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Preview: Frontier Hunter: Erza's Wheel of Fortune

15 Dec 2022

I forget exactly when it was I stumbled across Tower Hunter: Erza’s Trial on Steam long ago, but it was at least at a point when the odds of getting new metroidvania titles seemed… not great. So it was a while ago, and it definitely predates my working here. The game launched into early access, then it fully launched, and it’s… okay! It’s a solid enough indie title that isn’t very metroidvania but is at least a little metroidvania, and clearly wants to be one.

Now here we are, and we’re now facing the second installment of Erza’s journey with the upcoming early access release of Frontier Hunter: Erza’s Wheel of Fortune. Aside from having a truly epic mouthful of a title, it’s a game that clearly wants to do what sequels tend to do, which is be bigger, better, and more engaging than its predecessor. Does it succeed at that goal, or is it something that metroidvania fans can safely pass over when it launches on Steam and the Epic Games Store? (The Steam version was played for this preview.)

Explore the [AREA NAME]

The game, as you might expect from a direct sequel to an odd indie title, basically wastes no time introducing the characters and the world before flinging you directly into the gameplay proper. Erza is part of the crew on a new airship fielded by the Empire, one that’s meant to penetrate a barrier to explore new lands that had previously been inaccessible. It belongs to that weird sort of fantasy subgenre wherein all of the characters are living in a pseudo-modern world with a lot of modern conveniences and cultural baggage, but then it’s a fantasy world, and you start wondering how all this stuff fits together and the answer is stop thinking about it, nerd, cute girl in a miniskirt fighting stuff.

Anyhow, the airship breaks the barrier, and then as you would expect from having played a video game before, it crashes almost immediately. Erza and her companion Ciara are sent out to explore the area while fighting monsters, recruiting help, and basically do… you know, video game stuff. “We’ve forgotten all our upgrades and have to get them back and kill everything until we find out whose fault it is, then we win.”

Honestly, the story at this point is rough. It’s not clear how much of this is a function of early access and how much is just the fact that English is very clearly not the first language of the developers, but the translation is odd and text doesn’t wrap properly. Moreover, character models clearly are divided between the characters that the designers have put most of the effort behind (Erza, Ciara, etc) and characters who seem like they’re still placeholders and/or lacking proper shading (Roland pictured above, for example).

It’s also kind of poorly paced and told, with unclear stakes, an unclear setting, and a lot of asides that feel like they’re less “breaking the tension with humor” and more “time for a sight gag.” There’s space for potential improvement, of course, especially with the technical issues like line breaks; unfortunately, I don’t imagine that the overall story will change all that much, especially since the major beats are all voiced and acting is not something that’s easy to turn around on short notice.

None of this is to say the story is awful; it’s just lacking in stakes or much beyond mild character interactions. If you don’t want it to reach much beyond that point, you’ll probably remain unbothered by it. On the other hand, if you really want an amazing story of heartbreaking genius… well… I’m sorry.

Obtain the [THING] to get the [OTHER THING]

Right from the start, the team behind Frontier Hunter makes it clear that their goal is to be much more ambitious with this title. Unlike the first game, this is supposed to be a full metroidvania experience, complete with hunting for things to open doors, then finding them, then hunting for something to let you reach doors, then finding them, then… you get the idea. You know how these games work.

Does it succeed? Well, mostly.

The thing you have to recognize right up-front is that this is a metroidvania in the mold of Symphony of the Night and derivatives rather than being a pure platforming affair. You level up as you kill things, gaining more health and damage as you do so, you have an arsenal of items to use on demand, and so forth. And despite being more ambitious than its predecessor, the map is still relatively small, the exploration aspect is a bit on the lighter side, and it’s not an overly long game. With no guidance you should expect to be making solid progress and finding most of the things you need fairly quickly; if you do have guidance you can blow through it really quickly.

