Game: Aura of Worlds
Developer: Cognitive Forge
Publisher: Cognitive Forge
If I had to describe Aura of Worlds to a complete stranger who I caught peeking at my laptop, I would probably say it’s an all you can eat platformer with labyrinthine levels.
A living canvas of granular pixel art, extensive weaponry, and surreptitious enemies that would be instantly welcomed into any respectable arcade joint. There’s also a very strong roguelike undercurrent that’s reminiscent of games like Spelunky or Ruin of the Reckless; the permadeath can be downright hostile at times, but Aura of Worlds will slowly but surely awaken a sleeping dragon inside you, eyes glistening with murderous intent and an insatiable appetite for victory.
Then I would invite the curious onlooker to have a go, because there’s a heck ton of fun to be had.
In Aura of Worlds‘ early access build, you’re granted three main words (Grotto of Guidance, Gnarled Gardens and Celestial Temple) that are comprised of 14 stages each. That might not sound like much, but the difficulty level will definitely test your mettle — sentient treasure chests occasionally make you fight for health potions, skeleton warriors and cyan blobs attack you on sight, and ceiling licker plants suck you into their poisonous dens and slurp up your HP. Yummy. Like I said, this isn’t a cakewalk. Fortunately, it’s also possible to whiz past enemies in stealth mode, dodging bulletstorms and decks of fire before you sustain any serious damage. Some stages, brace yourself, have a rising flood of lava or noxious clouds that you’ll need to outrun to make it to the exit.
That’s essentially Aura of Worlds’ structure: a procedurally generated playground that challenges you to reach the end of each stage within a time limit. What happens if you fail to complete a stage quickly enough? Well, you don’t automatically die like the Mario games (which you might be relieved to hear), however, instead of timer death Cognitive Forge has a special ‘surprise’ that will encourage you to harness your inner Sonic next time. Before each run, you can select a combination of weaponry (dagger, crossbow, sword) and ability (multi jump, forcefield, grapple, boomerang, cloaking, teleport) that suits your playstyle. Typically, everything’s happening at a fairly fast pace so it’s hard to fully appreciate the nuances of and master all abilities, though I frequently made use of the forcefield and multijump — simple, intuitive and great assets in sticky situations. The only real ‘downside’ is abilities will chew up your mana pretty rapidly, so you’ll need to exercise caution in your usage, and wait until the MP meter has filled up again before attempting to cross vine ropes suspended above a belt of spikes.
Every few levels or so, a pop-up shop fills the screen and lets you spend hard-earned coins on additional items (grenades, extra health potions, vampirism tonics, weight lift runes) which can assist you in the heat of battle, and as rewards, help incentivise exploration and treasure hunting. No matter how many times you die, the randomised worlds keep things fresh and succeed at generating the illusion that there are in fact more than fourteen stages per world; a strategy you used in your previous playthrough may not necessarily work in the next. The only part that’s noticeably repetitive (and gives players a chance at memorising some kind of concrete strategy) are the dungeon bosses, who appear at similar points and are relentlessly vicious.
On the more aesthetic front, Aura of Worlds features a basic but pleasant canopy of pixellated environments and characters. The heightened level of detail present in skulls, large treasure chests, and parallax scrolling backgrounds is visually attractive, though I would have liked to see a more fully realised animation in the crossbow, for example. On the other hand, the HUD isn’t intrusively sized and is semi transparent so none of your platforming is blocked out. The soundtrack isn’t too expansive, though the tracks that spill through your speakers (or headphones) shuffle between a pleasant instrumental tune with sprinklings of pan flute or clarinet and tireless harmonious strings, and a darker, more synthesised, chiptune flavoured melody that whips up just the right amount of tension for escape stages. Functionality wise there’s very good support for both controllers and mouse and keyboard purists, to the extent I would recommend either as a suitable input.
Overall, Aura of Worlds is a fun and thoroughly demanding roguelike with the atmosphere of an old school arcade game. While it’s not perfect and can be merciless at times, the sheer diversity in its procedurally generated core makes coming back an utter joy. Recommended.
Aura of Worlds is available through Steam’s early access program for $9.99 USD. Get it here.
Full Disclosure: A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for purposes of this review.