Roll out! From Aether Studios, the creators of the beloved platform fighter Rivals of Aether comes a new dice-based roguelite set in their very own universe. Dungeons of Aether has the player uncover a long-forgotten secret hidden beneath a small mining town of Julesvale through the eyes of four unique heroes: Fleet the courageous fox archer, Slade the adventurous shark pirate, Hamir the timid armadillo warrior and Artemis the fiery lizard knight.

The story campaign begins with Fleet, hailing from Julesvale, causing a ruckus in an attempt to thwart the operations of Badger Co. in the area. As can be concluded from the journals scattered around the dungeons, the company has been using its position to force residents out of their homes, while damaging their foundations from underneath. Although she gets going on the right track, Fleet soon gets convinced by Randall, an elderly, generous buzzard, to go steal ancient artifacts from three newcomers to the town. Presented with an opportunity to play the hero once more, she agrees. One of the many short scenarios which communicate a character’s flaws and motivations quickly and effectively.

The hub town
The cozy safe haven of Julesvale

Slade, Hamir, and Artemis are unveiled to be the three newcomers, each hailing from different parts of Aether’s world, with unique designs and backstories to boot. If I were to choose one, Hamir’s story grabbed me in particular. A big guy in a bit of an emotional pickle. Relatable. Randall presents each hero with a piece of Amsidian, the mineral found in Julesvale, as an up-front payment. It can be used to upgrade different establishments found around town or used instantly for a quick refillable. This is where the “-lite” element of this roguelite comes into play; the upgrades are permanent, and the owners tend to extend their establishments to certain rooms in the tunnels, making it a worthwhile investment.

The big twist was disappointing—the long build-up and overt foreshadowing (even through one of the gameplay mechanics) left me a bit indifferent for a few chapters. Not until the last two dungeons, when I didn’t know where exactly the characters were headed and what new elements would be introduced, did I get invested in it again. The ending provides a satisfying conclusion to not just the tale of the four heroes, but also the journals, which I found to be the most memorable part of the story.

A cutscene art of Artemis at her Imperial Palace post
The cutscenes look simply beautiful

Each of the protagonists is not only unique visually, but also mechanically. Though they all possess the same basic resources (three health points and ten stamina points) and may use the same equipment, their playstyles differ due to their unique traits and abilities for use in battle, reflective of their personalities and design. A combat turn begins with a draft, where each player takes three dice from a pool of six random ones, each color-coded to one of four specific stats: Attack, Defense, Accuracy, and Speed. Each of them, when used on their corresponding ability, adds the dice total to the stat, but they can also be used on other slots to boost them up by just one point. There are two exceptions: the 1s, which can only be used on the stat of their color, and yellow stamina dice, which provide their bonus to any stat they are slotted into.

Now take, for example, Slade, as pictured below. His unique ability gives him a specific drawback and a specific advantage. While all Defense dice only count for one point no matter where they are slotted into, he can dodge all attacks as long as he has a higher speed stat and three stamina points to spare. Stamina points can also, however, be used to add one point to any stat at any given time. All characters can regenerate stamina through the use of their abilities. Slade can do that by using Squat, which provides him with two defense points and, if an attack is blocked with the combined defense, regenerates two stamina.

Slade the Shark fighting a green creature called Oasis Lurker
Predicting all possible results of a draft quickly becomes addictive

What is more, the player can see their opponent’s move before ending the turn. This allows the player to see if the opponent is using an attacking move that can be blocked, or whether they are going to buff themselves for the next turn. The player can thus lay traps for the opponent, allowing them to think an opportunity for a strike is there, but adding the extra defense with one of their abilities to block and gain an advantage. Furthermore, such a scenario works if your character goes first, which requires an equal or higher speed stat than the opponent. All this needs to be taken into account in the draw phase, and discovering ways to trick the AI into making mistakes is a key part of combat.

All this leads to a lot of long-term planning and setting up while waiting for a better draw, which may clash with the fantasy Dungeons of Aether is trying to present. Slade may be an agile and cunning swordsman who would prefer to strike when the time is right, but some others do not appear as if they enjoy a passive combat style, but Artemis is a highly aggressive berserker who charges into battle and is not afraid of wounds. Having her buff herself for several turns and strike once every few minutes doesn’t gel with her character, but it is the optimal strategy. This sort of dissonance certainly takes getting used to; thankfully the fun that comes with strategizing a way out of any dicey situation is worth it in the end. What’s more, the dev team appears to be aware of these issues and have been working on changing enemy decision-making and on buffing specific characters.

