With an ever-increasing population of Metroidvanias on the PS store and eShop, it can be hard for the discerning fan to know what to play. And while there are plenty of titles that breathe new life into the genre by mixing up their play mechanics or storytelling, there are fewer that truly embody the spirit of exploration at the heart of the best of these platformers.
When it comes to Aggelos, the game couldn’t be any more transparent about the influence of Wonder Boy / Monster World on its design. It looks like Wonder Boy; it feels like Wonder Boy; and it has been developed by the intricate hands of Wonderboy Bobi. But beneath its bright, nostalgia-sweetened exterior is a well-crafted tribute set in a vivid, open world that’s filled with just enough surprises to make your return to the land of monsters worthwhile. So, what’s going on in Aggelos?
Something strange is happening in the woods, and cracks have appeared into the World of Darkness. You are sent on a quest to collect four elements from the temples that will give you the power to sort it all out. Sound familiar? Story-wise, it’s all very generic, but it doesn’t matter. What’s really important here is that once you’re given the quest, the world is yours to explore.
Whereas some titles rely on heavy-handed exposition or objective markers to push you in the right direction, here the hands that guide you are invisible. By talking to NPCs and returning to previously inaccessible areas with new items and abilities, the world unfolds organically and at a pace that keeps you hooked until the end. Through its intricate design, Aggelos strikes a perfect balance between its exploratory platforming and light RPG elements to deliver an immersive experience.
Taking a mental note of parts of the environment that look suspicious, strange items in shops, and things that you hear in villages are all typical of Metroidvania. Like the best games of the genre that drop subtle hints and lures along your path, the hooks in Aggelos are all memorable and enticing enough to keep needling away at the back of your mind until you learn their significance.
The iconography will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Zelda: a legendary sword, a mystical instrument, an unknown language longing to be deciphered. Nevertheless, when you finally overcome an obstacle or uncover one of the game’s secrets, it feels as though you figured it out by yourself, and this leads to a genuine sense of discovery.
Continuing with the open design of the over-world, each temple is a self-contained challenge designed with looping paths and shortcuts, allowing you to leave and return at your leisure. If you die, you’ll simply materialise at the entrance of the temple with less XP.
Finding the elemental ring is usually your first task, then you’ll need to utilise its skills to solve puzzles and overcome platforming challenges on the path to the boss’ chamber. Not many of these puzzles are particularly taxing, but this open design eliminates the need to repeat long sections if you die. Boss chambers are often located near the entrance of the temple, convenient if you need to leave to buy a potion. Along with frequent save points in the over-world, these touches help to make the game less frustrating, accessible to those who can only play in short bursts, and more portable for handheld Switch players.
The abilities acquired throughout the adventure can all be used in some way to navigate the environment. The first elemental ring, for instance, can transform orbs and enemies into platforms. Not only is this your ticket to higher ledges and hidden areas, but it’s also a projectile similar to that of Castlevania’s throwing axe.
Likewise, the other elemental rings all have a dual function, some of which are genuinely surprising. And while the list of upgrades is concise, I found myself using all of them in both combat and platforming throughout the 7 hours of game time. As liberating as it can be to have more options, sometimes it’s refreshing to play through an adventure that challenges you to complete it with a limited, rather than superfluous, array of skills.
While the breezy challenge of the opening hours is befitting of its pastoral setting and sickly-sweet visuals, from the halfway point onwards Aggelos means business. The monsters get stronger, they’ve bred to sometimes excessive numbers, and bosses fill the screen. Thankfully, with upgrades at hand and a simple leveling up meter that fills as you defeat enemies and find XP in chests, you’re constantly getting stronger.
For the most part, D-pad controls were just about accurate enough to overcome everything this game threw at me, and my only frustration came from an upward slash that sometimes interfered with jumping. Aside from this, the sensitivity of control and access to special skills on the Dualshock controller worked well, allowing quick reactions to the increasing challenge.
Billed as a Mega-Drive era 16-bit platformer, Aggelos is bathed in colour, treading the line between vibrant and garish. While its presentation is neither as memorable or unique as classic titles like Monster World IV, the saturated graphics and chiptune soundtrack provide enough warmth to intensify the sense of adventure. Sprite animations in particular are simple but expressive and look gorgeous in motion.
There are plenty of developers out there trying to find the perfect equation for a new style of Metroidvania, a kind of synthesis of exploratory platforming and some other element. Dark Souls has been the key ingredient in releases like Dead Cells and Blasphemous, whereas Iconoclasts and Teslagrad found interesting ways to tell their story through gameplay. All of these are worth playing for their own reasons, but Aggelos has a much simpler intention.
Derivative without being overly-referential, Aggelos is executed with the bright-eyed innocence of someone who loves this style of game. So, if you’re looking for something to cure the itch for exploration, that will guide you passively with whispers and careful design, then dive into Aggelos and uncover those secrets.
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