Aaero, billed as a rhythm-rail-shooter, is a crowdfunded mash-up of the rhythm game and the twin-stick shooter. Playing it is a bit like trying to survive a bullet-hell shooter while you just happen to be navigating a Guitar Hero track at the same time, with a healthy dose of Rez thrown in for good measure.

Serial Outermoders Ollie Fox and Tim Franklin both wanted to play the game, so we decided to pit them against one another in a fight to the death for the chance to review it. Frustratingly, they decided to collaborate instead of kill each other, so we’re afraid you’ll just have to make do with reading their ensuing conversation.

Oliver:

So! Aaero. I love Rez. Specifically Area 5 – I’m not alone in that single level having had a huge impact on my tastes in music, and also showing me, really for the first time, the potential for games as a hypnotic and immersive art form. So it was cool to discover that Aaero wasn’t just a love letter to Rez, but to that one iconic level in particular.

Like so many Kickstarter games, it became very clear very quickly that Aaero exists to scratch a very particular itch – in this case, the desire to play more of a single level of a single game. But it’s been as frustrating as it has been satisfying – Rez is such a total experience that when Aaero doesn’t do the things Rez did, it feels like something important is missing. The first thing that comes to mind is the lack of musical cues (beyond a drum hit) when you target and destroy enemies. The music lacks that malleability and immersion.

“It became very clear very quickly that Aaero exists to scratch a very particular itch.”

Tim:

Okay, so I’ve just watched a video and I don’t remember Area 5. Was Area 5 an unlock for 100%-ing the base game? Did it get replaced in the HD version on the Xbox 360? Did I just suck at Rez?

Sudden anxiety that I’m a videogame failure and fraud aside, I can see why you’d feel let down if you went into Aaero expecting it to be pure Rez – it’s not the same thing, even if Rez is the closest shorthand to describe it. You’re not creating music by blasting the enemies, you’re adding little adornments to these already nearly complete tracks. Lumines was pretty much the same in how inconsequential your intervention was.

But then there’s the ribbon of light you have to ride with your avatar. If you fall off it the vocals or the wub-wubs drop out of the stage’s tracks which is pretty much the same as following the notes in Guitar Hero and that whole genre. It’s not so much about making music in tandem with the game, as using the game as a vehicle to experience the music. Like instead of a music video, this is a music game.

Oliver:

Area 5 has been in all versions of the game – it was an unlock, yeah. It differed from the rest of the game in key ways – it took the game outside of the wireframe/hacker world of levels previous, and most importantly the pumping japan-techno took a back seat to a slightly more laid back and groovier Adam Freeland track, which used an iconic sample from Marlena Shaw’s soul classic California Soul at its climactic moments. One of the achievements for completing a level in Aaero directly references Area 5. Go play it!

But it’s worth bringing up again because it highlights another key shortcoming of Aaero. See, it’s pretty impossible to experience the music of Area 5 without playing it. They released soundtrack albums that included the track, but they’ve never felt right because the mix created for the game was so specific to that level. I was really excited to see names like Noisia on the Aaero set list, but was a little disappointed to find, after sweating through the unlock progression to get to them, that they were pretty standard versions of the songs.

Rez is such a total experience that when Aaero doesn’t do the things Rez did, it feels like something important is missing.”

Though I found satisfaction in those ride-the-wire sequences, at least when they were playing out synths and not vocals. They’re probably the parts where I felt most “inside” the music, which is what I want out of a game like this. Those bits, and also the boss battles, are where I feel the game is really at its best. How did you find the boss battles? And what about the set-list, generally? It’s a weird mishmash of musical sensibilities.

Tim:

The music’s outside my normal ambit – when the other kids were sneaking into clubs underage I was painting Space Marines and listening to Rammstein on repeat. So I don’t have much vocabulary to describe the set-list, except that I really liked it.

“Any game that lets me fly down the throat of a giant sandworm gets a thumbs up.”

I think the game did me a favour creating a context where the music was more accessible to me. I’m one of those sods who grumbles about not being able to have a decent conversation in a club. But that’s the natural habitat for this music, and this game is sort of like a zoo? And I’m a visitor who thinks that the chimpanzees are monkeys. I’m losing the metaphor here. The point is I liked the set-list even though I’d never listen to it if it wasn’t in a game.

Riding the wub-wub rail is definitely my favourite thing. There’s a really nice conjunction of feedback from the music, the sparks, the rumble that just feels great. But for putting me in the zone I’m not sure it’s the rails so much as the way the different gameplay elements come together.

