Being born to a destiny is not all that great. Where everyone else gets to grow up and hang around the jungle, get a job as a canoe maker and maybe even get a nice place next to the Piranha pond, you are stuck being trained in the mystic arts of the local Aztec temple. Not only that, but just as your training is done, your evil half-sister turns up and steals a very sacred artifact. Since the local clergy didn't invest in some kind of plan for such an event (and didn't bother insuring the artifact either), it falls upon you to trek across the jungles, swamps, mountains and deserts to track her down and get the artifact back, fighting lizard people, dart-blowing monkeys and acid-spitting wall adornments along the way. Fortunately, Huitzilo is up for the job in Aztaka, an indie action/RPG platform game from Citeremis.
In the works for over two years, Aztaka is a crafty blend of side-scrolling action mashed up with role-playing mechanics like equippable gear and stats. Huitzilo, armed with his guile, acrobatic skills, and spear, charges into this adventure with the help of Ayohpa, another warrior who was turned into a hummingbird somewhere in the past but is still a very capable sorcerer. This sidekick adds the ability to wield magic attacks. Huitzilo is controlled with the [WASD] keys, while the mouse is wielded to target enemies, execute physical and magical attacks, as well as grab different energies.
These energies tend to be dropped by slain foes and can be stored in different vassals that Huitzilo finds during his adventure. They actually form a large part of the game's central mechanics. He also finds cash, which is used to buy new trinkets that improve his odds in the wild: stuff that gives him more agility for critical strikes, dodging attacks and, of course, do more damage with that spear of his. Ayopha can also be enhanced with gear, pushing its ability for magic attacks.
Backing all of this is a role-playing stats system: you gain experience as you play and with each level you improve the duo's chances for survival by adding to their health, dexterity and power. There are also new attacks to learn, uncovered usually doing favours for characters or paying them for the new technique.
Analysis: Aztaka might sound like a typical RPG experience (right down to the quest system), but it is ultimately a smart platform game that mixes a lot of depth into the run-and-jump formula. Although you attack (and execute magic) with your mouse, the meat of the game experience is in nimbly jumping around the bad guys, sticking them with your spear and staying out of the way of their attacks. The additional moves you learn all blend seamlessly with the side-scrolling experience. For example, one skill lets you damage enemies by jumping into them — it's pretty ninja, really. Eventually Huitzilo learns to wall-jump as well, allowing him to reach higher areas (and upping the ante for platform jumping sections)
But Aztaka also breaks the platformer mold — and not simply because it adds some stats to the mix. Some of the things you encounter can't be used immediately and only come in reach of Huitzilo's grasp once he gains a certain skill or item. One example is an entire underground area hidden behind a massive door that can only be smashed open once you get a new spear, itself found in a temple later in the game. Put simply, there is a lot of backtracking, but it doesn't feel forced and is more like willing exploration. Aztaka manages to package a fairly non-linear experience in a very linear world.
In fact, there is a lot about Aztaka that makes it an exceptional game to play. The visuals are great, as is the terrific soundtrack. Initially the combat system seems clumsy, but the game manages to keep you hooked even through its tricky sections. The enemies vary a lot and things are kept mixed enough that you never feel like you are just gaming by numbers. Three difficulty levels makes sure that all kinds of gamers will be able to get into it and there are a of bonus objects and such to discover.
Recently, Aztaka developer Citeremis released the Aztaka Developer's Edition in an attempt to bridge the gap between the money borrowed to create the game and the sales made since its release. This new edition includes the game's source code, soundtrack, and an art book, all bundled together for a reduced price. Unfortunately, the game also comes with a few bugs — even during this review, one game-ending flaw showed up, forcing a restart. Citeremis is working on patching this and other problems, though, and to be honest, even having to start over didn't leave all that sour a taste in my mouth.
Aztaka has a lot going for it. It is a terrific experience and has the pedigree to be a indie hit. At its core Aztaka sticks to being a fun platform game with more surprises under the hood (though with its share of hit-detection issues) and is a shining example of how much more creative indie games are than the mainstream stuff. Aztaka comes with its problems, but problems that are being ironed out. Brush the flaws aside and Aztaka promises a great time and is well worth shelling out a few measly bucks for.
Note: Aztaka Developer's Edition will only be available through January 31. Grab it now if you want the extras!