Cast your mind back a generation or two, to the plastic instrument war. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were the biggest things in gaming, then all of a sudden the craze died and, just like that, the fun was over. Just as the light was flickering out, though, one final bright star appeared: DJ Hero.
It was the work of UK studio FreeStyle Games, and was arguably one of the best rhythm action games ever made, but it came too late in the life of the 'plastic instrument' genre to make a serious impact and so it (and its sequel) also died. Paul Norris and Dan Horbury were two of the key developers who worked on DJ Hero, and when they both left FreeStyle they decided to form their own studio, Mad Fellows. Aaero is their first game, and if you didn’t think lightning could strike twice then you’re about to get a double jolt right up the rump.
Aaero is best described as a three-way cross between DJ Hero, Rez and old-school arcade shooter Tempest. Flying a ship through a series of outdoor and tunnel areas, you have to follow any musical ribbons you come across while blasting enemies along the way. These ribbons appear during the tunnel sections and bend up and down depending on how the music goes, so you have to move your ship around in a circular motion to follow their trail and keep the music playing.
As you do this, enemies may appear and fire shots at you; this is where the Rez element comes into play. While moving your ship with the left stick, you can also use the right stick to move a cursor, lock onto enemies and their projectiles, then press the fire button to blow them all up at once. Just like in Rez, this all goes to the beat of the music. When you pull the trigger and fire your homing missiles, the game adds a slight delay to make sure your enemies explode in the most rhythmically satisfying way possible.
These two elements – tracing the ribbons to make the music play then destroying enemies – form the core of Aaero, but it adds little features here and there to keep things interesting. Each stage, for example, has a bunch of hidden red lights that you can lock onto and shoot as you zoom past. Getting these (and getting a five-star rating on each stage) is your key to unlocking higher difficulty levels.
Best of all are the boss battles, though, which pop up from time to time and having you taking out an enormous enemy using similar ‘lock on and trace’ mechanics. One of these in particular – a giant Dune-like sandworm that swallows you whole, forcing you to fly through its enormous body and try to blast out of the other end – is the highlight of the entire game.
This is all accompanied by some fantastic music designed to get the old veins pumping. There’s a fair amount of dubstep in here, though, so if that sort of thing doesn’t yank your crank it may not win you over here either (although we aren’t necessarily fans of it either but it works brilliantly in this situation).
It can take a little while to get used to Aaero’s unique control mechanics. Shooting enemies with a cursor is easy enough, and tracing the lines with the left stick is similarly straightforward (though accuracy will take some practice). When you combine both shooting and tracing at the same time, it can initially feel a bit like patting your head and rubbing your belly, until it eventually clicks.
All of this would be pointless if the game played like a dog, but thankfully Aaero is smoother than Louis Armstrong bathing in butter. When it launched on the Xbox One and PS4 last year it ran at a solid 60fps, which was extremely important for its rhythm-based gameplay. While frame rate isn’t the be-all and end-all in most games, in the rhythm genre it can make a big difference.
Thankfully, then, the Switch version also runs satisfyingly smoothly, with very few instances of dropped frames, in docked mode at least. Switching to handheld results in a less smooth performance, but crucially this is portrayed as dropped frames rather than slowdown, meaning you’ll still be able to play accurately. In order to handle the drop in power from Xbox One and PS4 to Switch, Mad Fellows has decided to cut back on visual detail in order to keep the performance level high, and it was a wise move: the game runs so fast you often don’t notice much difference, and there are only one or two moments in the whole game – blasting out of the aforementioned sandworm being the most notable example – where it looks a bit rubbish.
Aaero isn’t perfect, though it isn’t far off it. The main issue we’ve encountered is during the shooting sections; because you can only lock onto a set number of enemies and projectiles, it can sometimes be a little difficult to see which ones you’ve locked. This can lead to you pulling the trigger then realising you missed an important missile, and it’s often pretty much impossible to lock onto it and fire another shot before it kills you.
This is something you’ll be able to work on with practice, though, and before too long these situations start to feel more like an anomaly than the norm. You’ll eventually be plucking those missiles out of the sky like conkers from a tree; it’ll just take you a little while longer than you may expect before you can do it effectively.
It would also have been nice to have had some sort of audio lag setting. Aaero’s best played as loudly as possible, but some home entertainment systems introduce a little bit of lag between the action happening on-screen and the sound coming out of the speakers. Since the ribbon sections are tied to precisely to the music, this can cause your timing to be a little bit off. This won’t be an issue on most TVs (or, indeed, in handheld mode, where the audio is perfectly synced), but it’ll be present in some gamers’ set-ups; it’s not a massive problem by any means, but just another thing to adapt to before you can master the game.
These quirks aside, this is a brilliant rhythm action / on-rails shooter hybrid, and the fact that it’s the 'Complete Edition' is a lovely touch. The original version of the game on other systems came with a total of 15 tracks, but the Complete Edition adds six more tracks that were released as DLC on those systems – three drum & bass levels and three more dubstep ones – and chucks in a few skins for your ship too. 40 percent more levels at no extra cost? Don’t mind if we do.
It takes a little while for Aaero’s mechanics and its combo system to click, but once they do there are fewer better rhythm games out there. Its fantastic soundtrack exudes cool from every pore, and the way it integrates with gameplay (while running beautifully smoothly while docked) makes it one of the most immersive experiences you’ll find on the Switch.