Continuing our coverage of demos and Early Access titles, we have Sands of Aura, an isometric soulslike game set in an open-world desert.
The game’s story focuses on the massive desert we are in, and the current lack of water. A cistern was built in secret, but it ends up being drained due to the water becoming tainted, which sends us to explore the world looking for a solution.
Sands of Aura tries to emulate a souls-like as best as it can, but it seems to only pick up on the negative parts of the genre. The game has some horrid difficulty spikes; the camera constantly zooms inside of your character in closed environments; ranged enemies have very aggressive tracking; and the character keeps getting stuck on the geometry.
Emulating a genre like this is not an easy task by any means, but it’s almost commendable how Sands of Aura manages to somehow only pick up on the bad traits of both souls-likes and ARPGs.
It takes more than a dodge roll and enemies who hit hard to make a souls-like, which is something that the game doesn’t seem to understand. The combat is really simple, and it feels more like a slow ARPG than a true souls-like title.
Some of the enemies seem to have a posture/guard mechanic, but I have no idea what it does when you deplete their guard. They flash white when you pop their posture bar, but good luck figuring out what that means.
They don’t seem to stagger more, which completely defeats the point of a posture mechanic, and they don’t take more damage either, so I am completely clueless as to why this happens or what this mechanic means.
It would be really good if the game had any sort of codex that explained game mechanics, or really anything at all. Sands of Aura keeps track of almost nothing, so good luck memorizing the name of every NPC you meet because the game has no sort of guidance when it comes to quests.
I’m honestly surprised it has a quest log at all, considering how little this game cares about moving you forward. We reach the end of the first zone and then have to backtrack all the way to the beginning, but it’s never hinted, shown or told to us.
It’s hilarious when the NPCs task you with draining the cistern at the end of the tutorial and then just leave while you are doing it. None of them tell you where to go next; they just get out of there and have you figure out that you have to backtrack an entire zone.
It’s fine to have a game that doesn’t handhold you, but it’s another thing to have a game where the player has no idea on where to go next and has to resort to guessing. “My game doesn’t hold your hand” is an argument some developers hide behind, but it usually just means the player will spend a lot of time lost and frustrated.
The game’s map serves to guide you towards places, but it’s actually worthless when you get there. It’s one of those concept art maps where there aren’t any details about the zone you are in, so it’s only really useful in the overworld.
The game’s environments and monsters don’t look bad, but our character’s art style is way too cartoonish. It’s just such a generic art style that it barely registers as anything; it’s unbelievable that the thing you’ll be looking at for most of the game is aesthetically on par with a bought asset.
In contrast to the first area, which is pretty easy and straightforward, the enemies in the game’s second area do 70% of your health in a swing, mostly to remind the player that Sands of Aura is a souls-like, because otherwise it would be difficult to remember.
The path to the second boss is pretty short, but filled with enemies that almost kill you with every swing, so you’ll reach him with almost no resources unless you do the route perfectly. You also can’t rush through the area, since he sits in an open arena that enemies can follow you into.
Aside from doing an illegal amount of damage, the game’s second boss only has one string of attacks and a shove that comes out at light speed, designed to hit any player naive enough to think this game is balanced and would give you an opening to hit the boss.
Alongside the path to the boss being littered with enemies, he also has a few skeletons around him in the arena, because fights with adds are
annoying hard, and souls-likes are hard, remember?
The game’s world eventually does open up, as you are allowed to sail through the sand to whatever area you choose. It’s nice that you are allowed to pick areas to clear in whatever order you want, but it’s hard to care when the core gameplay loop is so infuriating and unbalanced.
Sands of Aura has been in development for four years and has been in Early Access for almost two years now. It’s a middle-of-the-road game that just lacks so much mechanically. I tend to be positive toward Early Access games here, but it’s really hard to say nice things about this one.
It feels like a test of patience disguised as a video game, and while I usually try to end things on a positive note, I doubt the developer’s approach to game design will just change this deep into the project, but hopefully they’ll prove me wrong.
Sands of Aura is available on Microsoft Windows (through Steam).