You have to hand it to a development house that's ambitious enough to follow up a puzzle game with a role-playing game--a genre that most North American developers leave to Japanese game creators. One of the final third-party games for the Nintendo 64, Aidyn Chronicles is the second game from H2O Entertainment, the creator of the excellent N64 puzzler Tetrisphere. Although ambition and 50 cents will often only buy you a cup of coffee in the games industry, H2O has made a good first effort in this difficult category--albeit one that's severely undercut by a few key problems.
In Aidyn Chronicles, you play as Alaron, a squire who has an active interest in magic and who is favored by the local king. After you're attacked and poisoned by goblins, the king sends you away with several other adventurers in search of an antidote. You quickly learn that finding that cure isn't as easy as you might have hoped, and you're soon drawn into a larger plot concerning the enigmatic force behind the goblins that poisoned you. Aidyn's plot may not sound particularly compelling in such a brief description, but the game excels in how its story is told. The dialogue between characters is often exceptionally sharp and contains a smart sense of humor. Scripted events work to build suspense, move the plot forward, or to further develop the characters whenever things begin to drag.
The control scheme and gameplay in Aidyn Chronicles are a combination of elements from standard RPGs and average 3D N64 games. Anyone familiar with those types of games should quickly pick up Aidyn Chronicles' mechanisms. You travel within a large three-dimensional world in a fashion similar to that of Rare's Banjo-Tooie or Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and you manage your party's equipment, items, skills, and spells using a series of basic inventory-selection screens. The game's combat is a similar mix of standard 3D-game and RPG mainstays: You move your characters into position on an open plain in turn-based battles. Sometimes you begin a fight close to your enemies, while other times you need to spend several turns getting close enough to attack one another. Random encounters never happen, and you can avoid getting into fights by stealthily tiptoeing past foes facing another direction.
The developers fared well in bringing some role-playing game conventions into the third dimension, but they weren't as successful with others. The game's combat system is clearly its biggest shortcoming. The amount of control you have over battles is welcomed, but the pace of the fight sequences is infuriatingly slow. A standard brawl might be made up of four of your characters against four enemies. Each character's turn takes at least 10 seconds, even if he or she is only working to get into position. If that character casts a spell, that time can double. Instances of missed attacks are frequent, and enemies are rarely dispatched with fewer than three solid hits. Even the most basic scrap will take five minutes, and a large one can take more than a half an hour. It's safe to say that if you've ever complained about the time-consuming spell effects in a Final Fantasy game, you won't want to play Aidyn Chronicles.
Aidyn's graphics aren't as stunning at first glance as, say, those in Rare's Conker's Bad Fur Day, but over time, you will come to appreciate them more and more. What the game is missing in overall visual splendor, it tries to make up for with variety. Towns look widely disparate from one another, as do the huts, buildings, caves, and overall environments. You get the impression that the developers spent a lot of time making each area of the game distinct. The world is populated with many different objects and structures, the textures that bring it to life rarely appear more than once--or, if they do, they're at least hard to notice. Many character models in the game are well textured, too, although their designs can be blocky and their animations slow at times. The N64 Expansion Pak bumps the game's visuals into high resolution, which significantly cuts down on the visual haze seen in many Nintendo 64 games and provides a level of sharpness rarely seen in third-party games.
Those who played Tetrisphere won't be surprised that Aidyn Chronicles contains an excellent soundtrack, with a variety of different songs. Every environment has its own theme, which establishes the mood of that territory very well. The songs are sometimes epic, while other times they're eerie or suspenseful. They're always appropriate, however, and they're often quite catchy. In combat, for instance, war drums beat out a steady rhythm in the background, while in the town where the wizard school resides, the members of the game's internal orchestra pick up their flutes instead. As the game's graphics are weakened by the blockiness of its models, the audio is similarly marred by its sound effects. The grunts and groans that you hear during combat are very basic and unimpressive, and the throaty yelp that your main character makes when killed is borderline ridiculous.
While combat is one of the main drawbacks of Aidyn's gameplay, your character's running pace is another. In Aidyn Chronicles, your character would do well to run twice as fast as he does. Traveling back to town to restock items after a raid on an enemy camp takes much longer than it should, and getting from city to city can seem like it takes forever. You can say what you will about Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but the main character in that game really got around in that world quickly. Another one of the game's problems is the time it takes for events to get moving in the first place. There's always a slow spot in role-playing games before the pace really picks up and big events occur. In Aidyn, that slow spot goes on much longer than it should, enough so that it could turn off many players from wanting to continue. There are times when the fights are extremely hard to win, and it's very tough to level up and gain momentum.
Even with its flaws, Aidyn Chronicles is a good first effort in this genre on the part of H2O, one with enough promise to make you want to see an improved sequel on a more contemporary or future platform. The game is definitely missing many of the refinements RPGs from powerhouse developers like Square boast, but there are a lot of things to like about the game. Beyond its excellent storytelling and music, it's a large game with a great deal to explore and many characters for you to bring into your party. It's a shame that Aidyn's slow pace and plodding combat mean many of its pluses will be discovered only by the most stubborn players out there.