Before we even get into it, I feel like I should start off this review with a disclaimer: ARPGs have never really been my go-to genre of video games. It’s not that I dislike them per se, more so that I’ve always just gravitated to more narratively focused games and have never bothered to give this genre a chance really (let’s be honest, the story in ARPGs always seem to be on the bottom of the priority list).
A few throwaway hours in Torchlight and about 20 hours in Path of Exile (which I have to admit, I remember having a lot of fun with before being overwhelmed by the massive skill trees) is about the extent of my experience with the genre.
However, I’ve been wanting to get into the genre for a while now, and when Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards developed by Digiart Interactive & N-Fusion Interactive came across my desk, it seemed like the perfect gateway into it. Plus, it’s about a Latina demigod voiced and created by Paula Garces (Harold & Kumar, On My Block) and takes place in a mystical version of 16th century Latin America where the gods and goddesses of Inca mythology exist? Hell yes, give it to me now.
So, how does Aluna fare to a novice ARPG fan? And, if you’re like me and ever-curious about different cultures and mythologies, is it worth playing just for that aspect alone? Let’s find out.
A Fetch-Quest Story
I realize no one plays ARPGs for the story, but it’s worth mentioning that the whole game is basically one long fetch-quest. Aluna starts with a cutscene in the form of comic book panels (hailing back to the comics it’s based on) which does a great job of establishing the world and introducing the characters. These comic book cutscenes are interspersed between levels throughout the game and remain pretty enjoyable.
After a random corrupted monkey hilariously snatches a magical shard literally from right under Aluna’s nose (I’ve been there, goddamn monkeys and their sticky fingers man), you’re tasked with going to various places to retrieve all the shards to prevent an incredibly predictable evil force from predictably using them for nefarious world-taking-over purposes.
I’m struggling to even elaborate on the story because that’s pretty much all there is to it. There aren’t even any side quests to provide some variety. The number of interesting characters you’ll meet along the way is exactly zero, and Antonio, the one person who seems to have some kind of interesting history with Aluna, is never elaborated upon. The game itself doesn’t lift a finger to contextualize their relationship or anything, you gotta read the comics for that I suppose, which is not a characteristic of a good adaptation.
Aluna herself is a pretty intriguing character, being a demigod and all, and from the couple interviews I watched, I gathered that one of the aspects that the comic explores is her inner conflict for her identity as an off-spring of a Spanish conquistador and a literal ancient being, the Inca goddess of Earth, Pachamama. However that isn’t explored in the game at all, and you could be playing anyone for all it matters.
Tairona? I barely know her!
As I mentioned before, Paula Garces is the creator of Aluna (the star of 8 comic books and a popular playable character in the MOBA Heroes of Newerth) and a driving force behind this game. From the aforementioned interviews I watched, she seems to be incredibly passionate about the character and what she does for Latino representation in media. The intent is admirable and I fully support it, but this game, unfortunately, doesn’t do a great job of ‘portraying the Latino experience’ in any way.
Aluna takes place in a magical, mythological version of 16th century Latin America and thus has the inherent potential of being super interesting. Sadly, though some of the mythological characters are intriguing on a surface level – Quetzalcoatl comes to mind – the Inca mythology is never done justice in my opinion. This huge missed opportunity is a terrible shame as I was really looking forward to learning more about this world but, again, you’ll barely get any of that here.
Even Diablo, which, from what I can gather, doesn’t have a great story, has an immense amount of lore. I would’ve been ecstatic if there were at least a Glossary or something similar in Aluna, with a short description for each of the gods, goddesses, and monsters you encounter in the game, but nope. Given the immense mythology it’s derived from, the potential for lore is obvious and you’d think would be a given to make use of it, in any way at all.
Even the few interesting characters you meet, like Quetzalcoatl for example, are done a huge disservice. I mean, it’s a huge cool-looking dragon and is supposed to be the god of life, light, and wisdom, but pretty much comes across as an idiot with a stupidly annoying laugh. Hell, the ice dragon from The Messenger had more character and was infinitely more likable.
Suffice it to say, I was definitely underwhelmed with the lore, what they did with Inca mythology is a huge missed opportunity. I realize I’m neither Latino nor educated on the culture and it may not be my place to say so, but to me, the way the rich Inca mythology is handled here is extremely basic at best and mildly offensive at worst.
By the Book ARPGameplay
Alright, getting to what really matters, the gameplay. As I mentioned before, I don’t have a huge amount of experience with the genre, so take what you read with Jake Baldino’s grain of salt.
