Aery – Sky Castle is a game that took me by surprise, not least because it’s the third in a series that I didn’t know existed. A bonafide franchise! If you’re an Aery fan, I apologise, but I can reassure you that I’ve become something of a convert.
The Aery series, rooting through the promotional material, is presented as a form of relaxation, meant to generate positive feelings. In it, you play a parrot, soaring through serene environments that are fractured and floating in the sky. The thumbstick is your only control, and you bank and glide, without even a brake or acceleration, to add a degree more input. As you navigate the broken sky islands, you come across golden feathers (occasionally golden wisps) to collect, and these form the objective. Collect all of them in a level to complete it, stick 100G in your downy pockets (get stuck in, achievement hunters, this is a good’un), and add progress to a castle that sits at the end of your hub world.
The meditative flying in Aery – Sky Castle looks like it has been refined over the past few games, and it feels pretty pleasant, actually. Control over your parrot is intuitive and you’ll soon be swooping through tunnels or arches without nicking a wing feather. Settings give you the ability to manage sensitivity and Y-inversion (needed in our case) and you’ll soon be able to pull up and over mountains immediately after grabbing a collectible. You’re particularly manoeuvrable, and a sudden tree branch in your view can be dodged at the last minute.
Some levels are an absolute joy to sail through, and the feelings of serenity do start creeping in. There’s no combat or time limits here; just a leisurely swoop through distracting areas. It’s not quite Microsoft Flight Simulator, but it’s close: particular favourites were a couple of underground levels, both semi-fantasy themed, and a jungle level, complete with hidden waterfall and a central mega-tree. Aery is at its best when you’re first getting to grips with the level, and the collectible-hunt hasn’t quite begun. This is when you can absorb the level on its own merits, encountering landmarks like crystallised dragons and flying whales.
The flying is generally great, but could still do with a few nips and tucks: the parrot has real trouble with vertical climbs or drops, spinning the view wildly – the camera seems to be carried by a second (jerk) parrot, who merrily bangs its head on the obstacles that you’ve cleared. Then there’s the sedate speed, which is fine when you’re in a zen-like state, floating at your own pace, but not so hot when there’s a collectible on the other side of the level and you…just…want to…grab it.
Ah, collectibles: the major flaw in Aery – Sky Castle, plucking feathers from the experience and stopping it short of greatness. It was perhaps inevitable that Aery wouldn’t just let you fly around forever – at some point it was going to have to drop the meditation sim and force you into a conventional objective. The one that developers EpiXR Games have chosen is collectibles and, more specifically, finding 10-20 golden shinies that litter the level. Collect them all and you can finish the level, returning to the hub to move onto another.
The issues with the collectibles are so glaring that you wonder how the series has got to the third game without resolving them. Let’s stack them up. The collectibles are the same colour, animation and size as the checkpoint items, so you’re constantly mistaking them for each other. If that wasn’t bad enough, picking up a feather leaves a golden circle behind, that – again – looks indistinguishable from a collectible. Now, imagine both of these as you’re desperately searching for that last collectible. Scanning the map, you’re beset by twinklies and – more likely than not – none of them are what you’re after. Twinklies, twinklies everywhere, and not one of them is a bloody feather.
There’s more. Some levels rip out the X/Y messaging about how many collectibles you’ve gained, as if the devs had second thoughts about it breaking immersion. Well, perhaps it does, but the trade-off isn’t worth it: it leaves you confused about your progress. Most heinously, some levels are big and require quite a few collectibles, but if you leave the level then none of your progress is saved. When you have one collectible to find, dozens of taunting red herrings, no prompts to where it could be, and the threat of lost progress if you quit – well, that can give you the willies.
As a slight aside, it gave me anxiety flashbacks from Crackdown. It’s not as if Crackdown was difficult, far from it: I was just one of those misguided people who went after every Agility Orb in the game. There was something about the audio cues and the high-pitched throb as you collected them that trapped me. But I get facial tics when I remember the last 10 or so hours, hunting for the very last one, hoping desperately for that audio cue to save me. Aery – Sky Castle triggered those flashbacks, all over again, and added some of its own mistakes onto the pile.
The collectibles problem can be overplayed. It’s not as if the areas are as big as GTA V, or as cunningly hidden as its pigeons. We got through the game with only occasional bouts of frustration and navigating the same route over and over. It’s just a tad bemusing: not because the series has had time to file off these edges, but because Aery – Sky Castle promotes itself as being chill. And you will be chill, for the first half of the level. It’s in the second half that you might well be a panicked parrot effectively looking for its keys, with no one giving you hints and a mean partner throwing look-alike keys around the room.
Perhaps the devs can get it right for the next one. We certainly hope so, as the peaks in Aery – Sky Castle are pretty high. We’ve neglected to mention it so far, but Aery is a surprisingly attractive game. While it’s mostly simple and blocky, it’s also effective, as levels are densely packed, nicely lit and feel authored rather than built from the same repeating blocks. The music too is decent, swinging from chilled synths to 80’s rock noodling, and your parrot will pulse and change in colour with the music. The story’s rubbish and the voice-acting isn’t much better, but it’s not a game that needs much of either.
Aery – Sky Castle on the Xbox One is – mostly – a chilled experience, well-suited to casuals and younger players, or just for a moment of calm. Kick back, put the slippers on the table, and soar around some appealing levels. Aery is at its best when it’s in this simulation mode, tossing away traditional objectives and letting you fly. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite last, and the collect-a-thons that come afterwards have real feedback issues. Hopefully a fourth game in the series will get the balance between flight sim and traditional collecting game right, sending Aery soaring closer to top marks.