To Wild Hare, the publisher of Etrom: The Astral Essence and a seemingly new face on the PC game-publishing landscape, a note of advice: hire more play testers! This hack-and-slash RPG should never have been let out the door of developer P.M. Studios, as all sorts of design flaws, crash bugs, an atrocious camera system, and PS2-era presentation values make it basically unplayable.
Even with an alluringly dumb sci-fi storyline, this is one mess of a game. You've got a protagonist named Etrom who's apparently rebelling against a fascist police state in a dystopian future due to some goofiness about visions, finally glimpsing reality due to an encounter with "the astral essence." Uh-huh. The things you'll see when you're on peyote...
Beyond this, there is no explanation regarding why you're going off the reservation, nor even a mention of why you're toting a glowing magic axe while many of the armored future cops, ninja thief dudes, and zombies that you get to hack to bits are carrying guns. The same goes for the oft-bizarre backdrops, which abruptly switch from the likes of the aforementioned future world filled with computers and space-age disruptor blasters to underground D&D temples chock-full of zombies. Some of the above might be spelled out in the soliloquies that Etrom regularly lapses into, but his dialogue is so filled with New Age gobbledygook and grammatical errors that it's impossible to figure out what he's trying to say. If you figure any of this out, please drop us an e-mail.
Still, at least the gameplay itself is straightforward. Despite the hallucinogenic plot points, the story is a basic scavenger hunt that sends you around the world in search of seven Aurum keys. The RPG-style character development is equally cut-and-dried, with you gaining XP and distributing points to various skill categories every time you level up. Power-ups and weapons are scrounged from slain enemies or purchased in shops. P.M. Studios does mix up the generic stuff with oddball additions like Etrom's ability to pull off magic tricks like transforming into a demon and stopping time, but everything here plays out much like in the usual elf-and-orc action RPG.
Yet even though the developer covers most of the basics, the camera system makes fighting an exercise in teeth-grinding frustration. There are no ways to lock the camera onto opponents, and it gets trapped in the scenery every time you get close to a wall. This means that you constantly have to rotate your view with the mouse during battles. And since you're swarmed by a dozen or more goons coming from all directions in nearly every scrap, you're stuck fighting the camera more than you are the bad guys. And, of course, when the camera gets caught on a wall, you can't see anything but a pixelated backdrop for a few moments until you swivel out of trouble. Say hello to instant death, or at least a whole lot of damage, if you happen to be in the middle of a beat-'em-up when the camera goes AWOL.
Just to make things even more maddening, it's tough to target an enemy during combat. The targeting circle is remarkably finicky, so you often wind up running around like an idiot instead of launching an attack while foes blast and hack you to bits. Enemies also always turn tail and run away in the midst of a fight if you don't take them down with your first couple of swipes with the axe or shots from a gun, which drags out battles and gives other enemies free shots at your back while you're chasing down the cowards.
Since this is an action RPG in which virtually all you do is fight, the above problems make Etrom nearly unplayable. The game is awfully hard, even without the control issues. There are lots of battles to be fought against lots of enemies, all of which respawn every time you exit an area. And because you have to do a lot of backtracking here, you wind up killing the same crews of enemies over and over again. A stealth mode lets you avoid combat in select spots, but not enough to be worthwhile, as it seems like bad guys run out of nowhere and attack you regardless, which soon draws the attention of a mob. Sneaking also reduces your movement speed to such a crawl that it takes forever to cross the game's large city maps. While you might start off with the soft-shoe routine, it's hard to live with it for long. After four or five minutes of creeping around, you'll do almost anything to end the tedium and switch movement back to running.
Finally, just to throw in a last little bit of extra hair-pulling frustration, you save and level up in hubs that are few and far between. So you typically have to fight your way across large stretches of maps numerous times, killing respawned packs of enemies for the third, fourth, or fifth times just to save off and buff your abilities. Oh, and the game also crashes to the desktop on a regular basis when entering new locations, which inevitably destroys a lot of your progress since you typically go 20 to 30 minutes between saves.
No eye candy is presented to take your mind off any of this ugliness. This game looks like it was made for the PS2 circa 2001. Levels are flat and featureless, as are most of the character models. Even rain is just a collection of broken lines. There is no imagination in the level design, either, as every map is a straight corridor crawl, and the first levels in the game take place in sewers. Resolution is locked at 1024x768, and there is no antialiasing option to smooth out the many jaggies. The only stylistic touch of any worth is the use of comic book faces to illustrate dialogue boxes during the rare cutscenes. Sound effects are barely there. Gunshots and other battle whangs and bangs are tinny, there is no spoken dialogue, and the music is straight out of an early '90s arcade shooter.
It's hard to believe that any developer could so thoroughly mishandle something as formulaic and done to death as an action RPG, but P.M. Studios manages to accomplish this momentous task with Etrom. Gloriously dumb sci-fi story or not, you'll get more enjoyment out of placing this game disc underneath your beverage of choice than you will by placing it in your DVD drive.