Platforms: PC - HTC Vive (reviewed)

Aeon is a VR shooter from the talented folks over at Illusion Ranger that shows off everything we love about VR shoot ‘em ups. The game includes a brutal, challenging combat system that forces the player to adapt, overcome, and survive, while also showing off some of the most cinematic combat sequences we’ve ever seen in VR. It brings the fire and lead to your doorstep, and forces you to become better, stronger, and faster if you want to make it to the end.

A real challenge

Before we get started, I should mention that I’m a huge fan of VR shooters that like to destroy you with exceedingly high difficulty curves, occasionally overwhelming odds, or that otherwise challenge you to face off as much against your own limitations as the enemies themselves. There’s something about the fact that virtual reality requires you to often rely on more real-world elements of aim, dodging, and physical skill that makes the challenge that much more real, and that much more satisfying to accomplish.

Aeon hit all those key points for me, so I enjoyed it immensely, but it’s really the kind of game that appeals to people that enjoy that mix of frustration, exertion, and repetition. If you want to feel like a god among men the second you step into a game, Aeon isn’t going to offer that to you.

What it will offer is a lofty skill bar that requires you to become something better. You’ll feel like a god eventually, but it’ll take some time. If you’re like me you’ll die a lot, but succeeding will become all the sweeter for the long road covered in your spent weapons, corpses, and hard-learned lessons behind you.  If you get frustrated easily, or if you can’t stand it when a world refuses to perfectly cater to your every whim, you should probably give this game a pass. But if you want to become a better player, a better gamer, and better at VR games in general, it’s worth picking up.

Slow Motion Sci-Fi Goodness

Gameplay in Aeon revolves around several common VR FPS elements. Different devs implement them with varying degrees of success, but they all revolve around giving the player some control over time and space to pull off wicked headshots, block strikes that would normally be nearly impossible to see coming, and to give the player a chance to “take it all in” as they slice through an enemy’s skull or artfully weave through automatic fire like Neo at a disco-themed shooting range.

Aeon goes with Superhot-style bullet time as its go-to ability, allowing you to hold the grip buttons on your Vive controller to slow time to a crawl, an effect which increases or decreases based on how much you actively move. Just like in Superhot VR, this effect is incredibly cool and gives the player a sense of power, and adds a unique challenge to both how you plan your movement and how aware you have to be of your surroundings. 

You can’t dodge what you can’t see, and even moving your head to look around will cause time to progress just a little bit faster. Even light trembling when your arms inevitably get tired will trigger the tracking on the Vive, transmit it as movement, and cause bullets and missiles to inch toward you that much faster.

As a result, being aware of your surroundings and the way you move your body is absolutely essential, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see first-hand how even small, quick motions can send bullets speeding toward you with surprisingly dangerous results. Especially considering that most projectiles short of rockets are extremely difficult to spot against Aeon’s sci-fi industrial backdrop.

There’s no doubt that this system is very similar to Superhot’s, but it’s implemented well, and there are a few differences that set it slightly apart – primarily the fact that it’s manually triggered by squeezing the grip buttons on the controller, and because it never really stops time if you’re totally still.

Neither of these facts necessarily excuse the similarities, but it’s interesting to see the mechanic in a new context with its own separate challenges. In Superhot, projectiles are often easy to pick out, which is far from the case in Aeon. And because you’re bound to a single static location in Superhot you never need to consider how teleporting or using another form of locomotion will affect your ability to slow time.

Aeon’s movement is either a rapid glide form of teleportation, or a more traditional locomotion triggered using the touchpad, both of which effectively disable your bullet time abilities and if used at the wrong moment can send you hurtling into the rounds of the surprisingly accurate AI.

GunFu, Eventually

With both teleportation and bullet time in hand, Aeon throws a couple of fancy handguns your way and tosses you immediately into the action. Both pistols hold a lot of ammo, and in a nice little twist you have to lower your pistols to your waist to reload, but instead of slotting in fresh clips your character just drops the old pistols and grabs a new set, Reaper style.

