Chasing Aurora Review
Posted by Morgan Sleeper
At its heart, Chasing Aurora is a game about the dream of flight. Developed by Broken Rules - the studio behind And Yet It Moves - it's a beautiful journey with distinct single- and multiplayer components that share a focus on simplicity and the endlessly enjoyable act of flying. As a launch game for the Wii U eShop, it's first and foremost a fitting showpiece for the console's unique asymmetrical multiplayer, though dedicated score-chasers will happily find a lot to love in the smaller single-player portion as well.
The solo mode - known as Trail Chase - is straightforward but remarkably enchanting. As one of five colourful birds, you'll fly through tightly-spaced gates that form a looping course around a relatively small stage, racing against time to keep flying for as long as possible. There are clear echoes of NiGHTS Into Dreams in the gameplay, both from the focus on flight and the clock-racing mechanics, and that's a very good thing. Each level starts with a timer ticking down, and passing through one of several checkpoints along the loop will net you a time bonus - clear 20 of these checkpoints and you'll get a multiplier boost and a massive extension on the clock, hopefully allowing you to go for another 20, and so on. These courses can be long and winding, with crisscrossing paths, or they can be as simple as a loop around a rock formation in a quiet pond. All in all there are 20 stages, and they progress in difficulty from easy all the way up to "nightmare" and "impossible."
20 stages seems like a small total, and it is; you can clear the entire single-player game in under an hour. But Chasing Aurora is a score attack game at heart, and when the core gameplay is so compelling that you're likely to find yourself soaring contentedly around the stylized character select screen for minutes at a time before diving into the actual levels, odds are you'll be back for more.
Much of that is due to the silky controls, which make flying around the game's world so much fun. It's an uncomplicated layout: the left GamePad stick controls your flight, the A button is used for flapping your wings, and holding down either of the right-side triggers will tuck in the wings and send your bird into a sharp, downward dive. You'll want to think like a hawk rather than a hummingbird, as rapidly flapping your wings won't get you anywhere. The idea is to pace your flaps, spacing them evenly and catching the gusts of wind that move around the levels.
Like NiGHTS and the best score chasers, Chasing Aurora is a game that exponentially becomes more enjoyable the better you become at it. Flying in circles for long enough to obtain a single star and unlock the next level is fun enough, but learning the levels, perfecting the patterns of soaring, swooping, and diving, and discovering the best places to flap your wings and catch the wind is incredibly rewarding - even meditative. Once you reach this point, each level becomes a little exercise in zen; earning three stars on all the solo stages will keep enlightened players happily occupied for many hours beyond the initial run-through.
There are only a few disappointments with the single-player mode, the first being that the actual score-keeping isn't very robust at all. The game saves your top local score and longest chain for each level, but that's it; there are no online leaderboards, or even local leaderboards for different users on the same system - both of which seem like missed opportunities. The second problem is that as enjoyable as the Trail Chase stages are, the beauty of the world combined with the fun to be had from simply flying around means that you'll very likely just want to go explore, and that isn't really part of Chasing Aurora's agenda. The mountain constantly in the background, the tantalizing world above the clouds that's always just out of reach, the level names and character design all point towards a fuller world and larger narrative that's never articulated in the game. (That said, players looking for a more exploratory experience should make sure to check out the staff credits.)
The larger side of the package is found in the game's multiplayer modes. Here Chasing Aurora takes its cues from the Nintendo Land school of asymmetrical gameplay, and the results are proof of how much fun this new style of play can be. Up to five people can play in three game types: Hide & Seek, Freeze Tag, and Chase. After completing a three-stage tutorial for each, you'll unlock nine pre-set "Tournaments", featuring various combinations of the three game types. There's also a Random option that creates a tournament of one to five courses split among the three modes, with the helpful option to see and shuffle the results before diving in.
The games themselves are wonderfully enjoyable riffs on schoolyard favourites, much enhanced by the ability of all parties involved to fly. Hide & Seek is similar to Nintendo Land's Mario Chase: the GamePad player turns into the Golden Bird, and tries to evade capture by the other players for a set amount of time. The fugitive GamePad bird will have a relatively zoomed-out view of the action on their own screen, while the seekers' split-screen views are more zoomed-in and restricted. The presence of a gem initially attached to the hiding player adds a new twist: if the Golden Bird drops this gem (either by hitting an L-trigger or by being struck by lightning or other environmental obstacles), other players have a chance to swoop in and pick it up for bonus points and, if they hold onto it long enough, to win the game. It's a lot of fun, especially with a large group; the small arenas and fast birds lend themselves to exciting, chaotic matches.
