaw with digital gaming is that instruction manuals which hold genuinely useful information, like Aəero’s, can often fall into a void).
As the ribbon is always at the outermost edge of the circle, players are advised to follow the ribbon via rolling the left analogue stick around the edges of its full range of motion. Once I practised using this motion to follow the ribbon, I found Aəero much easier and quickly improved at it. Currently, after 9 hours of play time, I’ve reached a 5* score on every song on Normal. On Advanced, I’m inconsistent – I’m in the Top 100 of the online leaderboard in some songs, yet unable to even pass others.
Reaching these high positions was unexpected, as I’m used to leaderboards such as in Guitar Hero and Rock Band. In those games, players must 100% a song with an optimal Star Power strategy to even approach the top 1000. Songs that don’t quickly get perfected on Expert are rare; they’re usually songs designed by custom chart makers to be excruciatingly difficult. (Thanks, XKCD). But in Aəero, perfection is impossible. Or at least incredibly unlikely. Nearly 3 years after its release, the highest scorer on the easiest song on Normal difficulty has hit 98% of the ribbon. On many songs, the highest scorer hasn’t reached 90%.
Aəero was developed by “micro-studio” Mad Fellows Games, which has just two staff. But it’s so polished and seamless that I didn’t realise how indie it was until I looked up its history. (This is helped by the teams’ decades of experience working in AAA studios, I assume). The only evidence that Aəero is from a tiny team, aside from its credits sequence and Kickstarter thanks page, is its small scope. The base game contains 15 songs from 11 artists, while the Complete Edition adds all 6 DLC songs. Technically this makes Aəero very short, as playing through every song takes around two hours. But the gameplay, which is easy to improve at but impossible to truly master, gives Aəero an incredibly strong “just one more go” appeal for fans.
Overall I was surprised by how much I liked Aəero, given that I don’t enjoy twin-stick shooters and don’t generally listen to electronic music. Even the two songs I actively dislike (sorry, dubstep) are still fun to play, which shows just how engaging the concept and the mechanics are. For me, Aəero is an excellent demonstration of “quality over quantity”, which is often ignored in recent games. Mad Fellows Games seem to have developed the concept and its core mechanics, then polished them and iterated on them relentlessly to iron out any possible detractions. As a result, Aəero doesn’t feel like a gimmicky experimental game, but instead like an arcade hit – it knows exactly what it wants to do, and carries that aim out stylishly.