The ARPG gameplay is pretty solid and fun (I played the game for 8 hours straight just cause of how addicting and fun the gameplay loop is) but pretty basic, by-the-numbers and does nothing innovative at all (which is fine). You aggro a couple of groups of enemies after you, use some AoE skills, dodge around, heal from your never-ending potion flask, get better loot, fight mini-bosses, unlock skills, repeat.
There are three skill trees – melee, ranged and magic. I focused on the ranged tree while also putting a couple of points in the other ones as well for permanent buffs like more health/mana. However, the game doesn’t encourage dabbling in multiple trees as you need a ranged weapon to use ranged skills, melee ones for melee skills, etc. so there’s no incentive to mix-and-match, you’re beholden to a single tree.
Plus, the skill trees themselves are pretty small, only about 8 skills each and with only 4 slots for active skills, there’s not a huge amount of skills you can play around with at any given time. Compared to the 6 active skill slots in Diablo 3 and 8 slots in Path of Exile, this is pretty limited.
The ranged skills were fun enough – there’s one to root enemies, one to push back and slow them, one to pierce through them, etc., and a few more crowd-control skills, which are integral as you’ll be fighting hordes upon hordes of enemies throughout the game.
The weapons are typical as well: bows and rifles for ranged, swords and staffs for melee and magic, all color-coded for the different tiers – normal, rare, legendary, and named after their properties and the buffs they provide a la Diablo, which I found delightful and fun (though the names can be hilariously long at times).
Though the core gameplay is solid and fun to play through, Aluna is not without its flaws, oh not at all.
First off, there are a few problems with the AI – enemies sometimes just stop attacking and just stand there taking damage, and murdering enemies refusing to fight back obviously isn’t fun unless you’re a white cop in a black neighborhood. Also, some of the ranged enemies’ attacks are barely visible, and me being a squishy archer found myself losing a lot of health seemingly from nowhere until I realized ‘Oh, there’s a gaggle of 40 ranged enemies shooting at me from the edge of the screen’.
The balancing is off on many levels. I unlocked the entirety of the ranged tree in the first 6 or so hours of the game (it took me about 10.5 hours to finish it) and had most of my gear and weapons were legendary tier as well by this time, so I had nothing to look forward to progression-wise during the last third of the game time.
The currency system is extremely unbalanced as well – from very early on I found myself next to Scrooge McDuck drowning in gold with nothing to spend it on. There is an auto-crafting system that randomly generates a weapon for you to sink your gold into, but that’s about it.
The difficulty on Medium was the perfect amount of challenging for me until I reached the final volcano level, where there’s a sudden huge spike in difficulty. After trying for 45 minutes to get through the level, changing weapons and gear, and trying out different skill combinations, I ashamedly gave up and switched to Easy mode for the rest of the game. Perhaps the devs wanted me to go back to previous areas and grind levels but screw that – I’d unlocked all the skills and had all legendary weapons and gear by then so I’d had my fun and was ready to end it.
As for the performance, it runs smoothly at 60fps for the most part, unless you turn on ambient occlusion or mess with the shadow quality, which immediately drops it to less than 20fps and makes it unplayable. There was also screen-tearing every 10 or so seconds no matter how much I messed with the barebones options but I honestly got used to it after a while and it didn’t bother me much.
Sights & Sounds of Latin America
Graphics-wise, Aluna looks two gens old, which isn’t great. While there’s a decent variety of visual vistas – the greenery of forest areas, a pirate-themed area, a volcano area, etc., at no point was I encouraged to just stop and look at the sights, they’re fairly generic all the way through.
As for the music and sounds, they’re um… there. They exist and provide something for the ears to do I suppose, but there wasn’t a standout track or anything. Extremely mediocre. At least I didn’t find any of it grating and my ears weren’t bleeding at any point so that’s a win, I guess? Except for Aluna herself, the voice-acting is pretty sub-par as well, at times horrible.
Overall, Aluna is the definition of mediocrity. Despite the more-than-few technical and balancing issues, the lackluster audio-visuals, disappointing lore, and an incredibly generic fetch-quest of a story, it’s still a fun, playable game with a satisfying gameplay loop typical of ARPGs. The foundation is solid so I’m holding out hope that a sequel if it does come out, could fix all these problems and be great.
Though the intent to provide Latino representation in games is admirable and it’s great to see a Latina protagonist, the game, unfortunately, doesn’t do much more than that – the representation is only skin-deep. But hey, it’s a start.
If you’re craving a short, 10-hour ARPG romp, and want to support the devs in the hope for a better sequel that does Inca mythology justice and provides better Latina representation, go for it. If not, honestly, Path of Exile is free guys, just go play that, why are you even reading this?