Ever since Dark Souls, the allure of exploring the hostile and ruinous remains of a once great land has become a regular pilgrimage for a certain kind of player. The Souls-like genre beckons those seeking challenge, death with consequences, bosses with screen-wide health bars, and the incredible sense of reward when you topple them.
Some Souls-likes take the formula to a sci-fi setting, others transform it into a Metroidvania. Sands of Aura, from publisher Freedom Games, does something different, sticking with the forlorn-fantasy world while pulling things out to an old-school isometric RPG perspective.
In short, Sands of Aura kind of looks like the unholy child of Diablo, Dark Souls, and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (just replace all the sea with sand, and you’ll see what we mean).
The game sees you plunged into the buried kingdom of Talamhel, a once-prosperous land that now exists in eternal night, buried beneath a sea of sand that spilled from the shattered Hourglass of Time. As a new recruit to the Order of Remnant Knights, you’re sent into Talamhel to combat a corrupting force stirring beneath the dunes.
Talamhel is a bleak and beautiful open world, dotted with islands that you sail between aboard your sand ship, the Grainwake. Unguided by map markers or directions, you carve your own path through the world, exploring its mysterious lands in whatever order your instincts guide you. Each time you set foot on a new island, new dangers and adventures await.
Sands of Aura is heavily combat-driven. You’ll get to experiment with seven different fighting styles, which will be based on the weapons you craft and spells equipped. The game’s unique crafting system lets you piece together different handles with different blades, inviting experimentation as you find the arms that suit your play style.
As you defeat Talamhel’s corrupted denizens, you’ll level up and pick perks to give your attacks that extra pizazz - whether its throwing blades in a circle around you or the boomerang-like attack that comes with Dual Wield. It’s a welcome ARPG touch to brighten up a tough, foreboding world that often threatens to swallow you up whole.
As with many a great ARPG, the true endgame is all about that fashion. The stunning armours you find in the world will help you look the part as you cleave your way through cultists, insectoids, fallen kings, nebulous knights, and much more.
Be warned: Sands of Aura is a high-pressure game, forcing you to rely on well-timed blocks and dodges, and learning enemy patterns before striking back yourself. Every hit matters, punctuated by the numbers that dissipate off you and enemies upon being struck. Fulfilling the role of the Dark Souls bonfire will be Bells that act as checkpoints when you ring them, while respawning all the monsters on a given island. Should you fall (and you will), enemies respawn and you go back to the last bell you rang.
Once you complete an island expedition you can return to the sanctuary of Starspire, which will become increasingly populated with traders and friendly faces you find out in the world. Using a currency called ‘Glint’, you craft weapons and armour, trade goods, acquire blessings, or even hire an NPC to join you in battle.
Starspire will evoke wistful echoes of Firelink Shrine to Dark Souls veterans, albeit with more focus on customisation. You’ll get to build a community, shaped by the people you save and how you interact with them in town (but beware: if you kill a friendly NPC they’re gone forever!).
Sands of Aura straddles the action of Souls-likes and exploration of classic dungeon crawlers, with a sprinkle of choice-driven RPGs. The game is out now in Steam early access. Its bleak and beautiful world is calling.