Take one look at Dan Fornace’s Rivals of Aether, and you will understand the man’s passion for competitive fighting games. Emerging from Fornace’s earlier Nintendo fan-game Super Smash Land, Rivals of Aether carefully imitates Nintendo’s hit franchise, while avoiding the pitfalls of the series’ later titles. All of this is lovingly wrapped in an accessible, yet immediately iconic cast of characters and set of unique battlefields.
The mythology of Rivals is a simple application of the classical elements. Each character is an anthropomorphized animal, aligned with either water, air, fire or earth. Fornace has lovingly named these characters, but competitive slang like “Fire Lion” and “Earth Beetle” seems likely, with the game’s narrative taking a distinct backseat to the title’s gameplay.
In fact, the game’s story mode is hardly worth playing beyond its merits as an extended tutorial. Once you’ve barrelled through each characters’ handful of fights, you’ll be rewarded with a series of small illustrated cut-scenes, and a deeper understanding of your character of choice. There’s some in-game currency too, meant to progress the game’s few unlockables, but competitive combat is the clear focus of this project.
Each character is carefully balanced, offering a staggering amount of variety with the eight available fighters. Players of all skill levels should have no problem discovering a fighter which matches their play style. From the straightforward powerhouse to the deceptive trickster, Smash players should feel right at home, once they’ve acclimated to Fornace’s new parry system.
Replacing the usual shielding of party-fighters, is a delayed counterattack. Timing becomes essential at higher levels of play, as newcomers must learn to predict their opponent’s moves and execute a perfectly timed parry to score a free hit on their opponent. This element better mirrors Street Fighter II than Super Smash Bros., but is an exciting addition to the style of gameplay.
If any of this frightens you, know that the game boasts a robust tutorial, which gleefully guides the player from the basics of movement, all the way to advanced, character-specific techniques. Even my 6-year-old daughter was performing “air-dodges” and “wavedashes” within a day of the game’s introduction. This mode expertly prepares the user to tackle the “player versus player” experience at the heart of Rivals, which is an absolute party maker when played locally.
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the online scene isn’t bustling enough to support casual, anonymous online play. In my experience, the game took an enormous amount of time to match me with an opponent, and at this point, only supports one-on-one play. This seems like a pretty huge oversight for a four-person fighter, but Fornace has promised regular updates and tweaks to his game, and hopefully these issues will be resolved with a future patch.
Gamers of all ages can enjoy Rivals of Aether. The art style is a charming throwback to a bygone era, while the gameplay is a mix of old and new elements in the party fighter genre. I had just as much fun playing with my children as I did playing my competitive fighting game enthusiast pals. In both cases, the game is tense, competitive, and full of exciting KOs and dramatic last-minute recoveries.