Aztaka: a double edged sword

our hero stands in a green cavern

Aztaka is like a jar filled with salt and barbed wire with a $100 note sitting enticingly at the bottom. Clearly the reward looks worth the effort so gingerly you ease your hand into the mouth of the jar, ready to carefully navigate toward the goal. Reaching in the cuts sting and burn fiercely but the prospect of reward drives you on. This is Aztaka in a nutshell, it has many and varied flaws that will constantly frustrate, anger and confound you but with a core that is engaging enough to keep you coming back for more.

Aztaka is an intriguing amalgam of platform game and RPG, it's set in a 2D world and control is through both the keyboard and mouse. The keyboard controls movement, jumping and attacking while the mouse is how you interact with in game characters, cast magic and use spirit energy. Spirit energy is a game mechanic unique to Aztaka. It comes in four different flavours, is collected from vanquished enemies and used for a wide variety of purposes; from essential tasks like unlocking doors to optional tasks like healing or replenishing mana. Overall it is a well integrated and meaningful part of the gameplay. This novel game mechanic combined with the mixture of platform and RPG elements gives Aztaka a unique and interesting feel.

The best part of Aztaka is it's RPG side. In any RPG there is always a delicate balance between challenge and reward, the game must be kept challenging enough to make the player value the rewards that are reaped from combat, quests and currency. The problem is that these rewards invariably reduce the challenge once received, so it can be a difficult thing to balance the two. Aztaka gets this balance right and this is largely because enemies aren't scaled. If you run ahead then the difficulty increases and inevitably you need to improve your character to proceed. The cool thing here is that the player can dynamically increase the challenge to their desired level by advancing through the game more quickly. The consequence of this is that Aztaka feels extremely well balanced, because fundamentally it is as challenging as you want it to be.

entrance to a crypt

something to explore

While Aztaka is a linear game overall there is plenty to explore and investigate on your journey. Each area has multiple branching paths to follow that lead to different places, and secrets are scattered throughout to reward the curious. There are also parts of the world that can only be accessed once a certain item or power has been gained and knowing that these restricted places exist helps the world seem more mysterious. To cap it off the detailed hand drawn backgrounds add a touch of personality and atmosphere to the experience.

Another stand out part of Aztaka is the combat. To fight enemies you physically stab them with your spear, which deals them damage based on your items and stats. Each enemy has it's own distinct fighting style which can be figured out and exploited once understood. Moderating all of this is how powerful you are, after a while old enemies won't require the careful confrontation they initially did. This combination of skill and power gives combat a good graded challenge and makes it diverse and enjoyable.

Now hang on a second! Didn't I compare Aztaka to salted, barbed wire at the start of this review? Indeed I did, and there a number of things in Aztaka ready to slice and sting the unwary player. I'll start by making a simple statement: Aztaka has serious usability issues. At a number of points in the game it can be frustratingly difficult to work out how to progress. The causes of this range from unintuitive puzzles to obscurely hidden items that are required to proceed but that are not signposted. Revisiting old locations and scouring for something missed is an odious task and becomes an all too common activity.

An area of the game that has utterly baffling usability is magic. Feeback to the user is almost non-existent, time slows down and an icon is displayed when something is cast but other than that no other indication of the effect is given. This wouldn't be so great an issue if the spells were more effective, but as well as appearing to do nothing they also seem to physically do nothing! Attacking spells are ineffectual to the point of absurdity and can't kill even the weakest creature despite repeated attempts. Defensive spells also appear to do nothing and give no visual indication that they are currently in effect. All in all magic is an irritating and confusing part of the game that appears to have no use or benefit.

hero faces a huge snakelike beast

a boss to defeat

Salt and barbed wire I said, well that was the salt and now here comes the barbed wire! Bugs, Aztaka is filled with them and they range from annoying to maddening. The most prolific bug is random teleportation, which happens approximately every five minutes. This instantaneously jumps your character somewhere else in the current area, this can put you somewhere just inconvenient, outside the game world or into a spot that you shouldn't be able to reach. This is incredibly annoying and is like someone poking you with a pencil every time that you almost drift off to sleep.

Throughout Aztaka other relatively small bugs are common: Doors respawn and trap your character to the side of the screen, bosses get stuck half off screen and parts of the scenery disappear to be replaced by great black empty spots. These are tolerable but significantly undermine any immersion in the game you might be experiencing. The real kicker is the maddening bugs, one in particular that I suffered forced me to start my game over from scratch! Oh and Aztaka might crash on the odd occasion as well...

Aztaka has it's good and bad parts. On the one hand it has an interesting combination of gameplay, well balanced combat and a solid RPG core. On the other hand it suffers from numerous usability issues and a penchant for glitching in ways that can make you sigh in disappointment and howl in frustration. It's the presence of that disappointment and frustration that prevents Aztaka from being an entirely enjoyable experience and relegates it to the middle of the pack.

An interesting amalgam of RPG and platform game that is let down by poor usability and technical issues.

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