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Aztaka: brilliant game, poor marketing?

A review of Citérémis' 2D action-adventure Aztaka, which is notable for receiving extremely high praise since its release while being unable to generate enough profit to let the developers' pay back their borrowed budget.

[Crossposted from TK-Nation. TK-Nation's a South-East Asian gaming site that plays home to news about quality underdogs from the gaming world, indie cosplay and video game collectibles.]

In 2005, a Canadian named Johnathan Mercier decided to gather a group of friends and found Citérémis with the idea of Making A Game. To do this, they borrowed $235,000 from friends and family, rented a small office above two bars, and sat down to work. Four years of blood, sweat and tears later Citérémis released Aztaka, a decidedly old-school sidescrolling adventure-RPG game which then languished in relative obscurity. The studio had hoped to use the income from their sales to repay their debts, but this was not to be.

I ran across Aztaka after someone told me about some guys who were holding a "quest for profitability", featuring a steep discount (9.99 USD, down from 19.99 USD) on their only game along with the addition of Developer's Edition materials (the source code) for only three weeks. Armed with my usual editor's skepticism, I obtained a review copy from the studio and began to play.

I was floored, and mustered enough spine to put the game down five hours later. I think that you should buy Aztaka, and I'm going to tell you why.

In a nutshell, Aztaka is Castlevania meets advanced RPG elements plus spellcasting set in an Aztec-inspired setting. The game places the player in the shoes of Huitzilo, a warrior tasked with collecting seven phonograms to save the world from destruction. To be honest, I'm pretty sure that "phonogram" this is a typo. The word refers to those record players that went out of style before I was born, and yet I don't think the Aztecs had that technology back then.

Regardless, the game more than makes up for its unintentional anachronisms with a well-crafted world. The graphics and animations are of much higher quality than screenshots might suggest, the music score is varied and appropriate, and level designs are varied both visually and in layout. In addition, the various quests and challenges the game throws at you are presented with plenty of background flavor, and there's a ton of optional dialogue for those interested in reading up on the world.

The combat is Aztaka is better than anything I've ever seen in an adventure/exploration game, but you wouldn't know it from the beginning levels (or the demo). At first all you can do is run around and right-click to stab your spear at killer shrubs and screeching, immobile primates. This hardly makes for exciting gameplay.

This is not the first level.

It takes too long to diversify his combat abilities, but by the 9th map level Huitzilo is a spinning, jumping, spell-flinging Aztec ninja. He needs to be one too, because his enemies grow drastically tougher: enemy warriors and casters parry and deal attacks in ways worthy of a minor boss fight, monkeys learn to use blowguns and run behind allies faster than you can chase, and getting hit is not a trivial affair. When faced with multiple enemies, survival requires jumping around like a crazed monkey to attack enemies from behind and dodging out of the way of counterattacks.

The game's signature feature is its energy system, which forms the bulk of the game's puzzle and platforming challenges. Slaying foes and accessing relics allows you to collect their energy, which is then dragged around to do things like grow branches on trees to reach higher platforms, light up dark caves to reveal hidden paths, and heal the sick like a good messiah should. Although this system is technically simple, the presentation is superb and contributes greatly to the mystical nature surrounding the hero.

The skill and spell trees.

Although Aztaka's spellcasting system isn't original, its noteworthy implementation in a 2D sidescroller deserves a mention. Successful spellcasting involves more than selecting a spell and a target; the player also has to click a series of runes surrounding the target within a brief time limit, and a misclick means that the spell fizzles. In practice, I found that the runes provided a good balance between distraction and skill within the heat of combat; the runes provided a useful visual aid but I still had to be mindful of the precision involved with clicking a (generally) moving target. This balance kept things moving along, especially while frantically dodging lethal blows.

Author's Rating: 9/10

Get Aztaka from the developer website:

As a grumpy critic by profession, I don't consider myself very easy to please. I realize my taste in games are less than mainstream, but other reviews have been just as glowing. This begs the question: why has Aztaka, now over a year past its release, only managed to recoup 15% of its budget? 

It's possible that Citérémis spent way more than they should have and failed to market their product effectively. Aztaka is a work of art, but did they really need to rent an office for four years? The demo shows off many of the features that I've described above, but the game only picks up well after the demo cuts short. Although Aztaka is available on distribution sites such as GamersGate, Steam, and Impulse, I've never seen these sites feature the game, nor have I seen the game included in any of the indie game packages that were on sale over the holiday season.

I don't know what the reasons are, and an interview will have to wait until later. However, these guys borrowed money from family and friends, and used it to make this truly awesome thing. They deserve, at the very least, to be able to pay back their debt. This game is an absurd steal at its current 9.99 USD (30.6 ringgit) sale price, and it's in fact I'd consider it well worth the full price. Go buy it now.

Get Aztaka from the developer website:

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