Freeze Tag works just like its playground equivalent, with the GamePad-wielding player becoming the all-powerful Ice Bird, and the rest of the flock teaming up to avoid being frozen and thaw out their teammates. The Ice Bird has its own view on the GamePad, while all other players share a single screen on the TV, meaning they need to stick together or risk being frozen if they lag behind and end up off screen. Swooping down on unsuspecting friends and family as the Ice Bird is an incredible rush, as is sneaking in to unfreeze your companions before you're spotted. Unfortunately, this mode is all but pointless if you've only got two players to work with - it just becomes "Tag", or a less interesting version of Hide & Seek, and rounds will end very quickly.
The final game type, Chase, is played on a single screen, with no special role (or view) for the GamePad player. Instead, everyone starts out rushing for a central gem, the bearer of which controls the screen's scrolling. The other players then have to try to snatch it away and not get left behind, as staying off screen for more than 3 seconds will cost you one of your three hearts; the last bird left flapping wins. Chase is equally enjoyable with any number of players: with two players, it's a dogfight of fast dives and sweeping arcs for control over the constantly undulating gem, while with a large group it turns into the best kind of chaos, with everyone scrambling to stay on screen and snatch the jewel from their lucky bird at the front of the flock.
Players 2-5 can control their birds with either a Wii Remote in the sideways configuration, a Wii Remote and Nunchuck combo, or a Classic Controller. The flexible control options are welcome, but they also bring up a basic problem with the game's multiplayer: no one's going to have as nice a time flying around as the player holding the GamePad. The smooth feeling of flight that's at the heart of Chasing Aurora's appeal is built around the circular motion of the GamePad's analogue sticks. It's slightly less natural with the Nunchuck's octagonal joystick, but downright clunky on the Wii Remote's D-pad. It's certainly not the developers' fault, and the fact that the game prompts players to swap the GamePad after every round helps, as everyone eventually gets a turn with the ideal control scheme. The sideways Wii Remote is by no means unplayable, but for everyone to get full enjoyment out of the game's freeing sense of flight, you're definitely going to need some Nunchucks.
From the opening menu, the first thing players are likely to notice is that Chasing Aurora is absolutely beautiful. Sharp geometric shapes and strong colours form the basis of this alluring universe, and its unique and visually arresting style looks stunning in HD. Striking as the game appears in screenshots, it looks infinitely better in motion; unfortunately it also suffers from some slowdown and frame rate problems, particularly when some of the more impressive weather effects come into play. This never ruins the experience, but it's still a shame - in the moments when the game runs at its best, you'll really know what you're missing. The settings for individual levels are varied and vibrant, with multi-layered backgrounds that run the gamut from temperate to boreal to subterranean.
Aurora's ambient soundtrack is a perfect match for the art style, channeling deep, resonant guitars and - depending on the stage - the comforting cacophony of a forest, the echoing drips of an underground cave, or the crisp chill of a snow-covered mountain. Taking excellent advantage of one of the Wii U's less-heralded features, the game outputs the music to the television speakers while mirroring the sound effects on the GamePad in surround sound, creating a surprisingly immersive effect. (As a side-note, while there's no dedicated GamePad-only mode, the single-player levels can effectively be played off-screen, just without the music.)
As a game that aims to let players experience the wonder of flight, Chasing Aurora succeeds brilliantly. Arcing through the air feels sublime thanks to the smooth controls and satisfying physics, and the atmosphere crafted by the sound and art style is positively dreamlike. Wonder aside, Aurora is perhaps not for everyone; while the multiplayer modes have universal appeal, the single-player experience is best enjoyed by players with an affinity for simplicity who will enjoy, rather than tolerate, replaying stages. But anyone with access to a few feathered friends for multiplayer and/or the score-chasing sensibilities needed to get the most out of the game's solo flights will have a wonderful time in the world of Chasing Aurora. A joyous game.