Microsoft’s XNA games are difficult because we don’t know what to compare them to. Because yes, they are monetized DLC, so they are naturally compared to other DLC releases, but in terms of general quality are more easily compared to flash games and mods for larger works. To true indie games As in, there’s some strong quality here, but a lot of it is buried under inexperience and low production values.
Aphelion is both different and the same. There are fascinating ideas here, many of which are executed with great focus and effect. On the other hand, these successes are occasionally mired in problems, in amateur mistakes and in the fact that the game itself is only an episodic release.
If you’re looking for a bullet point score, the thing I could say is when I finished it, I wanted to play it again.
This aside, the game has a very interesting plot. It has soul. You can feel the developers had some great ideas, and they put a lot of them into practice. The characters are interesting, if a little shallow, the environments are atmospheric and realistic, and the game is fairly well paced.
This praise, however, is showered under a cavalcade of buts. The plot is interesting, but the writing, for the most part, is inelegant. It’s functional, but rarely convincing, never enthralling. They create an interesting bunch of characters, but then don’t have the chops to really make us feel anything without a typical fantasy fighting yourself trope that never gets resolved. It’s disappointing, because they do set up an awful lot of interesting dominos, and they try to knock them down, but they don’t have the force of art to knock them down. Additionally, most of the drama is presented awkwardly, most likely limited by the tools they’re using.
But honestly, when you’re paying three dollars for an independent RPG, the production values aren’t why you come. You come for two reasons. One is the story, which does work. Sure, it’s episodic, which hampers much of the plot impact (I hardly consider it a spoiler to say that the game ends with a Look at that cool shit going on over there! moment; those moments may ruin full games like Assassin’s Creed, but not an independent, episodic RPG), and the writing sucks, but there’s some really good atmosphere and an interesting world which combine to make the game compelling in its own odd way.
The other reason you play independent RPGs? Mechanics. And Aphelion has mechanics in spades. Graphically, it resembles personal favorite PC western made JRPG Septerra Core, and it has the same western JRPG vibe. Battles are straight turn based, but it features a leveling up system straight out of something like Fallout or (to be very precise) other personal favorite RPG Geneforge. It’s amazing how well customizable leveling systems take to the humble JRPG; it’s like getting peanut butter in chocolate. Sure, Aphelion doesn’t afford you the most practical freedom: most characters only have a couple viable builds, but the freedom to experiment and build a broken character is there.
And they give you plenty of opportunity to use it. For a five hour long, three dollar game, Aphelion has a surprising amount of replayability. Secret bosses, a colosseum, and a robust new game plus with multiple levels of difficulty mean you could play it multiple times before you exhaust all of its possibilities. And speaking of difficulty, Aphelion is suitably difficult; as someone who occasionally scoffs at universally considered impossible RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, I couldn’t actually beat the secret boss. And some other encounters proved to be challenging.
What I’m saying here is, there’s depth here, and perhaps pennies on the hour of entertainment. Which is a very good ration, especially in this modern day where we can sometimes pay 10$ for one hour of gameplay.
I can’t, in good faith, give Aphelion an absolute recommendation. Your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for true indie. I don’t mean indie like Braid or Limbo, either. I mean indie like Mr. Robot or Immortal Defense, brilliant, brilliant games that were made with zero budget. Aphelion has no budget written all over it, and while it does a fantastic job providing you with bang for your buck, the sheer lack of sheen will get to some people. However, if you’re willing to put up with the scuffed edges, Aphelion shows us a lot of the potential still lying dormant in the JRPG genre.