Both features are nice little mechanics both practically and aesthetically, building an extra nuance of difficulty into the game while also occasionally adding to the slow motion cinematic quality of the overall experience.

Difficulty-wise, moving your arms down to reload speeds up time, requiring careful planning on your part if you want to dodge incoming projectiles while you refresh your pistols. The game does give you a bit of a hand here, lightly vibrating your controllers when your hands are in the correct position for a reload, a mechanic that quickly leads into an instinctual motion as you wait for the slight vibration to trigger before you snag the next set of pistols.

Aesthetically, dropping each set of pistols (and later your katanas) adds a bit of a humorous look to the battlefield as you occasionally leave a short-lived set of Gunzerker-style bread crumbs behind you like an action sci-fi rewrite of Hansel and Gretel. Additionally, in classic slow-motion style, you’ll often be switching between weapons and reloading a lot, which often means that you’ll get a chance to watch your empty guns and abandoned swords slowly drop to the floor or otherwise fly through the air as you continue to blast the hell out of incoming enemies.

With that said, Aeon gives you approximately ten seconds to figure out the controls, listen to the slight narrative tutorial, and then immediately slings you into the action with just your pistols for the first level, which plays remarkably like a training simulation. You’ll primarily be fighting other robots that look exactly like you in this level, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that Aeon isn’t messing around in the slightest.

Your character gets one free hit each life; a second bullet, punch, or damage of any other kind immediately sends you back to the most recent checkpoint. These checkpoints won't set you back a great distance at first, but it quickly becomes a challenging obstacle as each checkpoint begins to require more and more enemies, more and more bullet dodging, and an even greater understanding of the game mechanics to pull off.

On more difficult sequences you’ll sometimes be set against ten to twenty enemies at a time, often with two or three appearing in a randomly selected spawn that changes with each new attempt. As the levels continue, you’ll have to deal with enemies wielding machine guns, rocket launchers, insanely fast ninja warbots, enemies swooping in like Green Goblin from the Toby McGuire Spiderman films, shielded enemies, and various combinations of each that require careful movement, luck, strategy, and a combination of all three that begins to feel a lot like skill.

Headshots are key, and if you can get used to precisely landing these shots while weaving in between enemy projectiles and occasionally using your other pistol to stagger enemies, you’ll eventually make your way to the end of the first level. Just don’t be surprised if it takes you almost an hour or sometimes longer.

This is primarily because the AI and unit placement in Aeon are surprisingly well-implemented for a decidedly indie title. Although you’ll rarely see anything more complex than basic patterns and a slow march in your direction, it’s the combination of enemy types that perform different roles that makes it a challenge. 

Shielded enemies will continually move in while ranged enemies spawn from a variety of angles that require you keep your head on a dangerously time-sensitive swivel. Some enemies are simple to remove with the swords, which, when equipped, decrease the speed of time even more, while others can only be effectively managed with your pistols. Likewise, your pistols can sometimes deal with shielded enemies but never as well as letting them get close and dispatching them with your swords.

Aeon does a fantastic job of layering these encounters to encourage you to adapt your skillset to each new or particularly difficult combination. In doing so they force you to constantly switch between your swords and pistols on the fly. You’ll end up slashing through a shielded ninja assassin, dropping into a crouch to draw your pistols, weaving your way under and through a barrage of automatic fire, blowing the heads off the gunners, then blasting a few more shielded enemies before they get close enough for you to swap back to your swords to finish the job.

Meanwhile, Aeon will spawn a fleet of more gunners or melee fighters behind you, in a blind spot, or up on a ledge that you haven’t looked at for about ten seconds, which will either kill you, or you’ll hear the audio cue in time to throw your character backwards, or drop to the ground under the incoming fire thanks to the magic of room-scale VR.

The combination of constantly fluctuating waves of enemies, deadly combinations of tactics, and a punishing health system means that you’ll be forced to adapt to survive. But the farther you progress, the more natural each mechanic becomes, and it won’t be long before you begin pulling off insanely cool combinations of sword, gun, and temporal distortion that look and feel absolutely amazing.

