Awesome. Stunningly surreal. Eerie. Awe-Inspiring. These are some of the descriptive words I'd choose to describe Rising Star Game's latest new-gen indie release, "Earth's Dawn". It reminds me of games like those from Vanillaware such as "Odin Sphere" yet it is done up in such a way to bypass even that sort of greatness with a more dark, mature, and foreboding tone. The animated marionette style characters, the post-apocalyptic science fiction setting, and the fast paced combo heavy gameplay come together so perfectly in blend I could recommend this game without going any further. Even the character customization is so deeply involved it's quite impressive in it's own right. I had ton of fun playing it, and I think you would too if you gave it a chance. For review sake though I will breakdown all the juicy details for you. I really want you to understand what this game is about, and what it offers you at the $29.99 price mark. I know that's a steep price for an indie, but I believe it is worth it, especially for the retail physical copy.
Earth's Dawn plays on a premise that has been done before in various science fiction novels, games, and even movies. At the same time though it does it's own thing, and makes the game more attractive in all senses of the meaning. Through anime inspired artwork, animations, and a hard hitting soundtrack this truly creepy tale of an alien Earth invasion comes to life vividly. The story, as it were involves an aggressive alien species known only as E.B.E. which invaded Earth in the year 2020 A.D. only to wipe out a good portion of the human population. As a last ditch effort to combat the problematic species those in military ranks took parts, and cells from the downed alien creatures, and literally used them as a sort of bio-armor in an attempt to be on more equal grounds. Soldiers were infused with the alien DNA, and grafted with E.B.E. "A.N.T.I." gear for that very purpose. The governing world military also made weapons in a similar fashion so that their soldiers could deal with the more than formidable alien threat easier. Their ultimate mission objective being to locate E.B.E. breeding grounds, and rid the world of them once and for all. That is where you step in.
When the game begins you will be prompted to select a character, and their gender, but nothing really beyond that. The selection made available is decent enough, and offers a decent preset collection of male, and female soldiers with their own unique details. These details mostly include changes to hairstyles, and accessories along with some slight, but noticeable skin/eye color options. The bio-armor I mentioned before fairly much stays the same until you get into the customization menus that are offered before, and after mission completions. I'll get into that shortly though. Aside from the visual aesthetics your character is also able to wield a one-handed sword, and a one-handed gun. These weapons with which you'll be dispatching the various types of E.B.E. make building upon the combo count, and scoring a top section clearing rank an easier job. Soldiers within the game also level up in an RPG sense stat-wise, and further upgrade through a menu accessible neuro-chart that is divided by brain functions (Attack, Defense, Neutral, Ability). In regards to the spinal portion of the same chart perks that are earned through mission completion rankings can be linked up to multiple times to stack upon added effects. Things like skills, stat boosts, and health boosts being the main perks you can obtain, and assign as you level up through combat. You'll have to keep within point limits as you assign the used setup's perks though since your point limit takes in account said perks, and only grows in number as your character levels up. You do, however have several sets to setup for switching between in certain situations.
As you square away the first handful of mission objectives that serve as tutorial lessons, and objective explanation you will come to know certain staff who will cater to your needs. There is a female bio-engineer who crafted, and created the bio-armor as well as a gear operative who tends to your armor/weapon crafting needs via a separate menu system. Through the female bio-engineer's customization menu you can tweak your neurological perks. This entails first selecting one of five highlighted sections of a brain illustration. Said sections include a "Balanced", "Attack", "Defense", "Technical" and "Ability" base setting. Choosing any of these will change your character's base stats accordingly. For example choosing the "Attack" section will increase your attack stats while decreasing defense, and technical stats. Each section basically improves upon one stat area while lowering other stat areas for compensation. The "Balanced" option being the only exception since it is balanced.
When it comes to the second part of the perk setup process you'll be taken to a spinal chord diagram within the same menu that features branching slots on either side of it. Through gameplay, and the successful completion of mission requirements you'll unlock perks which you can activate, and even link in a stacking effect through said diagram. The process is done manually through your controller by zooming in on a part of the spinal diagram, and clicking on the perks you wish to have in the current setup. As I mentioned earlier your ability to assign perks is limited by points which only increases as you level up your character. This basically limits how many perks you can assign, so switching between your several setups can make managing your time easier for such situations as when the game's countdown timer comes into play.
As far as the gear customization goes you'll find that you can craft everything from weapons to armor, and even accessories with the material that is dropped from destroyed E.B.E. creatures. Out on the battlefield these creatures which vary according to type (Flying, Ground, Elite ...) will drop materials that differ according to rarity. Some of the materials can be infused into a weapon, or armor piece within the crafting process, and can adopt that material's element (Miasma, Darkness, Electricity, Ice, Flame ...) as well. This is of particular use in that certain elements are more effective against certain E.B.E. types, specifically the bosses that have elements weak to your own. Crafting such a weapon, or piece of equipment is done by applying a set amount of certain types of materials, and paying up the in-game currency for the crafting process at the final stage. The rarer the material you use the more costly the equipment piece will be to create. It should be noted that as you advance new equipment will become available to be made. These equipment pieces become progressively stronger at base level, and more costly to build. You can also infuse weapons with materials to make their stats even more powerful/effective.
