It would be easy to look at Legends of Ethernal and think to yourself, ‘this looks like a nice, happy, and peaceful game’. I mean, you only have to take one glance at the screenshots to see how pretty it is, with its picturesque landscapes and fishing rod-wielding protagonist the type of things you’d expect to see in a charming Harvest Moon-style title or something – especially with the Natsume name attached to the game.
Well, it turns out that Legends of Ethernal is far from ‘nice, happy, and peaceful’, with its Metroidvania-style adventure offering a harsh difficulty spike that’ll keep you on your toes and a harrowing story that tells of the protagonist’s struggles. Oh, and whilst the world is pretty to look at, it’s also full to the brim with dangers that’ll send you to a quick and brutal demise if you aren’t too careful.
Legends of Ethernal puts players into the shoes of a young boy named Wilfred, who seems to be living a pretty normal life and is busy spending his time fishing. On his way back home, he realises his Dad seems to be missing, but assumes he has just headed straight back to their house… pretty bad parenting if you ask me. Unfortunately, it seems like something more sinister is afoot, with his home empty and the nearby village destroyed by a malicious flying threat. Thus, Wilfred heads out to find out more and hopefully rescue his parents in the process.
The game warns you at the start that this isn’t going to be a happy story, with Wilfred’s journey actually occurring in the lead up to a catastrophe known as The Uncovering – you’ll discover more about this as you play and how Wilfred’s actions tie in directly to it. It actually makes for a really engaging tale that isn’t afraid to go to some dark places, with the events that occur often leaving me surprised. I won’t give away any spoilers here, but it certainly throws plenty of twists the player’s way as they uncover the secrets behind the seemingly cursed world…
Gameplay-wise, Legends of Ethernal feels a lot like your typical Metroidvania-style adventure, with players traversing through a string of complex environments that’ll see you running, jumping, climbing, and hitting away at enemies as you battle for survival. Some areas will be inaccessible until you unlock the right ability to reach them, whilst you’ll also battle an array of challenging bosses and earn new weapons as you try to find your parents.
The combat mechanics are fairly straightforward, with players able to dish out some basic combos with their melee weapon and also throw out a ranged attack with a quick button press. As mentioned, you do unlock additional weapons as you progress, though they don’t really change up the combat mechanics too much outside of having a few small advantages and disadvantages. You’re also able to dash your way past enemies and through attacks, meaning there’s a heavy emphasis on your manoeuvrability in the game where you have to pick your moments to strike and your moments to dodge if you’re hoping to survive. It’s all pretty simple stuff that doesn’t do anything that you wouldn’t have seen before, but it’s effective and fluid in design.
Interestingly, additional attacks and abilities that you unlock are tied to the use of collectible ether that you obtain when defeating enemies or smashing up objects in the environment, with each colour variant tying to different abilities – some will be used to perform powerful melee attacks for example, whilst others can heal you. Keeping a balanced collection of them all is vital to your progression, with their use in boss battles particularly important if you want to survive the pulverising attacks they send your way.
On the flip-side, not having enough ether could feel inhibitive in places too and did lead to some frustrating moments where I couldn’t do exactly what I wanted to because I just didn’t have enough ether. It means that you can’t always use some of your more powerful ranged and melee attacks, whilst not being able to heal could be a real pain, especially since Legends of Ethernal’s enemies can really pack a punch. It just feels like a bit of an imbalanced system that could’ve done with a bit of tinkering.
What doesn’t help is that Legends of Ethernal is a brutal game anyway, with standard enemies able to take you down quickly thanks to their hefty numbers and the fact that your dodge ability has a cooldown that stops players from stringing them together freely. The boss battles are tricky to conquer too, though they’re pretty fairly designed so that’s more of a case of just figuring out how to beat them instead of them being unfair… well… except for one or two who do pose an overwhelming and frustratingly designed threat. Add to that some backtracking element that makes you face some of these enemies all over again and you’ll quickly find that Legends of Ethernal does have its share of annoying moments.
It’s a shame too because most elements of its design are pretty competent, with the combat mechanics decent and the story engaging enough to keep me invested in Wilfred’s journey. Heck, it looks the part too, with some fantastic looking visuals on show throughout – some of the environments you travel across are truly wonderful in design, whilst even the more grim locales manage to have a special shine to them that makes them stand out in the world. It’s certainly top marks as far as presentation is concerned.
It’s worth noting that there are multiple difficulty levels on offer for players that can change up the experience, though none ever feel COMPLETELY easy-going. You’ll face challenges (and frustrations) on each one, though those who want a more ‘relaxing’ experience may find that the easiest difficulty level alleviates some of the game’s problems. It’s not a perfect fix, but it can mask some of Legends of Ethernal’s more obvious flaws.
Legends of Ethernal offers an enjoyable adventure to embark on with an engaging narrative, but some frustrations within exploration and combat do hold it back. I lost track of the amount of times that I was left frustrated by the many deaths I suffered during my adventure, with some of the boss battles proving particularly infuriating. The ether system was very hit-and-miss too, with it often leaving my more powerful abilities inaccessible when I needed them the most – it meant that the difficulty could feel like some poor design choices as opposed to feeling natural in-game.
Still, despite its shortcomings there is a fair bit of enjoyment to be had with Legends of Ethernal, whilst its visuals are outstanding throughout. It’ll take a fair bit of patience to get through and the difficulty can be a little overbearing, but it also has enough entertaining moments to make Wilfred’s seemingly cursed journey one that’s worth sticking with.
Developer: Lucid Dreams Studio
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC