Ninjakiwi's latest RPG mixes card game mechanics with statistics, explorations, quests and more. Aetheron is a turn-based, strategy, fantasy role-playing game that offers a surprising amount of depth to even the most casual player. In short order you find yourself conscripted by the mayor of a nearby town in order to help defend against "Loathsome Bandits" with only arms and armor as your compensation. It might not sound very glorious to start with, but there's more in store for you than you might expect. You'll need an account to play if you don't want to sign in with Facebook, but registry is quick and painless. (You don't even need to supply a real e-mail address if ponying up your own makes you antsy.)
In the beginning, players are required to choose one of the three classes: the rogue, the wizard or the fighter. As you might have already guessed, rogues deal mainly in surprise attacks, warriors are straightforward fighters, and wizards work mainly with spells. It's probably best to choose a role that already suits your natural playing style as your selection will drastically affect a good chunk of your gameplay. For example, if you're like me and enjoy massive amounts of burst damage, you'll probably want to avoid the slow-moving warrior who spends far too much time exchanging blows and absorbing hits. Having chosen your character class, you'll be prompted to select one of the four elements for yourself. Your choice here is mostly a superficial thing; it helps dictates what cards you'll receive in the beginning of the game and what NPCs will call you but not much else.
Those accustomed to the logistics of Magic the Gathering will probably be perfectly at home in combat; the one big difference is the involvement of a weapon. Those foreign to the idea, however, might find this absolutely daunting but don't worry, it isn't as scary as it looks. Combat is turn-based, so take your time and read all the text that pops up when you mouse over your cards, which details what each one will do. Essentially, you'll want to keep track of your health and energy displayed on the side of the screen; the red and blue bars respectively. You spend energy to use certain cards, and if your health runs out from taking damage, you lose the battle. Win, and you'll gain gold and experience points. While you only have a small number of cards at the beginning, you can purchase more with the gold you earn throughout the game.
Navigation is handled via a set of icons on a bar at the top of the screen that allow you to fight, explore towns, travel to other areas, and more at the click of the mouse. As you progress, your character will inevitably level up and permit you to add points to their statistics. It's here that the game opens up even further, allowing you to craft the character that best fits your personal playing style. There are also equipment that you can acquire from both quests and victories in combat. These items are also capable of being socketed with gems of various abilities, allowing you to further refine your performance.
Of course, there's even more to the game. You'll find yourself gallivanting off to fight at different locations as you attempt to fufill the requirements of your quests. Sadly, there isn't much depth to the quests; they're all pretty much your standard 'kill this, collect that' affair. There are buildings that allow you to convert the crystals you acquire to things like potions, a hall of heroes that has yet to be explained, town halls that let you, via the usage of imperial crystals, trigger certain area-wide benefits. Ninjakiwi also promises the ability to engage in duels with other players once they've added the final coating of polish to the game. Of course, if you prefer single-player, you'll be happy to know that multiplayer is completely optional, as is the ability to purchase special credits or gold in game. Atheron can be played and enjoyed without spending a penny.
Analysis: Aetheron dances the thin line between innovation and too much of a good thing. At its core, Atheron is a role-playing game. It has statistics, quests, experience points, things to purchase and people to kill. Stripped of its card game mechanics and given a standard combat system, Aetheron would remain a pretty engaging affair. However, Ninjakiwi made a gamble and took things further by introducing card-game dynamics to the system. Their decision made the game significantly more complicated than what most would expect from a casual game, something that could have been off-set by a more in-depth tutorial, or maybe a help system. However, those persistent enough to get past the steep learning curve will likely find themselves well-rewarded.
More than anything else, Aetheron feels like a game of personal choice. While the quests and the storyline feel relatively pedestrian, the amount of customization available to even the most casual of players borders upon staggering. The inclusion of the four elements as well as the card game dynamics is probably one of the best things in the game for me. However, what I liked best was how Ninjakiwi structured the three classes. Depending on what you pick, the cards that you receive will differ. Playing a rogue, for example, can already feel extremely rewarding thanks to the sheer burst damage that the class can inflict but Aetheron takes it a step further by allowing you to further modify the experience. Like in Magic the Gathering, players can choose to utilize a variety of elements to best fit their style. In the case of the rogue, you could choose to veer away from the standard 'glass cannon' mentality and opt for a more defensive build. Coupled with equipment bonuses and the constant effect of your statistics, the potential is pretty much endless.
Because of how engrossing the gameplay is, I can't help but feel that they should have delved a little further into the appearance of the game. Players can choose one of three classes as well as an appropriate gender. However, that's as far as their character generation goes. There are no options for changing facial features, hair color or even the ability to see how weapons might look like on your character. It's a bit of a minor quibble but it's something I've come to expect from anything that is remotely linked with RPGs. Fortunately, the artwork present in the game is quite nice to look at and surprisingly detailed, lending itself nicely to the fantasy theme without being overblown.
What I'm most excited about, however, is the potential for future multi-player play. Being a veteran of Magic the Gathering, nothing gets to me more than the potential to sit down and play a round with a worthy opponent. With the twists that Aetheron has incorporated into its gameplay, I'm certain that the duels will devour more than my fair share of time. Given the potential for group play, I wonder if this will include the ability to tag-team opponents in both PvE (Player versus Enemies) and PvP (Player versus Player) matches. For now, however, Aetheron is still an engrossing single player experience, with a lot to offer both card game and RPG enthusiasts.
Update: Many of the bugs that players have been reporting in the comments have been fixed by the developer, so if you had issues playing previously, you should give this one another try!