The tales of the gods are as old as time, though the stories will often differ depending on the culture. Western civilization has focused largely on the Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons, but there are gods from scores of cultures that have gone mostly unexplored in the realm of video games. The ancient Aztecs had their own gods that they worshiped before imperialism crushed their culture and those gods are the subject of the alternate future of Aztech Forgotten Gods. While there's a lot of imagination presented in Aztech's world and a gripping story that eventually comes together, the game also looks noticeably dated and has more than a few issues that keep it from becoming the shining beacon of any civilization.
Science and gods
Aztech's story centers around a young woman named Achtli, a one-armed amputee who lives with her scientist mother, Nantsin, and is struggling to build a life for herself. Nantsin finds a lost prosthetic artifact, which Achtli tries out for herself. The giant gauntlet, called Lightkeeper, latches itself onto Achtli, who finds out that it also comes with the voice of an ancient god. Before long, monsters begin appearing in the world sent down by six ancient giants, all looking to destroy man's world. Achtli must use Lightkeeper, while getting along with the godly voice in her head, to defeat the giants, save civilization, and ultimately rescue her mother, who becomes a captive in her own workspace.
The story for Aztech starts off slowly. There's a lot of text, a lot of walking back and forth between characters, and an overabundance of exposition. At the beginning of the game, there's little action to break up the heavy dialogue flow. At about the halfway point, though, the story begins to hit its stride and never looks back.
Achtli, in particular, is a wonderful character who's built up beautifully throughout the game. Elements to her character that might seem like minor quirks come into play down the line in unexpected ways. Specifically, her fear of tight spaces leads to one of the most imaginative stretches of the entire game, taking what looks like a typical boss fight and stretching it out into a genuinely tense maze section that exploits Achtli's fears. The later giant fights introduce more unique ideas, culminating with a twist that threatened to be clichéd and turning it on its head. That's the best example of the growth Achtli experiences throughout her story, coming across as a normal, vulnerable person trying to cope with her faults to become a better person and move forward.
The one negative for the story is its overreliance on flashing images. There's a lengthy photosensitivity warning upon booting up the game, but there's no way to prepare for the flashing imagery, which is mainly used for Achtli having visions of the past and future. There are times when they'll come out of the blue and even when you're expecting them, they can be jarring. Worse, there's no way to turn them off. I understand that Lienzo wants to convey the urgency of these visions, but I feel like there could have been a better way to express them.
With a gameplay loop that supports this story, Aztech would be one of the best indie games in recent memory. Sadly, there are some bugs in this tech.
Aztech's central mechanics revolve around Lightkeeper, which allows the player to perform multiple functions. The biggest one is the ability to boost into the air and use it as a jetpack. Flight can be a blast, especially in Aztech's open world where Achtli is free to fly up walls and come down with a mighty punch. In that sense, Lightkeeper will make players feel like Iron Man. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Well, the problem comes once spaces are more confined, at which point players will probably feel more like they're on Tony Stark's first test flights that ended with him getting sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Getting velocity is easy. It's getting altitude that's the trick. Many of the giant battles require Achtli to get high enough to strike them, but getting the altitude needed is often a pain. Worse yet, in trying to avoid any attacks, the time would come when Achtli needed to either land or grind on a rail to recharge Lightkeeper. Unfortunately, there were a multitude of instances where I accidentally flew through a texture and wound up floating inside a solid object.
While the giants were formidable, they weren't nearly the nuisance that the camera was. The problem with a mechanic like a jetpack that moves at high velocity, it's that the game's camera usually can't keep up. The camera threw fits frequently during giant battles, usually getting stuck behind an object. Trying to figure out where I was going during these boss fights was a nightmare, especially as I was trying to avoid attacks.
The positive to the giant battles was that they're mostly designed differently, either requiring different attacks or being placed in new settings altogether. The size of these battles is something to behold, as developer Lienzo captured the essence of pitting a human against a gigantic entity. The issue is there's little to do in the game besides that. There are a few side activities scattered throughout the world, challenging Achtli to races or arena battles, but they feel largely generic and unsatisfying. While they help contribute towards upgrades, there isn't much else to get, as the unlockable hairstyles and outfits feel disappointingly limited.
Building a brighter future
At one point during the Aztech story, Achtli expresses despair over her shortcomings and bemoans that she hasn't become her best self. Nantsin reassures her by telling her that the human experience centers around continued self-improvement. Nobody is born perfect and nobody truly achieves perfection. Everyone has faults, but part of life is getting better each time out.
That scene ran through my head several times after stepping back and looking at Aztech Forgotten Gods as a whole. There's a lot to praise about it, from the unique setting, to the story centered around a captivating main character, to the wildly enjoyable abilities that come from Lightkeeper. However, the game also has several glaring faults. As cool as blasting off and boosting is, the shoddy camera, the numerous broken textures, and the general lack of precise control put a damper on the fun. The dated textures lose their charm after a while. Plus, the gameplay loop ultimately feels shallow with nothing to break up the giant fights other than unsatisfying side activities.
This is going to sound like more of an insult than intended, but Aztech Forgotten Gods feels like one of the best games of 2002. That's not a typo. It feels like it would fit in beautifully with the PS2/Xbox/GameCube generation of games. It almost feels unfair to penalize it for looking and feeling as dated as it does, given the limitations of an indie developer. Over the years, though, we've seen indie games excel and regularly push the envelope in spite of those limitations.
Aztech Forgotten Gods tries and that's probably the best thing I can say about it. Lienzo journeyed forward with lofty ambitions and, like Mulaka before it, has laid down a foundation that makes me excited for their future projects. Gaming is a better place when stories like this, using atypical mythology, get to be told. Like Achtli, the studio will hopefully continue to grow and learn from its missteps to become the best it can be.
This review is based on a Steam digital code provided by the publisher. Aztech Forgotten Gods will be available on PC (via Steam and the Epic Games Store), PlayStation, Xbox, and the Nintendo Switch on Thursday, March 10 for $29.99 USD. The game is rated T.
Aztech: Forgotten Gods
- Unique setting
- Flying around with Lightkeeper is a blast
- Lightkeeper has a satisfying attack arsenal
- Heartfelt story with lovable lead character
- Bosses are intimidating and varied
- Dated visual style
- Camera can be your worst enemy
- Possible to fall through multiple textures
- Story starts off slow
- Flashing images are jarring