Ario Review

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Ario is just about the jankiest game I’ve played in modern memory. It’s coming apart at the seams, and I can see tiny slips of sellotape holding it together. But what’s bursting through is so much ambition and enthusiasm that it manages to generate just enough goodwill to keep me playing. I made it to the end credits, but marvelled that Ario didn’t fall apart before I got there. 

ario review 1
2D platforming – 3d space!

For a bit of context, Ario is an action-platformer that brings 2D platforming into a 3D space. It’s a trick that goes back to Pandemonium on the PS1, and has given us classics like Little Nightmares, Inside and more. While the world might look three-dimensional and with great depth, you can only move on a single plane within it. Enemies and allies might feature in the background but you can’t reach them (although that’s something of a lie: more on that later). They only become active once they’re on the same lateral space as you. And the level can spin around and up towers, giving the illusion of a 3D platformer when it very much isn’t. 

And like Little Nightmares and Inside, you are not doing much in the way of combat. That’s mostly because you’re a young lad in a fantasy-mediaeval world of knights and, well, zombie-knights. You wouldn’t have much of a chance. Your only real countermeasures are your speed (you will be leaving a lot of enemies in the dust), a slide which takes you through their legs, and a crossbow which can be nocked with arrows or bombs. But they’re limited and draw immediate attention, so you need to use them sparingly. Basically, you’re a parkour specialist. Think of the 2D Prince of Persias, downgraded to a Live Arcade title, and you’re mostly there.

The story of Ario has you hunting for your mother, who has been taken by an enemy that has recently staged a coup in your kingdom. The world is in chaos: a plague sweeps the countryside, and innocent townsfolk have been thrown in jail. Your speed is your asset, so you’re leathering through the world to catch up with her. And perhaps you can change the world for the better as you do it. 

For a £10.49 indie game, Ario looks rather spangly. There are hints of Trine about Ario’s world, albeit without the fart jokes and abundance of colour. While it doesn’t look remotely AAA, it still feels like a world that you would want to explore. The biomes shift quickly from forests to ruins to castles and prisons, and there’s not a cut corner to be found. In art terms, we don’t have a single bad thing to say about Ario. 

ario review 2
Ario looks pretty nice

Here come the buts. Because everything else is as rickety as Ario’s bridges. We’d need several A5 journals, written in psychotic small print, to cover every sharp edge and issue that is contained within the short running time. This is not a slick experience. 

Even stuff you’d take for granted are done jankily. As default, everyone talks in Persian. That’s lovely, but there are no subtitles to clarify what is being said. You need to dive into the game options to activate those subtitles, so at least the option to translate them is there, but you wonder why it wasn’t on from the start. 

Controls are, charitably, a bit pants. The roll is your main evasion tool, but it does whatever the hell it wants. We think it needs a certain amount of room before it activates, because you can tap the RT button to roll and cuddle the guard instead. When so much of Ario is in confined spaces, the roll becomes a capricious tool that we began to ignore. It’s simply more reliable to jump over instead.

But the jump has problems, too. The merest brush of an alternate direction in mid-air will whiplash poor Ario into a new, unwanted direction. It’s so overly sensitive that it’s possible to be jumping over spikes, only to be thrown unceremoniously back into them. And while Ario calls for speed and quick reaction times, the game doesn’t respond in kind. A jump cannot be followed by a quick jump or slide, and a jump downwards will often lead to an unwanted wall or ledge grab. 

Drunk on ambition, Ario has some tower-defence stuff, too. Yep, you read that right. Arriving at a ballista will mean that you can fire at enemies that appear in waves from the background (thus our ‘lie’ earlier in the review). We were all for it – that’s not something we’ve encountered before. 

ario review 3
Get on that tower defence lark

But, as expected, it is janky.

You can fire your ballista in two ways. One is without sights, and we’re yet to notch a kill with this method. Genuinely, we’re not sure it works. The other is down sights, and this lets you move in slow-motion bullet-time. You can apply aftertouch to the bolt, sending it into the noggin of an unsuspecting knight. Except, the bolt moves so slowly in this bullet-time that the enemy will be close to its target by the time you reach it. We ended up willing the bolt onward, hoping it would speed up, but it would kick its feet and take its merry old time. If you miss once, there’s a good chance that you’ll never catch up. 

But our favourite moment came towards the end of Ario. We were warned of two supernatural beings in our way. We were worried: they sounded huge. But then we entered an area, a cutscene glitched and didn’t play, and one of the supernatural beings appeared dead in front of us. Will we ever know what happened to it? The second being did actually turn out to be a boss fight, but one that would take away control for mini-cutscenes. But while these cutscenes played out, the action would continue in the background. We lost count of how many times we died thanks to the cutscene pausing as we jumped over some lava, and then watched as we swan-dived into it as control was regained. 

But while these issues are stacked on with other issues – we haven’t even got to typos, impossible sections that you have to glitch through, and a bomb attack that kills you more than your enemies – something unexpected happens. Ario is just so endearing, so willfully charming, that you find yourself wading through the issues to get to the good stuff. 

Part of that’s down to the momentum Ario has: there’s a real speed to the gameplay that means you can leave bugs in the rear-view mirror quickly. Without enemies, it’s possible to reach top-speed and enter a state of flow, jumping and wall-jumping from platform to platform. 

ario review 4
Ario is just too janky

But it’s not only that. The extremely short runtime helps, as everything is densely packed in. Environments shift quickly, objectives change every minute, and tower defence sections appear out of nowhere. It’s got an attention deficit, and that helped to maintain our attention. We simply didn’t know what was coming next. It was a coin-flip whether it would be a game-breaking bug or a moment of indie-platforming magic. 

Which makes for a complicated game to recommend. Ario is undeniably slapdash – an action platformer that has the structural integrity of a five-year old’s papier-mâché. The platforming, the bow-firing and the tower defence sections are all liable to fall apart just by looking at them. But the designers are so eager to show you the next gameplay section, the next area, that you can’t help but be led by them. We’d hesitate to call Ario good, but it’s capable of being fun.

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Can achieve a speedy sense of flow
  • Ambitious additions like tower defence
  • Will keep you playing till the end
Cons:
  • Too rough around the edges
  • Tower defence sections are unwieldy
  • Controls often betray you
Info:
  • Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Artax Games
  • Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), PS5, PC
  • Release date and price - 28 March 2024 | £10.49
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Can achieve a speedy sense of flow</li> <li>Ambitious additions like tower defence</li> <li>Will keep you playing till the end</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Too rough around the edges</li> <li>Tower defence sections are unwieldy</li> <li>Controls often betray you</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Massive thanks for the free copy of the game, Artax Games</li> <li>Formats - Xbox Series X|S (review), PS5, PC <li>Release date and price - 28 March 2024 | £10.49</li> </ul>Ario Review
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