There’s no shortage of Metroidvanias on the Xbox, but there’s something oddly refreshing about Aeterna Noctis and its determination to make a pilgrimage of sorts back to one of the games that started it all: Castlevania. It doesn’t try too hard to forge its own path, and instead creates a finely crafted homage to the vampyric series, with the odd modernisation to ensure it doesn’t feel stale. If the prospect of that excites you, then Aeterna Noctis won’t let you down.
It’s the tale of two evenly matched warriors, the King of Darkness and the Queen of Light, locked in a cycle of war and then death, before they are resurrected to fight all over again. The cyclical myth at the heart of Aeterna Noctis might have been better suited to a roguelike: some grounding for why you keep looping back to fight again. But Aeterna Noctis takes that narrative to some far-flung places, and the gameplay is steeped with it. The people you meet and the places you travel all reflect back onto the story, making it one of the more narrative-driven examples of the genre.
Aeterna Noctis is also immensely pretty. There are echoes of Castlevania here – at least, one very much this-gen – with gothic, horrific graveyards segueing into almost Final Fantasy-like vistas. Aeternum Game Studios know how to stage an action sequence, with demons and giants moving in parallax in the background, making you feel like you’re simultaneously important and miniscule. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the main character – the King of Darkness – is a bit of a dud, a vacuum of personality when everyone else seems full of it, but we guess that immortality will do that to you.
The structure is relatively simple, and will be familiar to anyone who has played one of the many Metroidvanias that have absorbed a bit of Dark Souls. There are sixteen zones to explore, and they each follow the pattern of starting with the game’s ‘bonfire’ – a throne – and then wending outwards to explore a game world, looking for the world’s crystal, but also unlocking abilities for the King of Darkness, including the usual suspects of double jumps and wall-kicks. On the way, you will get hurt, which will chip away at a number of Zelda-like health pips, and you will die, which will return you to the nearest throne. Your death leaves a bat-like emanation behind, which you can return to to regain your lost XP.
It’s a familiar structure that never feels unfair. Getting back to your corpse is rarely difficult, and Aeterna Noctis chooses not to compound it when you die multiple times in a row. The generosity in death means that Aeterna Noctis can be a bit more savage in its gameplay, giving you harder encounters to complete. It’s slightly more difficult than your average Metroidvania – finger in the air – and you will be on your toes for much of it.
That difficulty mostly comes from the platforming and bosses, rather than any significant combat challenge. Platforming in particular is a bit knotty, and might not be to everyone’s taste. We fell in and out of love with it, dependent on how many smaller, disappearing platforms were in play. It has a tendency to require Megaman-like precision, where the character model is actually larger than many of the platforms that you are aiming for and – purely subjective, this – we felt a latency to the jumping that took some adjusting to.
The bosses are as overblown and ludicrous as you would hope, and they dabble in a bit of pattern recognition that means you will die endlessly until the muscle memory kicks in. Our quibble with the boss design is that they go on for slightly too long: it’s all too easy to be defeated by attrition rather than being outfought, as small mistakes nibble at your health over five or ten minutes.
But aside from the near-imperceptible lag that we felt, Aeterna Noctis feels fluid to play. Like the best in the genre, it invokes the ‘balletic’ adjective, as you feel a flow to the melee, ranged and blink attacks that you develop in your arsenal. It’s initially simplistic and you wonder if you will grow tired of it, but the abilities layer on at the right time to enrich proceedings.
There’s a skill tree to allow some optimisation and builds, but we’re a little ambivalent to it: it’s mostly percentage increases on DPS and critical hits – that sort of thing. It never quite strays into the territory of the unlocked abilities, giving you something that genuinely changes how you play. Still, it’s sprawling, and the unlocks come at a fair old frequency, so it offers a metronomic sense of progression that is valuable.
We should note a few crashes. The later into the game we got, the more crash bugs we uncovered. They tended to arrive just before a significant unlock, making them disproportionally annoying. But they were rare, too, with a few occurring before completion. It was enough to make it worth mentioning.
By the end of Aeterna Noctis, we were satisfied. It’s got substance and craft, pulling you in and immersing you in its slightly familiar – but no less beautiful – world. We could harp on about the lack of anything innovative, particularly when Metroidvanias are coming out of the Xbox’s wazoo, but we had an appetite for this kind of game: one that has a handle on what makes the genre great, and then delivers on it.
If you have any love for the 2D Castlevanias, and wish that someone would pick up the whip again, then Aeterna Noctis has heeded your call.
You can buy Aeterna Noctis from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S