Our heart’s not in this review. That’s because we want to be back playing Treasures of the Aegean, hoovering up the remaining relics in its caverns. It has so many buttons it can press and it presses them all repeatedly: if you’re a fan of slick, Mirror’s Edge-style platforming, it’s got you; if you’re a history nut, it’s got you; if you love a Tomb Raider, but the exploration bits rather than the combat, then it’s got you. That’s without mentioning its elegant time-loop mechanic and the crisp, Tintin-like graphics. It’s an orchestra of button-pressing.
We weren’t taken with Treasures of the Aegean at first, but we’re only talking about the first fifteen, twenty minutes of play. Everything soared upwards after then. The problem was the writing, and while it’s not a problem that goes away, it becomes far less important. While Treasures of the Aegean is introducing itself to you, it’s doing it in dialogue, and – frankly – it mostly sucks. It’s riddled with spelling mistakes for one, perhaps a result of the development team, Undercoders, coming from Barcelona. But the dialogue’s also a bit B-rate, and the main characters can’t escape the cultural typecasting: Marie, the main character, is a plucky heroine in a Lara Croft mould, and James Andrew, your man in the chopper, is the nerdy sidekick. It’s all a bit default and fails to reach any highs.
But now we have that out of the way, we can eulogise the rest, because Treasures of the Aegean is a bit special.
The setup borrows from real-world mythology and history, and then runs with it at full pelt. Near Santorini in the Aegean Sea, an underwater volcano erupts and breaks the surface, bringing with it the lost city of Thera. This was the capital of Minoan civilisation which, for those of us who half-remember from GCSE history, was the home of King Midas and the Minotaur. Many people believe it to be the origins of the Atlantis myth too, as the city – once considered hugely advanced – effectively vanished in a moment.
It’s fertile ground for a Tomb Raider, and Treasures of the Aegean nicks it and has a whale of a time with it. Previous to the eruption, you were staying in a hotel in Santorini, so you’re first-responders to the sudden exposure of Thera. It’s a treasure-hunting gold mine. So, you’re dropped by helicopter onto the surface of Thera, and given full run of an expansive, 2D map, absolutely chock full of collectible treasures, all tucked into nooks.
Treasures of the Aegean exposes almost all of its fantastic design elements in one go, and we were kind of bewildered by it all. First of all, Treasures of the Aegean is gorgeous. It’s not showy about how good it looks – there’s no individual screenshot that you’d mount in a picture frame – but it absolutely nails the European, mid twentieth-century comic book. It’s Hergé, Uderzo, perhaps a little bit of Moebius. Everything is crisp and hand-drawn, with comic book stylings drafted in when you “whack!” into walls, and cutscenes mostly done through comic panels. For a game that’s parachuting you into long-lost caverns, you might have expected everything to be brown and dark, too, but Treasures of the Aegean opts for day-glo pinks and blinding whites, with clear palette shifts as you move through the various areas of Thera.
Then there are the character animations, which are as smooth as a mirror’s edge. Like the Flashbacks and Prince of Persia’s of old, the emphasis really has been put into the flow of your character. The animations have to be good, mainly as Undercoders have made the superlative decision to put absolutely no barriers in front of you. You’re not unlocking character abilities like a Metroidvania: you can go where you want as long as the door is open. And Marie can go pretty much everywhere. If you see a platform, you can probably reach it, as she has an arsenal of wall jumps, wall grabs, huge leaps and a top speed that would flick a bird to Usain Bolt. She can absolutely move, and it makes traversal in Treasures of the Aegean a constant joy. It’s all intuitive, too, so you’re gliding across the environment like a roadrunner.
And what a thing Thera is to explore. It’s almost a bit much: you are given access to roughly 95% of the game world from the get-go. Very little of it is locked off, hidden behind puzzle doors, and the vast majority can be reached if you make a beeline to it. On one hand, and it’s a much bigger hand, it’s refreshing. You have the reassurance of knowing that a treasure, when you come across it, is absolutely reachable by you NOW. There won’t be a double-jump or rolly-ball power-up that unlocks access to it later. Careening around Thera, filling out the absolutely stupendous game map as you go, is a marvel.
On the other smaller hand, it is a touch daunting. This is a huge game world, as big as any Metroidvania, but you can go anywhere in any order. Knowing what to focus on – whether it’s completing a map, exhausting the game of treasures, or completing puzzles – is mostly down to you. And that emphasis on setting your own objectives might be a little befuddling and cognitively demanding for some.
To try to chop Treasures of the Aegean into manageable chunks, Undercoders employ something that may be divisive, but we loved. It’s the mechanique du jour: the time loop. We don’t want to reveal too much about how this happens or why, mostly because we were told not to, but you are given fifteen minute stints inside Thera. Once those fifteen minutes are up, you are scooped up and returned to the start of the time loop, but with all of your map, relics and knowledge retained. You might even have a flashback sequence to play through, or a new cutscene, to break up these loops and feel more like you’re playing an authored, progressing game.
The bane of time-loop games is often the retreading of old ground. To get to your point of progress, you need to wade through stuff you’ve already done. And that can get old quickly and repeatedly. But Treasures of the Aegean has a cunning answer to it. Since Marie is parachuting into areas of Thera, Undercoders lets the butterfly-effect blow her into a new area each time. We’re not privy to the exact algorithm that determines where you’re placed (we think it’s related to where you most need to make progress), but it means you’re almost always starting in an area that has barely been explored, and treasures are ripe for the plucking. It’s the most elegant of design decisions, and it’s masterful. You’re managing your fifteen minutes, choosing an area to exhaust, and not letting yourself get too concerned about the overbearing hugeness of the game map. We suspect there will be people who bemoan the fifteen minute restrictions on the character’s freedom, but we wonder if it would all fall apart without it.
There is an ending to Treasures of Aegean, and it’s tucked behind a series of puzzles and key-doors. These puzzles are fine, nothing spectacular, requiring little more than memorising patterns, finding items in the environment or reaching a hidden lever behind some ivy. Any more demanding than that, and we’d suspect – again – that things would become too daunting. It’s hard enough keeping a mental map of the world; you likely wouldn’t want to know where keys are hidden across it too.
A few issues do crop up. The biggest by far is save-game issues. We’re not entirely sure whether it’s a symptom of pre-release review code (i.e. things might improve on release, once players have their hands on it), but we found that our progress was often not being saved. In one case, we lost a couple of hours, even though the ‘Saving’ notification must have fired off a good dozen times, and we had unlocked several achievements in the meantime. Keep an eye on it, particularly as we couldn’t find – as far as we could see – a manual saving option.
In more minor terms, there are a few odd rules about what you can or cannot climb. Often, it’s a roll of the dice whether Marie will be able to get purchase on a wall so that she can begin a series of wall jumps. It’s occasionally arbitrary, which damages the ‘go anywhere, anytime’ feeling that permeates the rest of Treasures of the Aegean.
But let’s not tarnish what Undercoders have done here. The word ‘masterpiece’ gets rolled out too often, and – thanks to some bugs and navigation issues – Treasures of the Aegean doesn’t quite earn that laurel. But we have no qualms with calling it a series of masterclasses. It has mastered the slick platformer, bringing a Mirror’s Edge flow to the pages of a Tintin comic. It has mastered the Metroidvania, by getting rid of all the obstructions and opting instead for a fifteen-minute time loop.
Treasures of the Aegean is just generally masterful and oozes class, and we can’t wait to put this review away and play it again.
You can buy Treasures of the Aegean from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S