The big hype in the action RPG space right now is Diablo IV. It's understandable, given Blizzard's size and influence in the industry, and the series' prominence in gaming history. But I'm going to take the contrarian position that it's not the 800 pound gorilla you should be looking at. It's the smaller offerings, the indie studios willing to play with the basic formula and take genuine chances. One of those experiments looks like it may be what gives Blizzard a run for their money. Keep your eyes on Sands of Aura, dungeoneers, because it could be what breaks you away from the big bad Lord of Terror.
I sat down with Eric Zhang, Cassidy Phan, and Michael Shistik from Chashu Entertainment for a half-hour run through the ruins of Hurwell, one of the environments players will explore and battle through in Sands of Aura. The narrative of the game centers around a world where most of the habitable land has been swallowed up by a vast ocean of sand. Now, what were once the highest peaks are the only areas left untouched, islands of natural stone and ancient masonry. I was immediately struck by the character design. Rather than Blizzard's emphasis on highly realistic looking people, the characters in Sands of Aura bear more of a resemblance to designs from the earlier Final Fantasy games. Not entirely surprising, since Final Fantasy IX was listed as one of the major influences on the game. The mixture of soaring and crumbling pseudo-Gothic architecture combined with the softer character lines does give a feeling of a JRPG without going through a bunch of menus. The devs have indicated that there will be other islands to visit and that there will be an overarching main quest guiding players towards their destiny, but they also indicated that exploration between islands will be an element of the game.
Since this is an action RPG, there's going to be an emphasis on quick thinking and enemy prioritization. At the same time, though, another of the major influences makes its presence known through the combat elements. Rather than hordes of enemies like you find in the Diablo series, you face smaller numbers of more skilled and more dangerous foes in the vein of Dark Souls and other "Soulsborne" games. It's not to say you can't get swamped if you're careless, but you're going to need to be aware of your surroundings. Thankfully, unlike both Diablo or Dark Souls, you don't need to worry about recovering your body should you die. Enemies respawn when you die or when you use one of the bells that act as save points (analogous to the bonfires of the Dark Souls series), but the bells also serve as the source of your limited number of healing effects. You're going to get hit, obviously, but you can mitigate that with rolls, dodges, and even jumps. Additionally, there are no ranged weapons in Sands of Aura, but ranged attacks are possible as a special ability for certain weapons. Players will need to keep an eye on the "stamina" gauge for the special attacks, the cooldowns of their weapon runes, and a "corruption" gauge which diminishes damage done to enemies. Basically, as your weapon gets coated with the unholy and eldritch gore of your foes, it does less damage, but you can clean it off and bring it back up to full lethality. And the devs hinted that some weapon builds might have a hidden benefit (or at least a nasty surprise) for holding off on cleaning your weapons in certain situations.
At present, there's not a whole lot of customization in the character as far as prioritizing stats or even changing your appearance, but at this point it's not a particularly big gripe. You're not tied into any class, so you don't have to stick to a single weapon or or build. You can swap to a second weapon set, though right at the moment, you can't swap armor right in the middle of combat so having a second full set of gear prepped for a radical shift in enemies isn't (yet) an option. Because enemies respawn, there's the potential for them to drop loot the next time you engage them. Some of it might be weapons, some might be armor, and some might be raw materials which you can use to craft new weapons or upgrade existing gear. And customizing your gear plays a big part of discovering your ideal play style.
For the demonstration, we chose a dual wielding axe configuration. The pommel chosen added an extra bonus attack after every third attack, while the "style" of weapon brought its own benefits, extra armor penetration in this case. The developers had warned that this particular build was "broken" and didn't quite know what to expect. It became apparent that, broken or not, it was a blast as our (so far) nameless hero ventured through the ruins and proceeded to utterly annihilate the various mooks before taking on the final boss of the adventure. The boss fight wasn't exactly a walkover, but it was clear this build definitely made it easy to chew them up and spit them out. You could hear all three of the devs grinning ear to ear even as they polished off the boss. It speaks well to the potential difficulty curve of the game, hopefully maintaining that sweet spot between the "click, click, splat" ease of the Diablo series and the steep challenge of Soulsborne games, enough to entice players with the desire for one more run without making it so punishing you smash your computer in frustration.
Currently, Sands of Aura is prepping for an Early Access release on Steam. It likely will not get out before the remaster of Diablo II, but when it does, Blizzard should be shaking in their shoes.