Review: Aztez


Disclosure: This review is powered by Wild Rose Project of CowLevel and the review copy is provided by its developer/publisher free of charge. Besides, the review was written pre-release and thus may not represent the final product.
The opinion and thoughts expressed in the following review are of myself only.

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Variety. When I started writing this review, it was the first word that came to me. Aztez is a 2D action game with a strategy layer atop it, both of which are equally attractive to me and I think it’s fair to say Team Colorblind has done one of them exceptionally well, the action part, and that’s where the word come in. I hesitated whether to call the game a beat’em up, but I think that would hugely understate it as this genre is more commonly associated with simpler (not inferior, of course) forms of fun.

As a 2D action game, Aztez perhaps offers the highest of intricacy and ingenuity: Combo, different attacks moves, blocking, parrying, dashing, ground recovery, grab, attack cancelling, juggling, real time weapon swapping and such, as if the game is built on the established golden age 3D action genre and I can see why Aztez took Team Colorblind half a decade to finish (Adam Smith of Rock, Paper, Shotgun first covered Aztez in July 2012): with moves plentiful as it’s, it takes plentiful of polishing to ensure everything works as intended. It’s so elaborate that Team Colorblind implemented a step by step tutorial and a dedicated in-game guide book for new players to learn the ropes — it may sound like something overly complicated and new players are likely to shy away from, but at least the tutorial is worth going through or they are not likely to discover some useful gimmicks on their own.

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Among those established and mature moves, Aztez offers blood… well, literally. Blood spill in this game is not merely a visual tweak to make the action scene more dynamic (although it does nail that), but also a combat resource that has, aside from basic attacks, three moves dedicated to it: sacrifice (basically an execution move), absorb and god attack. Absorb… well, absorbs blood spattered across the arena and is the only method to increase your blood parameter, but it can also be used to stay airborne and reset combo timer, and god move consumes all the blood you’ve collected for a powerful attack, or a heal, or a bullet time buff.

Arsenal provides decent weaponry variety at your disposal and each of the eight weapons has a completely unique moveset along with merits and detriments, instead of mere statistic differences or asset swapping. You may want to use a spear for crowd control, but with a sacrificial dagger’s blink move you are more likely to get away from messy situations — that’s when you want to manage your Aztez loadout: for each combat scenario you can always choose four out of eight weapons for the fight, and that’s when real time weapon swapping combined with its already elaborate moveset variety truly shines — not that it’s a highly tactical choice, but the sheer amount of possibility feels good. That said, since the game presents itself as a heavily skill based (rather than progression based) action game, it’s more likely that the player would like to cling onto whatever they are already comfortable with in the campaign mode since losing a fight often comes with highly severe consequences but one can always try themselves in the arena.

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One simple but nice touch is that from everything else in the game I believe they have done their fair share of Aztec research, but instead of calling the weapons a macuahuitl, a cuauhololli, a tepoztopilli or a garganelli, they decide to simply call them a sword, a club or a spear so that people like me wouldn’t mistake a pasta dish for an Aztec weapon.

Combining an auxiliary input with a basic attack will do a special move. However, the game falls short of basic each weapon combo. Although each weapon avails two types of basic attacks, mixing those two does not create any new and different combo moveset. High combo count thus is reliant on attack cancelling and weapon swapping and it somehow feels cheap. It’s a shame really, since the core gameplay offers such enormous variety.

In my humble opinion, the animation is one of, if not the most, crucial thing in an action game — since it’s how the game communicates with the player — and I think it’s safe to say Aztez has done it right. Character movement is fluid and responsive thanks to that, and initially, I worried about that the aesthetic choice of the game may affect readability but this turn out to be working perfectly well, even enemy attacks are telegraphed well with additional hints, such as exclamation marks of different color and displaying attack trail aforehand. Speaking of aesthetic choice, the grayscale with highly saturated colors (mainly red) looks good and satisfying especially when you’ve just sacrificed a enemy and take a split second to admire the blood taints a fair portion of the battleground.

The campaign mode is where the aforementioned strategy part comes in. Basically, in campaign mode you play as the ruler of an empire, dispatching your ferocious yet precious Aztez elite warriors to attend to various events, from harvest festival to underworld exploration, while sending assassins to silence dissent, royal princesses to expand your domain, and even dealing with conquistadors. Each turn you encounter new events and upon completion, rewarded with resources or items and the reward is furthered should you have overcome the bonus challenge — and these events are the combat scenarios in campaign mode. The game is, aside from weapon and god unlocks, purely skill based, thus it’s safe to say a player that has mastered the combat can surely lead the empire to glory. The campaign is partially Roguelike, since events are randomly generated and the player is not allowed to manually save.

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Unfortunately, it’s not the most welcome part of the game to me, since the number of your Aztez warriors is very limited and losing the last one of them means game over, when facing a difficult combat event the most reasonable solution seems to be just avoiding it and bear the consequences. Besides, the difficulty escalates pretty rapidly: starting from turn 10 you begin to face some harder enemies the game has to offer — when the game does not avail manual safe, I can see one may for quite some time keep bashing their head against the elite versions and conquistadors. Like I did. And I eventually turned to the arena for pure combat experience. Luckily, difficulty curve in arena mode is more smooth and there’s where I enjoyed most of my flesh slashing, skull smashing and blood spilling and almost broke my RT button doing attack cancelling. In my opinion, it may be easier if the campaign mode throws in some character progression system, by doing which not only makes later encounters easier but also engages the player more, but I can see how hard it’s to implement it.

The following paragraphs are things I think can be done with relatively less effort to improve the game.

First of all, in my opinion, how players are punished for their mistakes and recover from them may be one of the most important aspects of an action game. In this case, one thing I particularly miss though, is aerial recovery. I can see that they’ve actively ruled it out since ground tech is an option, but the absence of aerial recovery makes some enemy combos particularly punishing and once the first lands on your character, there’s ample amount of time to only witness your Aztez gets totally destroyed helplessly — a bit unfair to me, considering the player has already suffered from a certain amount of health loss and combo broken. This issue combined with the lack of invincibility frames after getting hit but yet to hit the ground makes some late game enemy loadouts especially lethal, since one wrong move may get your Aztez outright killed, forcing the player to play it safe — which can sometimes be frustrating in the presence of certain enemy types.

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Enemy types can use some balance as well. Some enemy loadouts are particularly harsh. Making some more attacks blockable and reducing some enemy types’ health may help.

The ranking system combined with scores may be beneficial to the game. Remember Vanquish by Platinum? I believe this game proves mere arbitrary score points is not good enough an incentive to drive the player to excel themselves — though the game is mission based while Aztez is event based, I think the ranking system can more clearly show the difference between doing good and doing great.

The original scores are good and atmospheric, but the background music tracks do not fade in/fade out and loop really gracefully.

Performance issues. I don’t normally talk about performance issues since I think it’s gameplay that matters, but I believe framerate is a rather impactful factor in playing any game that demands a fast reaction. Aztez suffers from quite apparent framerate drops after running the game for a while, from 60 to around 45 and right now for me the only resolve is to restart the game after a period of time.

In conclusion, Aztez is a sublime 2D action game, even though I don’t quite enjoy the strategy part of it, the combat is fun with great depth and variety. I’d be even happier if it were a traditional mission based action game, but the combat mechanic is satisfying enough for me to dwell in the arena. The game at its current state can still use a bit more polishing, but it’s already decent enough to give it a go.

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Aztez is available on Steam.

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