Aer: Memories of Old (opens in new tab) is an adventure game in the truest sense. Lots of games let you explore a world, but where most focus on the reward waiting at the finish line, Aer is all about the journey. It has no combat to speak of and its story is wafer-thin. Which is great, because those would only get in the way of its world, a gorgeous sandbox where everywhere is a destination.
You play as Auk, a young twin-tailed girl who can transform into a bird. Auk and her people inhabit a world of floating islands, remnants of the continents shattered by the calamitous 'Great Divide,' which the old gods barely managed to stop. The ancient evil that caused the Great Divide wakes from its slumber and returns to finish the job, and with the gods weakened by both the passage of time and their followers' dwindling faith, it falls to Auk to return this evil to rest by uniting three relics hidden away in scattered temples.
I get that there's evil afoot, but frankly if the gods wanted this relic business done quickly, they should have made the world less captivating. I keep stopping just to drink it in. Aer's art is at once low-polygon and overflowing with detail. Its islands and temples are brightly colored and vividly lit, and even at their emptiest feel organic and profoundly lived-in.
A fantastical animal theme runs through most everything in Aer, from the twin-tailed foxes which bleat when you fly by to the towering beasts depicted in cave paintings. Auk herself runs like a gazelle, her ribboned pigtails bouncing with each step, and her bird form is effortlessly sleek. Her shawl becomes a coat of brilliant orange feathers which contrast with the warm pink skies of the south and the dark clouds of the north. Aer is hauntingly beautiful and delivers an impressive, almost intimidating sense of scale, and its striking world is also stuffed with secrets and short stories.
You're given a bite of exposition at the start, but the real history is in the ground, hidden away in caves and half-buried in fields. Ruins pepper the landscape, every one brimming with new information that contextualizes and characterizes the world. Many are filled with the spirits of those lost, whose silhouettes and dialogue put a face to the history. I finished Aer in two hours, but you could easily spend double that tracking down every last scrap of lore. Which you won't mind doing, because just flying between islands is an utter delight.
Aer absolutely nails the freedom of flight. Auk can turn into a bird whenever she wants provided she's outside, which elevates the world from mere window dressing to a true playground. If you can see an island, you can go to it, and getting there is half the fun. Flap your wings and chase the wind to build speed, bank around a corner, dive through a waterfall and level out inches above a lake's glassy surface, now split by your tail feathers. Parting clouds and waterfalls is just plain exhilarating. The controls are simple to pick up but in-depth enough that you can take the reins and really go wild. I was especially fond of diving straight down, sharply swooping up, morphing back into Auk's human form and watching her sail dolphin-like over islands.
There's a wonderful sense of tactility and speed to flying, and the world is made all the more atmospheric by stellar sound design. Aer's music is dynamic and shifts from a gentle keyboard tune to a punchy, stringy folk track when you take flight, but it also knows when to keep quiet and let natural sound do the talking. The wind whistles, waterfalls roar, birds chirp and the sprawling sky seems to groan under the weight of the islands. Likewise, temples echo with a distinct crunch when you walk on leaves and snow, but also the sharper thuds of stone and ice.
Oh, right, the temples. I told you, I can't help myself. The temples are somewhere between murals and puzzles, more about exploring chambers than manipulating mechanisms. They have a way of working themselves out, but their mix of platforming and puzzle-solving is challenging enough. More than anything, they serve to reinforce Aer's themes. Between the stuffy guardians and dozens of journal entries, there's constant talk of dreaming and waking, the sun and moon, dark and light. It's a touch cliche, but it also makes the world more personable and less videogame-y, like this is a set of ideas people actually believe and follow and fear.
Aer is pure adventure. It's exactly as short and simple as it needs to be. You might recoil at the idea of paying $14.99 (which developer Forgotten Key say Aer will cost on GoG (opens in new tab)and Steam (opens in new tab)) for a two-hour game, but my time with Aer was so consistently enjoyable that I have no problem recommending it. Now, I'd better end this here before I start talking about flying again.