Never judge a book by its cover. It’s the phrase that kept repeating as we played Legends of Ethernal.
For one, we came into the game with a lot of assumptions, and they ended up being plain wrong. From all of the screenshots and trailers we’d watched, Legends of Ethernal looked dayglo and happy-go-lucky. Its art style was early-day Disney, primary colours painted onto acetate. The world looked like a traditional shift in terrains, like you’d get in a Mario game: start with the peaceful farmland, then move on to woodland world, swamp world, castle world, etc. And you played as a child – how dark could it get?
As it turns out, pretty damn dark. Legends of Ethernal is less the traditional platformer, and more a narrative-based adventure that sits somewhere between Limbo/Inside and traditional Metroidvanias. And like Limbo/Inside, you play a child who has been abandoned, this time with your parents abducted by winged beasts, and you have to navigate a world that wants to eat you up and spit you out. This is not a happy game, in the same way that Limbo and Inside were far from a McDonald’s birthday party.
The throughline is despair and helplessness, as you look to catch up with your parents. You will fight as hard as you can, using your fishing rod and any other ramshackle bits and pieces you can find to defend yourself. The colourful palette quickly makes way to darkness (literally, in one section), and the same is true of the storytelling. If there were ever glimmers of hope in the starting sections, they’re quickly gone. It would be remiss to spoil it too much, but the storytelling goes to places that most stories don’t. So, yeah, we judged the book wrong on this one.
Legends of Ethernal is also clearly not the Mario platformer we first thought it would be. You can jump, attack and dodge, and the world is a mixture of platforming and hordes of monsters to fight. This isn’t a side-scroller: the world is relatively open and explorable, like a diluted Metroidvania, with areas you can’t access yet without powers. You’re effectively moving from map region to map region, with a faction of enemies in each – tree-people called Jarken, frog tribes called Bruwig, spiders, zealots, ghosts – and a leader to overcome in a boss battle. You’ll gain a bomb, poison, ally and other buffs that grant you access to a different region, and then off you trudge. All of this is broken up with fire-pits that restore health and checkpoint you, scrolls that act as collectibles, and hidden rooms that give you weapon boosts.
Combat is simple but effective, with a single attack for melee (three melee weapons appear over the course of Legends of Ethernal, switchable with LB) with no combos, and a single ranged attack (blowpipes, fire bombs and grenades are also switched out with an RB). You’re not manoeuvrable in a Dead Cells or Hollow Knight sense: you constantly feel like you’re overwhelmed, which fits the plot and your character. You’ve also got a pool of mana gubbins that you draw on for your ranged weapon, some powerful melee attacks, and a full heal. The platforming is simple but effective too: we never felt like the controls were slippy or inaccurate. Everything works well.
But is it any good? I wanted to reference ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ because I got an unexpected response from playing Legends of Ethernal. Once I’d calibrated to the ‘Limbo, but in a Metroidvania’ reality, I was so, so ready and eager to love the game. Inside is probably my game of the generation, and – while slightly too ubiquitous – you can’t go wrong with a good, refined Metroidvania. I’m a narrative junkie, and the story seemed well-told, and the visuals and audio were both lovely. It all felt like I was in good hands, so I could wrap a blanket round me, get in a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, and enjoy the ride.
Why, then, do I feel so underwhelmed by Legends of Ethernal?
The narrative is a big problem. It pulls the same unsatisfying trick multiple times, and every time it ground me down further. Here’s the pattern, and I will try to skirt detail in case you want to experience it yourself: you enter an area, hoping to find your parents. You find a faction that may well know where your parents are, but the faction is obstructive. A fight starts and then you romp through their land, cleaving and cutting. Insert blurred plotting here, but it always resolves with you, the player, feeling like you have failed. This isn’t an ‘oh, I didn’t find my parents’ kind of failure – this is a catastrophic failure with huge consequences. The problem is, you can see that failure coming from a mile off (likely, the game wants you to see them coming), but you can’t stop it.