One of the more memorable of these moments occurred during the fourth level when I found myself dealing with a difficult sequence that required taking out a series of flying Hob-Goblin enemies strafing my position while several shielded enemies and various pistol wielders dropped in from positions around the map to wreck my day. As if that wasn’t enough, killing a shielded enemy would also trigger several ninja robots to swarm my position, and just as they got within slashing distance Aeon would throw a squad of machine-gunners my way just to keep me on my toes.

After dying what felt like several hundred times, I managed to blast one of the Hob-Goblins out of the air immediately, causing a massive Star Wars-style explosion right at my feet. I threw my hands up in the air to grab my swords from my shoulders, pivoted slowly around on the ball of my foot to slash through the shielded enemies behind me, just in time to watch my abandoned pistols glide through the air.

With the explosion still licking at my heels, I sliced several rounds out of the air, then dropped into a crouch to draw my pistols and sling rounds at the ninjas and pistol wielding bots sprinting my way. I nailed several hits on the first ball of robo-ninja-murder and knocked off her bioshield, staggering her just enough that she and her compatriot would arrive at the exact same time. This gave me just enough time to switch to my swords to cut them to pieces in super slow-mo while ducking and weaving through the first barrage of machinegun fire rolling my way.

A flash of pink and a shadow passing overhead told me the second Hob-Goblin was making its first strafe attempt and had managed to hit me, so I quickly dashed to the side to make it out of the hail of gunfire and kept a tight grip on my swords to give me a super-slow-mo boost as soon as I came out of the dash, which I used to dodge and slice around the next salvo of automatic fire.

As soon as I was certain that I was clear of the first burst, I grabbed my pistols and opened up with Wild-Wild West-style rapid fire with one pistol from the hip to stagger the gunners while bringing up my other pistol to deliver more accurate shots to finish them off. Before they even hit the ground, I was already pivoting again to my left to shoot the last pistol-wielding bot that had killed me the last ten or twelve times I had made it this far. His first round passed by my skull close enough to make out the texture details, and in response I sent enough lead his way to grind a cow to hamburger. At this point, I had plenty of time and a lack of enemies to calmly wait for the Hob-Goblin to come around for another strafe so I could shoot him out of the sky and advance to the next sequence.

It was one of those “only in VR” moments that had me smiling, sweating with exertion, and practically dancing with joy that I had finally cleared the sequence. More importantly, I felt like a master of GunFu with complete control over my weapons and the very fabric of time. It was absolutely thrilling, and it inspired the kind of emotion that kept me pressing on through hundreds of deaths, frustrating levels, and flat out bad luck.

A Not-So-Subtle Challenge

About half an hour later I finished the fourth level, and was greeted with an achievement as I watched the credits roll. I had officially finished all levels on Easy, which is the default difficulty setting.Considering the number of times the game splits the path you can take to approach certain situations, and the occasional group of enemies that don’t teleport in as part of a set static pattern, the replay value of Aeon is through the roof.

That said, it took me easily six hours to finish my first run, and normal will likely take just as long, if not longer. If you’re better than me, and have a bit more of a knack for VR shooters, I’m sure you could finish the base game in four to five hours. But with an optional bonus level, an endless mode, and a final insane difficulty setting, I’m sure that those players looking for a significant VR challenge could pour ten to twenty hours clearing out Aeon’s achievements and finishing everything the game has to offer.

Aeon sells for$24.99, which isn't cheap for the number of hours you'll spend on it but isn't bad for a VR game. If you enjoy facing impossible odds and coming out on top despite all adversity, Aeon nets you a heck of a decent bang for your buck. When you also factor in that the developers are still actively working on additional levels, game modes, and the fact that there’s a multiplayer mode in development as well, there’s little doubt you’ll continue to see returns on your investment in the coming months.

The Final Good

Aeon looks really good for the most part, but doesn't seem quite sure what it wants to look like. that has the benefit of giving a nice level variation, but also occasionally shows its more indie roots when you find areas that lack polish. 