A screenshot showing the branching paths one can take
Exploring different paths rarely rewards the player with satisfying rewards.

What is less fun is choosing the path through the randomized dungeons. There are too few options to choose from while exploring, and even fewer of them present any interesting dilemmas. Standing next to a room illuminates it completely, so the player can see whether there is a path leading out of it or not. Usually, engaging with an enemy that does not guard a path forward is not worth it. At best it may lead to finding slightly better loot, at worst it means losing one of the three hearts. Truth be told, there are a few very powerful pieces of equipment that, once obtained, will likely stay on the character for the remainder of the adventure; once Slade gets an artifact that provides him with an additional speed die, no extra fights are worth it.

Dungeons of Aether’s contemporaries often lean into the risk vs reward system much harder, introducing it in more areas such as the economy and random events. This game has one enjoyable event of such kind, an altar where any item may be sacrificed in exchange for an unknown one, but it is not enough to make exploration feel fresh and comes too late into the game. There are also events where it is possible to trade other items for money, but even on the hard difficulty I rarely found myself in need of additional coin.

Injured tonwsfolk hiding in the mines
Townsfolk of Julesvale could use some heroes right about now!

Some stages introduce region-specific hazards and opportunities, they rarely amount to anything exciting, however. The best one is found in the crypts. Some floors are covered in webbing, which takes away two stamina points on contact. It is often positioned on the path which skips an encounter, and there were moments when I seriously needed my remaining stamina during Dungeons of Aether’s challenge dungeon mode, so it presented an actual dilemma. The worst, however, is found in the fire area. Some floors there have lava pits that explode once every few moves a player makes. They provide no challenge, as they can be avoided by moving back and forth on safe spaces, but a small slip-up can cost an entire heart. It’s a terrible idea that only detracts from the experience.

Though the most important part of the roguelite is its gameplay loop, Dungeons of Aether spends quite a bit of time on its plot. Being part of a larger universe may have come with some expectations, but the focus on the lore of regions outside of the playing area ended up taking too big a chunk from the mostly character-driven story. Stellar designs and animations already bring out a lot of presence and charisma from them, so with some more focus they could shine—finding ways for them to interact with each other more would have been welcome. There is only one time when they go through a dungeon together, and it is undoubtedly the best part of Dungeons of Aether, elevated by some stellar music in what is otherwise a by-the-books soundtrack.

A screenshot showcasing some of the pixelart found during the exploration
A tired doggo, a cute Hamir and a silly mining robot

That is to say, most other locations, be that a crystal cave or a flooded area, are accompanied by music that takes few risks, sticking instead to relatively short loops consisting of sounds and ideas found in any other game where the same area can be found. Bling of crystals incorporated into the dreamy melody, and playful tunes of a near-water area sound tired and overdone when compared to the epic themes found towards the end. The short loops sure don’t help. The decision-making process may not always take long, but they are very noticeable even in these short moments of getting lost in thought. This is especially an issue during combat, which can take quite a bit of time.

These complaints don’t overwhelm the experience largely thanks to the unbelievably slick pixel art. Every single character and place simply drips with style. There is a wide variety in terms of color, all combined perfectly, with a thick outline to make the designs pop even more. The combat animations make things feel even more alive, and Dungeons of Aether goes all out on enemy deaths. Be that badgers being crushed under the boulder they used as a weapon or a robot exploding into tiny pieces and its pilot’s body falling limp from the cockpit, they accentuate a victory with an appreciated pizzazz. And that only describes the cutscene and combat art, as the presentation of the exploration utilizes these tiny versions of characters and obstacles. They still preserve just the perfect amount of detail to make them all adorable.

The highs of Dungeons of Aether overshadow the lows, but it is difficult not to feel disappointed in the somewhat surface-level exploration in particular. Even great combat does not come without caveats. It is my hope, however, that this is not a one-off title in the Aetherverse, and that all of these ideas and all this amazing art will get a chance to be fully realized within the context of an even grander experience. And I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing these characters cross over to some of their future projects, just like here Olympia played a small role in the narrative. In summary, the amazing pixel art and the clever mechanics overcome weak exploration and gear selection to create a tight, short experience. The roguelite nature and the “just one more encounter” nature propels it forward to a satisfying conclusion.

Mateusz played Dungeons of Aether on PC with his own bought copy.

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