On one hand it’s annoyingly repetitive that the trope is used over and over. On the other, you’re on a journey that you know is wrong, that will be punished, but you can’t halt it. The plot needs it to happen, as there is an endpoint that the devs clearly want us to reach (and is evident to most who play the opening hour or so), but it doesn’t stop it being unsatisfying. Killing a boss doesn’t feel as enjoyable if you know the narrative is going to kick you in the nuts afterwards.
And it’s so gloomy and nihilistic. There’s a place for that, but when every moment of the story is downbeat, you look desperately around for humour or colour. In the latter section of the game, you come across a town – a safe haven! – and you wish there were others earlier, for the sake of pacing and a bit of light-hearted natter. But that doesn’t last long either, and then you’re on the grim, dark conveyor belt again.
The gameplay, too, has some real knots. Locking the fun stuff – melee flourishes and ranged attacks – behind the collection of mana-like drops kills a lot of the enjoyment. You’re drip-fed these drops, so you tend to hoard them, only using them when a boss comes along or an environmental puzzle requires them. It’s funny that the game keeps throwing you unlocks that lift the cap of how many you can carry, as you are almost always at the lower end, so you rarely feel their benefit. And woe betide if you get into a situation that demands you have enough mana, as you’ll have to fall back to earlier levels to grind them. Bosses are even worse, as you will respawn with the same mana you had before after every death – so, if you were light when you first approached a boss, then you will be light for all future respawns too. You’re left with the decision to go back and grind (which often means entering and re-entering doors to get enemies to return), or saying “to hell with it”.
Legends of Ethernal is also hard, but not in a satisfying manner. You have ample methods of reducing the difficulty – there is even a Relaxed Mode for narrative players – but almost all of them suffer from the same minefields, and harder modes will leave your hair in clumps. Bosses, for example, leave very little room for mistake, requiring you to memorise sequences or perform a complicated task in a tense situation (like shooting a precise, moving target while avoiding falling boxes AND incoming enemies). You will die repeatedly as you learn the puzzle, die more as you try to master it, and the game will trip you up with what feels like unfairness: enemies that spawn under your feet, and more. Perhaps it’s taste, but it just didn’t fit a narrative-focused game where it wanted me to keep moving to see what happened next. Most of my game time was spent in boss areas, and I kind of didn’t want it to be.
There’s a fair amount of backtracking, and no map to speak of. I sighed whenever I killed a boss, as I knew that I’d need to remember the way back, and wish the game would just teleport me. A couple of times I forgot the way, returning accidentally to an old and irrelevant area, and felt like booting out. Plus there are sequences that may as well be bosses: an unreasonably long platforming section roughly midway gives you a timer and asks you to nail a sequence of falling platforms (i.e. miss them and you restart), while enemies fire at you or kamikaze straight at you. If they hit, you fall off the platform. Now imagine that the enemies’ attacks are randomised, changing what they do on each pass. Gah, I never want to repeat this section: I died in near triple figures, and I could draw it for you on the back of a napkin, I played it so much.
This sounds like a gripe about difficulty, and it would be easy to see it that way. But the truth is that the story never progressed enough to make me want to progress past these challenges; they seemed out of place for the game I wanted to play, and they felt needlessly prolonged and intricate. Perhaps most damningly, the combat and platforming, while above average, was never enough to make up for these moments, so you rarely felt a pay off for your work.
I sorely wanted to love Legends of Ethernal on Xbox One. It’s beautifully crafted, and is reminiscent of some of the generation’s best games, like Inside and Dead Cells. The combat and platforming basics even sit well above the average, and you’ll undoubtedly be swept up in the opening hour or two. But judging a book by its cover goes both ways: what looks attractive can actually be a dirge, repetitive and depressing in its storytelling, and with caps on the fun you can experience from its combat. Roughly a couple of hours too long, I ended up hoping that the final page of this tale would come earlier, not later.