You start off in a relatively simple white maze, blast through a horde of simplistic robots, transition into a sci-fi industrial research facility, fight through a horde of more advanced robots, then transition outside the complex to a world that’s almost the spitting image of early Halo titles. Of the three environments, you can tell where the devs spent the most time adding polish and refinement. The first two are detailed, interesting, and are only really lacking a detailed story to flesh them out. The final one was breathtaking at first glance, but the farther you move from each spawn point, the rougher they become. The grass is just a flat texture, the rocks are relatively generic, and you occasionally find spots where the textures are definitely broken. 

On the more positive side, the enemy animations in Aeon. Shooting enemies, slashing through bodies, and killing hordes of robot bad guys is an enjoyable ride, and because enemies tend to react dramatically to being slammed with the high-powered slugs from your pistol, everything feels meaty and satisfying. It’s a reactive element that the developers were keen on creating, and they managed to pull it off in excellent style.

Why Aeon might not be for you

If you don’t like VR games that are a little repetitive, or that tend to encourage frustration, you should give Aeon a pass. It’s not a fun casual VR title because of just how quickly it gets insanely difficult, and because the default “easy” difficulty is far from it. Aeon doesn’t really encourage players to just take a walk through their game for the hell of it, but instead prefers to turn the dial up to 11 right off the bat.

Even though I enjoyed the game, there were times when I was left screaming in frustration. In hindsight, each challenge represented mistakes, learning experiences, and a chance to grow, but in the moment I just found myself getting angry. And although I’m sure I walked out of Aeon a much better player all in all, I don’t know that many other gamers would be willing to stick out that long.

Or maybe I’m not half as good at VR games as I thought, and most gamers will breeze through it in no time.

Outside of the intentioinal challenges, there are some other sources of frustration as well. Although there are plenty of checkpoints throughout the game, there’s a severely limited UI in place once you’re actually in game, which doesn’t allow you to do anything but exit the game or resume. If you happen to hit the exit on accident, or leave for any reason, you’ll have to restart the entire level. And if you’re interested in swapping settings, or in general tweaking pretty much anything, you’ll have to start the entire level over. 

That wouldn’t be an issue if Aeon was a cakewalk, but for a difficult game an unfortunate crash, glitch or mistake means you could have to go through a nightmare level sequence all over again, which is far from pleasant.

I only experienced two issues along these lines in my time with the game, and fortunately both were in places I could easily return. The first was when enemies refused to spawn and I got stuck on a platform out in the middle of nowhere and was forced

There were also times when hit detection and clipping on certain walls and objects was more than a little sloppy. Particularly on the final level, the stones and rocks spread throughout the battlefield looked like ideal cover, but weapon collision and explosives around each stone were way off. And despite the fact that the stone looked like rough organic rock, the hitboxes were closer to the size of massive square cubes where rockets would detonate prematurely, pistol rounds would stop cold, and even if it looked like you should be able to get close enough to take cover you generally hit an invisible wall three or four feet from the stone.

The final issue with hit detection is likely a result of the system that gives you a physical body in the game. It’s a nice touch, and one that easily boosts immersion, especially once you start to trust the location of your hands based off sight rather than their location in the real world. The tech behind it is supposed to essentially guess the location of your elbows, shoulders, and the rest of your body by tracking the location of your controllers in relation to the location of your headset.

For the most part it worked well enough, but part of the calibration involves a fairly confusing process where you adjust the height and the width of your character’s shoulders to match your real-world counterpart, and I could never quite get it exactly right. This generally meant that my hands were just a few inches out of place compared to where they should have been, and I believe that my height was similarly off, resulting in the game assuming my head (where most enemies automatically aim) was four or five inches taller than it should be. As a result I would duck or weave around a bullet directed at my noggin and find it scoring a hit when it should have passed harmlessly overhead.

That said, these issues far from ruin the game, but are worth mentioning so that Aeon can continue to improve. If it continues to add content, polishes off a few of these issues, and keeps the unique style and appeal that makes it great, while adding a few extra options to make the game appeal to a wider audience, it’ll be one of the better VR shooters on the market and more than worth the price tag.