Some of that is early access, sure, but a lot of it is just that… this is the game. And it is not what I would consider hard, even before you take into account that you have three characters to swap between, each of whom has her own life bar aside from her various unique skills and abilities. They’re not wildly different, but you will quickly learn that each one is broadly suitable for different things… except that’s not true, because the combat in the game just isn’t that varied, and all three of them are well-suited to do 90% of what you need to do in any given situation.

And you know what? That’s okay.

Combat is not hard, but it is satisfying. Your weapons have suitable impact and range, you are rewarded for aggression rather than forced into difficult situations at every turn, and the emphasis is on choosing which characters you like the most and playing them accordingly. That does cut down on individual utility a bit, but it also means that you can develop preferences and never feel limited. And enemies hit the sweet spot of being dangerous enough that you do have to pay attention, but not so dangerous that each one has the real possibility of killing you.

Beyond that, the controls are reliable and consistent, including the special move inputs, and I never felt like I was expected to dodge things I couldn’t see or didn’t have a chance to deal with a given situation. For an early access title, the actual play experience is already like a hunk of fine marble, incredibly solid and polished to a mirror shine. I may not have cared much about the story, but that didn’t stop me from having lots of fun exploring along the way and feeling a little charge at each new thing I picked up.

Find the [PLOT COUPON]

As I alluded to above, it’s clear what has had the most work put into it and what hasn’t. The playable characters and some NPCs have nice cel-shading and animations, but I’m not sure if the environments are just not quite finished with that yet or aren’t meant to get them. Enemies, too, lack that kind of shading. It results in everything feeling… off, subtly.

It’s not that either side is ugly. The environments are wonderfully detailed and also easy to unpack at a glance, you can see what’s foreground and background without a problem and so forth. But the contrast between styles leaves a sense that the characters and enemies aren’t from the same asset packs, so to speak. It’s subtle, but pervasive. I kind of expect this will get trimmed up in further development, at least for the enemies and other NPCs.

This is dealt with, to an extent, with the player characters all having a variety of costumes and marvelously fluid animation for everything. They emote and feel good in motion, they’re easy to pick out, the costumes are fun… it’s all good stuff.

Music for the game is sort of lightly atmospheric and didn’t really stick in my mind, but it’s on the better side for this sort of title. A lot of care has also been put into the game’s acting and sound effects already, and little touches here and there like afterimages for particularly strong weapon skills are well-done. I feel like this, along with just adding more stuff to craft and the like, is the biggest thing the game needs from early access.

[NOUN] Hunted

It’s important to calibrate your expectations for Frontier Hunter appropriately. Despite its greater ambition than its predecessor, this is not a game with a huge budget; it feels much more like an ambitious indie title that still needs some time in the oven but also may have bitten off more than it could chew. And normally that might sound like a bad thing… but in this case, I actually kind of love it? I like that the game is clearly trying to reach a scope far bigger than the one it could reasonably manage.

Frontier Hunter gets its combat right, it gets its character animations right, it has a solid foundation to build upon. I don’t think it really needs all of the systems layered on top of it, like cooking and crafting, and I feel like if I really dive into them too deeply I am going to break the game’s already not-enormous difficulty right in half… but I appreciate that it’s trying. It’s swinging wide and while not all of its swings hit, while many of them might not be necessary, it’s still over here trying to be bigger and better than its predecessor in every way.

Whatever critiques I have of the game, I appreciate how hard it’s trying. And it’s the sort of trying that makes me more willing to overlook any flubs it has along the way. It’s hardly a flawless game, but now that we’re inundated with no shortage of metroidvania titles in general, I am happy to stan and celebrate one made by what seems like a smaller team that decided to just go big and ambitious even if it might overshoot a little.

Calibrate yourself for about a 30% on the Male Gaze Fanservice scale, be ready to not be too challenged, but also rest assured that you’re going to have a fun time despite all of that. And there’s space to improve all through development.

Preview copy provided by IceSitruuna for purposes of evaluation. Screenshots courtesy of reviewer and IceSitruuna.