Have you tried it on the higher difficulty yet? It’s a step up. The different challenges, the rails and the enemies and the environment, each one is asking for a different part of your attention and they’re all coming at the same time. You can’t process them all consciously so you force them further and further back in your head until they drop out of your conscious mind entirely. It also shows up some of the other influences in the game – there’s an R-Type kind of vibe to all these enemies hurtling at you at once.

Oh, and the bosses rule. Any game that lets me fly down the throat of a giant sandworm gets a thumbs up.

What do you make of it as an on-rails shooter?

Oliver:

Haha, well i wouldn’t call it the clubbiest of soundtracks, bar a couple of exceptions – lots of EDM, which is music for people on ketamine to sink into sofas to. Which, incidentally, was the primary audience for Rez, I’d wager. Except, maybe replace ketamine with whatever the designer drug of the early oughts was. Still plenty of Warhammer painting amongst that crowd, though maybe a bit more Dark Eldar than Space Marines, if you catch my drift.

I can’t imagine playing this game as a shooter absent from the soundtrack – on its own merits the action in most levels feels a little dry, with sections repeating identically in tandem with the verse/chorus/verse structure of the tracks. Seeing those sections repeat was a little bit of a let down even with the music present. Though I’m but a babe in the normal difficulty woods, so I’m aware that the real Aaero may yet begin. I’ve definitely loved being able to put myself in a Rez frame of mind. It’s a synesthesia holiday – synesthesia being the medical condition all musician non-sufferers are jealous of, so it’s cool to dive into a simulacrum of that experience. A synesulaceumsperience, if you will. And you, um, will.

“I’ve definitely loved being able to put myself in a Rez frame of mind. It’s a synesthesia holiday.”

Tim:

It might not be the difficulty level so much as the difficulty-to-competence ratio. I think once I’ve at least tried the tracks on the master difficulty level this game is going back to the Steam shelf, never to be looked at again.

I think what we’re touching on is that game is neither fish nor fowl – it’s never going to match up to Rez‘s staggering achievement as a combination videogame-synthesiser-drugbrella, it’s never going to match up to a proper bullet-hell shooter. But I don’t think there’s anything that blends the two halves quite as competently?

My big oversight is that I haven’t played Thumper which might fill that exact niche only better, but from what I’ve seen Thumper rides the rhythm-action train a little harder. My thoughts keep coming back to Guitar Hero, whose real quality was in allowing you to enter an active engaged mindset while (passively) listening to music and changing the way you enjoyed it. I think that’s a good comparison.

We’ve got this far through and we haven’t once said how pretty it is! Is there a name for the untextured, flat-colour, low-poly, beautifully lit finish to all the levels? I’ve seen it in Race the Sun before (another game about going forwards quickly). The general sci-fi aesthetic is nicely realised, just abstract enough. And the chorus sections of the levels are the best Return of the Jedi flying into the Death Star’s tummy sections in any game I’ve played.

Oh yes, I totally brushed off the question earlier, but I adore the boss fight ‘Revenge’. It’s the little cat noise when the boss appears, it kills me every time. Sometimes they just nail that choreography between action and music. When the level connects a change in the music to a change in the environment it’s very satisfying and I wish there was a bit more of it.

I just discovered that your missiles always land on the beat that’s why sometimes they’re slow sometimes they’re fast. This changes everything!

Well, it doesn’t change much at all. But it does make hard mode a bit easier to understand.

Oliver:

Aaero‘s long-term future depends on getting a constant trickle of more songs out there.”

What puts me off Thumper is the soundtrack, frankly – Rez (and Aaero) have a slight twinge of funk, there’s a fun bounce to both games’ soundtracks, whereas everything I’ve seen of Thumper suggests a soundtrack borne from the cast of Stomp joining a death cult.

I think the Guitar Hero comparison is a good one. And similarly to that game, I think Aaero‘s long-term future depends on getting a constant trickle of more songs out there. It’s already such an impressive licensed soundtrack, but I’m OK with the thing being a watered down Rez if that means it being a Rez-like platform for licensed music going forward. But considering the cheap point of entry, the game as it currently stands is an easy recommendation.

Tim:

Yeah, I want more songs. I would pay for a nice version of ‘Drop the Bomb’ by Skrillex / Ragga Twins. That would be a good future for this game – I hope it gets it.