You’ve probably played a game like Aggelos before.
You might have played one recently – Owl Boy, Wonder Boy, and Hollow Knight are three recent examples – or perhaps, like me, you might have played one the first time around, too, before such games were really known as Metroidvanias and there was no such thing as internet guides (or any guides, for that matter – bless my dad for letting me abuse the Nintendo Hotline). I grew up loving and loathing those kinds of games in equal measure, and not much has changed – anything that requires timing or jumping remains the bane of my existence – but as much as I’m cynical about the many titles trying to jump on this retro bandwagon forged from little more than manufactured nostalgia, I fell for Aggelos and its wholesome charm in a way I hadn’t quite expected.
If this 2D adventure flew under your radar when it released on PC last year – that’s right, it’s been out for the best part of a year on PC already – you’re not alone. Now out on Nintendo Switch, too, Aggelos (AG-gelos? Ag-GEL-os? Agg-el-os?! HELP) is a bright, bold, and respectful homage to those games we grew up playing, the games I frequently quit part-way through because no amount of Twister-ing my fat little fingers could quite pull off the jump, dash, downward-thrust, bounce, dash-dash gymnastics required to progress.
That said, for all that it’s trying to evoke with its pixel-perfect presentation, stunning retro soundtrack and memorable cast of critters and characters, Aggelos is a robust offering that while short, should not be dismissed as yet another shallow imitation. And despite its retro visuals and bippy-boppy tunes, it employs a raft of contemporary mechanics, too, arguably offering the best features from both the old-school and the new.
Aggelos opens in a typical and wholly unoriginal fashion, and the blocky, retro text transitions to show a modest, single-roomed stone dwelling – lovingly crafted in 2D pixel form, of course – and you: a small, fair-headed lad with just a dagger at his side and a gnawing sense of adventure. You head out but before long, your leisurely jaunt is halted by the timely cries of a damsel in distress, whom you promptly save from the clutches of a kidnapper. Guess what? She’s a princess! Who’d have believed it? As a thank you for saving her, her dad insists you save the kingdom from some evil dude called Valion (it seems a rough trade, to be honest; if that’s what you get for your trouble in the Kingdom of Lumen, next time I doubt our kid will bother).
Despite this trite story – the silent, strong protagonist, the evil Big Bad, the triumph of good over evil and the princess and the castle and the magical swords and the dungeons and everything else we’ve already seen eleventy gazillion times before – it’s wholly forgivable. After all, these are the cornerstones of the genre Aggelos aims to emulate and coupled with its colourful presentation and jaunty, ear-wormy score – it’s been some time since a game has infected me so with its glorious soundtrack – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable way to while away a lazy afternoon.
The key to Aggelos lies in its simplicity. Yes, you need to level up, but XP-farming is not a laborious affair, and you’ll zoom through the levels without time to grumble. Yes, there are several distinct areas peppered across the land, but it’s a neat, accessible map that rarely feels too broad (and not at all once you’ve unlocked a hidden fast travel system). You have currency to collect, but the game’s not stingy in bestowing it, so you rarely have to go grindin’. Yes, you’ll frequently switch armour and sword for better ones – some eye-wateringly expensive – but there’s only a handful of variants for each, which makes completing that collection entirely attainable. It’s a robust offering that’s folded into a game that you could feasibly complete in a single sitting, and 100% in its entirety in just five or six hours.
I know: five or six hours playtime isn’t much, is it? Yet it’s surprising how much can be stuffed into such a brief adventure. There’s a beautiful, varied overworld to explore, hidden caverns, secret doorways, trade quests, dungeons (and their bosses, of course), underwater passages, not to mention rings and scrolls that keep the combat fresh as your collection continues to expand. There are heart containers to collect, new abilities to discover, and several villages and their surrounding lands to explore… with plenty of troublesome beasts to beat up along the way, of course. On normal difficulty it’s significantly easier than Hollow Knight, and while death will not strip you of your spoils, it will chip a little from your XP meter every time you pass out (usually at the hands of a dungeon boss).
It’s not without its irritations. While infinitely more forgiving than Hollow Knight and not quite as challenging as Owl Boy, the initially gentle difficulty spikes unexpectedly around the time you hit the third dungeon, and a lack of in-dungeon save points means getting to/from your spawn spot can be frustrating, especially in later parts of the game when even the simplest of foes can give you a good battering. My attempts to secure one of the scrolls almost had me embedding my controller into the wall in rage – the control scheme isn’t quite tight enough to allow for the aerial acrobatics the quest demanded of me – and enemies are astonishingly stingy when it comes to dropping a replenishing heart or two. This means you’ll rarely be able to recoup HP without the aid of a re-gen monument or a handy potion… of which you’re only permitted to carry one, of course.
It’s one of those games that people will tell you is “perfectly suited” to the Switch, and while it is a glorious gem that you can jump in and out of regardless of where you are when you play it, it’s also so gorgeously colourful, it’s a crime not to play it on a big screen at least once. I also found it easier to navigate with the Switch controller than the Joy-Cons, as manoeuvring our hero is a little easier with the pad – especially in later levels when you might be required to pull off chained attacks.
Aggelos is a traditional, bittersweet tale and while on paper it might look a little simplistic, it’s a thoroughly entertaining romp that fully delivers an accessible, contemporary Metroidvania that should appeal to old fans of the genre and new. It’s certainly found a fan in me, anyway.