AER: Memories of Old begins with a beautiful little video gaming moment. As you clamber up and out of the collapsing cave in which your adventure begins, you're presented with an all-encompassing view of the fragmented floating islands, surrounded on all sides by majestic columns of billowing cloud and bottomless chasms, that make up its world. As you move tentatively towards the edge of the island on which you stand you’re instructed to press jump twice to transform into a bird, an action which immediately sweeps you up and out into the endless skies above.
One moment you’re stood on the edge of a precipice, the next you’re swooping through the air, diving through clouds and flapping your wings to give yourself a speed boost as you skim a wing across the surface of some great lake before directing yourself onto one of the countless splinters of land that surround you, morphing back into your human form to begin exploring. As far as introductory moments in a game go, it's a belter.
Swedish developer Forgotten Key has obviously spent a great deal of time perfecting the primary means of traversing its creation and it’s paid off handsomely as pitching yourself in and around islands, barrel-rolling through bespoke tunnels carved into rock and guiding your bird-self into great gusts of wind that funnel you along at high speeds is a delightful way to experience the world the developer has created here.
You play as Auk, one of the last shape-shifters, sent on a sacred pilgrimage through the Land of the Gods, where you’re instructed to use the power of Karlah’s Light – a lantern you pick up at the outset of your quest – to visit three temples in order to stop some great evil from devouring what’s left of the world. As you explore, you’ll piece together the history of the land you inhabit, using your lantern to illuminate not just the present but the past, holding it up to glowing cyphers in order to glimpse tiny moments from the lives of those who have gone before. You’ll also come across a handful of hardy NPCs scraping a living in a camp at the heart of the world who’ll gently guide you towards your next objective while filling in some of the backstory, which can be further added to by discovering some of the many carvings and scrolls littered throughout the tiny sky islands you visit.
Alongside the flying around – which is some of the best flying around we’ve encountered in a game in quite some time – you’ll guide Auk through dungeons, the biggest being those aforementioned temples, and partake in some enjoyably light platforming and puzzling in order to gather three fragments of great power and bring peace to the world once more. It’s here, with your feet firmly planted on the ground, that AER: Memories of Old loses a little of its charm; walking around on old terra firma, it turns out, can’t really hold a candle to the dizzying delights of swooping around in the skies above.
Yet these dark caverns are beautifully designed, atmospheric places filled with melancholy fragments of the past, haunted by the lost hope of past pilgrims, and, although their puzzles won’t tax you for too long, they’re satisfying and fit perfectly into the relaxing nature of the game. This isn’t an adventure about overcoming some insurmountable obstacle or engaging in combat (of which there is very wisely none). Auk’s journey is about healing, about bringing together disparate cosmic strands in order to soothe the void between man and nature that’s seen this world become slowly corrupted.
A combination of beautiful low-poly graphics, reminiscent of the likes of Journey, Rime, and, more recently, Ashen, accompanied by some top-notch music and ambient sounds helps to bring the Land of the Gods alive to spectacular effect. Taking to the skies sees low orchestral hums rise up, accompanied by wonderfully uplifting acoustic banjos and flutes that seem to follow you in flight, rising and falling as you do, gathering momentum as you careen through tight spaces on your way to one of the great temples to unlock another piece of the puzzle at the heart of the game. Caverns are filled with the whispers of forgotten pilgrims, their final moments captured forever in cyphers you can bear witness to using Karlah’s Light, while outside the deafening rush of giant waterfalls that drop majestically between disconnected levels of land fills the air.
This is also a commendably freeform experience; from that first moment you take off into the air you can choose to traverse the world as you see fit, discovering little scraps of knowledge here and there, piecing together the events of the past in no particular order and picking away at the puzzles you come across as you make your way towards the three temples which serve as the main progression points that drive the narrative forward.
Performance-wise, AER: Memories of Old runs flawlessly in both portable and docked modes and we didn’t experience any framerate hitches or bugs during our time in the Land of the Gods. It’s also a real looker, with strong art design that stands easily alongside that of Journey or even the mighty ICO in terms of creating an enchantingly ethereal setting for Auk’s sacred pilgrimage.
AER: Memories of Old may be a short game, it may have zero combat with light puzzling and platforming that isn’t going to set any sort of great challenge for players, but that isn’t really what this adventure is about and it's great to see a developer realise its vision without relying on comforts that gamers so often expect to pad out their playing experiences. Developer Forgotten Key has crafted an enchanting world here, with a fantastically fun and fitting means of traversing it; a splintered land full of melancholy memories in which you soar, a singular source of hope in flight above a world that’s relying on you for salvation. It’s a trip, a meditation on the nature of man and his fractured relationship with the natural world around him, a beautiful journey that's well worth taking.