As far as mythical god(desse)s go, Pachamama was - I admit - not on my radar prior to picking this game up. Stepping into the shoes of her demigod daughter Aluna meant a quick crash-course in Incan mythology and an introduction to the “Earth Mother”, but just as I was starting to get attached: bam! She puts herself in the way of a meteor heading for Earth, and explodes into a collection of magical shards. Sore luck.
Sore luck for her, but a huge result for fans of formulaic RPG storylines, because what else is there to do when shards of your magical mum go astray than retrieve them? Carrying one that appears to grant you strength and all sorts of abilities (eventually), you set off to fetch the others in the set, stealing them out from under the noses of various, classic gaming menaces. Being based on ‘The World of Aluna’ comic book series gives this relatively simple setup a feeling of depth and quality that’s missing from a lot of indie games, and the writing throughout is consistently good.
I’ll save a huge amount of time and effort here by describing the experience of playing Aluna with a single word: Diablo-y. It is almost uncomfortably Diablo-y, from the over-complex gear/stat system to the unnervingly well-ordered swarms of enemies you come across. That familiarity is a blessing; because it allows you to slip right into the gameplay with minimal fuss, and a curse; because Aluna falls short of a handful of long-established standards in the genre.
The first and most obvious being the presentation. As far back as the original Diablo & Baldur’s Gate, a consistent view (in this case, fixed isometric) and basic level structure meant that in games like these, developers could dial up things like textures, environmental effects, character modelling or animation quality to bump up the wow-factor. Sadly, that hasn’t really happened here. Nothing truly lets the side down, but the whole package just feels several generations old, and not in the heart-warming, nostalgia-panging way that recent remasters of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Super Mario 64 have done. It’s a shame, because you can feel the effort that’s gone into creating this story and moulding the world it takes place in, there are just too many rough edges to ignore.
The exploration and combat is all fairly-straightforward, even later on when you’ve got a full arsenal of hand-to-hand, ranged and magical abilities at your disposal. You’ll run into a pack of mostly identical creatures or goons, hit/shoot/zap and dodge until they drop, and repeat. There are collectibles to uncover and fairly regular Elite and Boss enemy encounters, but these rarely require anything more than some slightly more frenetic hit/shoot/zap-and-dodging. I sunk around 8-9 hours into Aluna over several sessions and each time I stopped, it was because the pattern had grown boring and I’d lost interest.
For all the time spent killing you’ll spend an equal (if not greater) amount of time looting, and I can’t say the developers haven’t committed to this particular feature. One of her superpowers must be bottomless pockets, because Aluna would need to be towing a caravan to store all the stuff you collect on your travels, and I only wish it was worth the effort. To begin with I was scrutinising each new gun, accessory or bit of armour I came across to make sure I did my heroine justice, and admittedly the detail is admirable, but very quickly it became apparent that a much more effective approach is to periodically replace old thing with new thing, and get on with it. For inventory and stats nerds there’s a lot to unpack (pun intended) but for me, it felt like a choice between getting involved with gearing up or actually playing the game, and I chose the latter.
Aluna has (just about) got the basics down, but doesn’t do anything brilliantly, and doesn’t try anything new. It’s got some catchy music and other tracks that are awful, voice-acting that feels punchy and rich between levels, but terrible elsewhere. Environments are vibrant and lush, but graphically repetitive and often flakey when in motion. For every positive there’s a negative just around the corner, and - as is often the case with smaller studios - it feels like a few more weeks in development and testing would’ve made all the difference.
Despite the general lack of ambition in the gameplay there’s clearly no shortage of creativity at DigiArt Interactive, and they’ve chosen an interesting setting and built a respectable game that’s punctuated by some really good, graphic novel-inspired story scenes. Aluna’s main problem is that Diablo III exists, and has set such a high benchmark for top-down ARPGs that it’s hard to be forgiving of basic issues like stuttering frame rate and input lag in 2021, even from a new indie developer. Relatively simple flaws in the grand scheme of things, but they just kill the momentum of what could otherwise have been a fun, unusual adventure.
Special thanks to Mateja at Plan of Attack for the review code.