As you play through missions in the game your main directive will be to seek out targets. This can include soldiers that need rescue, items that need collecting, and E.B.E. that need to be cleared out among other things. Mission objectives all have listed completion requirements along with reward listings for meeting certain criteria. Missions themselves are varied as well. They include free-play types, story progressing objectives, and counter-measures. At the early stages of the game you will be able to select, and take on any free-play or story mission you please in an "Easy", "Normal", and "Hard" difficulty setting. Each rewarding in their own specific ways. Once you make it to a certain point though a countdown timer for the counter-measure is triggered causing the timer to countdown while you are tinkering around in the main menus. Once the timer counts down to zero you will have to play through a lengthy stage scenario filled with E.B.E., and boss type E.B.E. in order to navigate to another E.B.E. cluster in another country location. Rinse, and repeat. Should you fail during the counter-measure the game will show you mercy, and will allow you some free time to go back, and level up some more before continuing forward. One important thing to note is that during the sectional battles within mission stages you can die a few times before a "Game Over". This will be done automatically on your behalf when, and if you die. In the free-play, and story based missions this isn't usually too much of an issue until you reach the boss at the end of several E.B.E. group battles. Battles which will not allow you to move forward in a stage until you've cleared them out, and gotten an alphabetical ranking for your efforts. The possible rankings range from E? - S, with "S" being the best rating you can achieve.
The combat which is a crucial part of mission completion is combo centered, and uses the sword and gun combination as a means to juggle, spam, and ultimately deal a fatal blow to the E.B.E. before you. As an A.N.T.I. soldier you can do several things in a combat situation. You can attack with your sword (SQUARE), shoot with your gun (TRIANGLE), use your ultimate Exceed attack (CIRCLE), and dash/air-dash using (R2). You can also jump, and double jump using the (X) button. As far as the dash goes it can be used to reach higher, or seemingly inaccessible areas as well as a tool for evasion as it has invincibility upon activation. The catch being that it relies on a boost meter which depletes upon use, and only refills when you aren't using the dash function. When it comes to finishing off an E.B.E. all of them have a health meter which displays how much health they have remaining. You can deplete this outright through combo'd attacks, and a gun finish, or you can apply a fatal finishing animation which is done at the final hit using the sword button (SQUARE).
E.B.E. within the game vary in appearance, strength, and attack/defense pattern. In most trying cases you'll want to keep your distance, and shoot them until a shield break occurs. After that go in sword swinging to finish them off. The "Elite" E.B.E. on the other hand must be avoided as they will kill off your soldier in a few hits, and cannot be killed. At least not easily. The bosses which also pose a formidable threat have more varied attack patterns which you must learn in order to perfect your completion rating, and defeat them. All E.B.E. encounters except for the boss are group oriented, and keep you in the area they are in until you kill them all off.
Stages in the world of "Earth's Dawn" are side-scrolling in nature, and hold a sort of Metroidvania build. You'll be guided as your chosen soldier by an upper right onscreen map which divides stages by sections, and highlights points of interest with orange marks. Some areas will have blockades that can be destroyed under certain circumstances as well leading to hidden areas, and places or persons of interest. Along with the E.B.E. presence you'll find floating gas crystals, and dropped active crystals that can be collected for the previously mentioned crafting processes. Materials for use in equipment crafting can also be collected after defeating the area's E.B.E. infestation.
Visually "Earth's Dawn" is a beautifully surreal setting of dismal greys, elemental colors, and hot pink shown through the E.B.E.'s crystal-like cluster formations. It's kind of like the effect films such as "Sin City" showed, but in a more colorful 2D, and 3D blended format. Along with the stage visuals, and marionette-like character animations you'll find plenty of luminous special effects that light up the screen as you do your thing. The soundtrack itself blends in quite nicely as well with a more heavy hitting, and sometimes ominous presence. The panel art, and panel art animation in particular has a stiff creepy appearance that brings the speaking characters to life in a puppet-like fashion that will send chills down your spine. While I don't think it was intentionally made to be creepy the creepy nature of "Earth's Dawn" adds to the game's appeal. Especially for horror fans like myself.
The Verdict ...
I 100% love this game. It seemed more like a "Triple A" hit to me than an indie. It is that good. While combat could be arguably described as stiff, and flawed at times by others in regards to dealing with bosses I found that getting used to the controls remedies most of those issues. If you have trouble defeating a boss simply level up, equip better or more appropriate equipment, and take that bad boy on again until you topple him/her. The game is merciful enough to curve the mechanics steeper learning curve, and with things like multiple revives you shouldn't have too much of a problem completing the game. I will say that the replay value is sort of limited in that once you've completed the game you'll have seen it all. Even so multiple playthroughs can still be fun, and "yes", the difficulty settings do add some extra challenges should you be willing to complete the game fully.
Earth's Dawn gets my fully backed recommendation. If you have not already bought it, buy it! At $29.99 it is a steal! You don't often find games this unique, and well polished. Not even in the "Triple A" scene.