The prolific Aery series has been flitting about for a while now, exploring new directions for its parrot-sims. With the Calm Mind series for example, the developers have been testing out whether their games can bring serenity to those who play it, a kind of wellness booster. Little Bird Adventure and A Journey Beyond Time are mostly concerned with taking you to a wide range of fantastical environments.
Aery – A New Frontier has a different pitch. It turns its attention to the science-fiction genre, looking to tell a story that spans galaxies. Taking the lead from two of its sister series, Life of Fly and The Murder Diaries, it wants to tell a single coherent narrative, threading across its multiple levels. Dialogue is tied to that thread, as voiceovers slowly but surely piece the world together with each collectible feather.
For anyone who hasn’t played an Aery game before, it’s so simple to describe that it’s a bit of a reviewer’s dream. You are a parrot, and that parrot flies eternally in one direction if you choose to leave it going. But you probably want to use your analogue stick to direct it, and your A button to do an almost imperceptible boost. There’s a barrel-roll with the shoulder buttons, but things move so slowly and safely that you’re only pressing it to pass the time.
What you’re doing is collecting feathers, placed reasonably prominently in sweeping environments. In Aery – A New Frontier, the environments are mostly spaceships, planetary colonies, and alien landscapes. Many of the Aery games are non-linear, in the sense that you can collect the feathers in any order. Aery – A New Frontier’s a different flavour, though, requiring you to collect feathers in a specific order.
And that’s it! Beautiful, Vangelis-like synth music tickles your earholes, and each level takes roughly fifteen minutes to complete with forty or so feathers to find. There are eight levels, with a lovely 100 Gamerscore for completing each one (alongside some achievements for riding through warpgates). Nothing here will tax you, nor will it prompt you to replay. Aery – A New Frontier is over in a couple of hours, and is reasonably proud of the fact.
For the more seasoned Aery players among us, Aery – A New Frontier is a bold new direction. But it’s also an intergalactic swing and a miss. For a series that has been slowly evolving over the years, the new additions take the series a couple of steps back.
It has so many drawbacks that we feel like we’re in a tractor beam. The sci-fi setting is one of them. Aery games have thrived by making each level feel wildly different from the rest: one moment you can be swooping through viking longboats, the next you’re taking a tour through the American midwest. The attention deficit is a credit to the series, and it means – even though you are flying at roughly 5kph – things rarely get boring.
Aery – A New Frontier should really be called Aery – The Same Old Frontier. Thanks to the story, which, bizarrely for the opportunities of the genre, don’t actually travel beyond a single planet, each level feels roughly the same. You better get used to high-tech, Mass-Effect-like constructions, because you’re going to see them in space, on a planet’s surface and then back again, doing the loop a few times over. Spaceships, space vehicles and warpgates get a fair amount of asset reuse.
Sure, the alien world occasionally gets a look in, but it’s a bleak, dark place that doesn’t seem to match the story. The dialogue tells us that we’re meant to find it awesome in the biblical sense, but it’s drab as anything. And you soon come to learn that an ancient, Prothean-style race beat you to the planet, yet rather than finding wondrous alien artefacts, you come across a technology that looks frustratingly similar to those of humans.
By swapping non-linear for linear collectibles, Aery – A New Frontier also feels a whole lot less satisfying. We had been recently enjoying Aery – Calm Mind 2, which let you explore in any direction you chose, and then dropped in more collectibles than you needed. The result was a blissful exploration game that removed almost all of its sharp edges. But Aery – A New Frontier is all sharp edges.
Part of the problem is that the areas are so large, so sweeping, that the next feather can be a huge distance away. Spotting that feather, which is essential for progression, is difficult because of the sheer number of directions it could be in, but also because there is so much detail in certain environments that they can be hard to pick out. There’s no guide or prompting system, and it’s perfectly possible on levels like the space dock on the Imprisonment level to be utterly lost, careening around with a desperate eye out for a twinkling feather. It doesn’t help that some change course at 90 or 180 degree angles, giving you no indication that you were meant to be swerving in another direction.
Aery – A New Frontier is also bizarrely buggy, although a patch is due soon to address the bigger issues. On three separate occasions, invisible walls denied us access to a single feather, and we had to approach from wacky directions, performing barrel-rolls to glitch ourselves through.
These are, as we mentioned, being fixed, so we won’t let it impact our score, but they are emblematic nonetheless. More so than any other Aery game that we’ve played, Aery – A New Frontier is plagued with pop-in, as planets, moons and larger ships all appear and reappear like strobe lights. The larger scale to the environments clearly doesn’t suit Aery’s engine. But even the smaller stuff seems to cause the game trouble, as subtitles fail to load, even though we can hear the voiceover playing.
The story, too, doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny. It’s not a bad story, but it’s broken up into such frustrating, William Shatner-like stop-start chunks that it’s impossible to pay attention to it. They all go something like this, across multiple collectibles…
This is a story
This is a story of a parrot
This is a story of parrot on a mission
A mission to fly
Fly around the level
If the way you deliver your story is easy to parody, then you’re probably doing something wrong. It’s interminable, and you could probably summarise the plot of Aery – A New Frontier in three tightly constructed sentences. But this game has 320 of them, repeating itself ad nauseum. We may have been moving forward as the parrot, but in narrative terms, we felt like we were staying stock still.
Which is all something of a shame, mostly because the same old joys of Aery are still here. The laid-back flying is still lovely. We empty our brain as we play an Aery title, and it’s still true here (we had to empty it, so the story wouldn’t annoy us so much). And there were moments, as we zoomed through hyperspace or found an ancient monument when everything aligned. The far-too-good-for-this music, the simple but effective art, and the gameplay were all in harmony, and we had to nod our head in appreciation.
Aery – A New Frontier takes a punt at huge, sweeping science-fiction storytelling and misses. The story is too constrained to do the job, and the bugs kept on yanking us out of our immersion (if we could progress at all). Aery fans will swoop in and purchase regardless, but anyone else curious about the series should opt for Aery – Calm Mind 2 instead.
You can buy Aery – A New Frontier from the Xbox Store