It took me a while to connect the protagonist of Summum Aeterna with the character who was talking. Even after playing for several hours, I couldn’t work out why the dude I was controlling looks like Alucard but his dialogue model is huge, dark and bearded. It’s never explained, never referenced, and always weirdly distracting.
There’s not much of a story to tie any of it together, either. You are the King of Darkness, a stuffy, cocky, and unpleasant entity who travels from world to world via a central desert hub, but even as you draw closer to your nebulous goal, you never change or meet characters that are worth interacting with. It’s heavily derivative of something like Dead Cells, where each randomised run brings you closer to doing it again but… harder? It’s gameplay for gameplay’s sake, which is not necessarily bad.
You travel to other worlds via magical Seeds, of which you can own a maximum 300. That’s 300 incrementally different variations of several world Archetypes, and therefore a hell of a lot of content to get into. The worlds themselves are wonderfully diverse, too, featuring Japanese gardens, foreboding castles, frozen mountainous forests – and the music is exceptionally good, never failing to set the tone in any realm.
Every time you use a Seed to open a new world, the King will give a short introduction to whatever the eventual big bad is, indicating that destroying them will help reclaim this part of his fractured Kingdom. And then you just go for it, with gameplay split almost exactly 50/50 between Dead Cells and Hollow Knight. Every run will give you something that makes your inevitable death worthwhile, such as a new weapon or any of the frankly ridiculous number of upgrade currencies. You’ll even earn new Seeds and special fruits that can be spent on permanent buffs for you and future worlds, or metal ore to upgrade your weaponry. Two of the same Seed can be combined to create harder, more rewarding runs, and special genes can alter their properties further.
If it sounds a bit confusing that’s because it is. A lot of Summum Aeterna feels like concept testing, even after a while in early access. The roguelike nature plays against the emphasis on exploring new worlds, too, as it becomes possible to predict what’s coming and therefore difficult to prepare for it. This leads to a lot of deaths because you just don’t know how to deal with a sudden new threat. It doesn’t feel as measured as Dead Cells, where you can feel out every new enemy. In Summum Aeterna, hesitation usually leads to death. Enemies hit hard, and often have ranged attacks with weird movement patterns and build-up.
Movement is pretty good, though, with a double jump and dash to get you around and over obstacles. Combat, however, can sometimes feel oddly clunky. The starting sword has the best feel of all the weapons, despite the fancy spectacle of the scythes. The latter has some weird hang-time with its moves that stops it feeling fluid enough. Likewise, the pistols should make things easier as you can attack at range, but the targeting is weird. Sometimes they’ll shoot up or down at an angle, and sometimes they won’t. Also, once or twice I picked shotgun-type weapons during a run and they were next to useless for groups of different enemies.
Like Dead Cells you’ll earn money in a run that you can spend on buffs, new weapons, or run-specific upgrades for the King. Most of the explanation centres in finding chests as you navigate each world towards the eventual boss. The bosses themselves are okay, but are pretty derivative of bosses in other games in the genre. Some have insane attack patterns that will take a while to learn, which means getting all the way there again each time, hoping for good upgrades on the way.
Summum Aeterna has some really great ideas, but they’re presented in a fairly safe package that borrows heavily from other games and doesn’t always deliver. The weird writing and lack of real context or stakes doesn’t work here like it does in Dead Cells, because the King of Darkness should have personality and development. He’s not just a beheaded corpse forced to fight; he’s a person. Just a pretty awful one.
The combat here is also skewed too hard at the start of a run, then sometimes too easy as you near the boss, and then the boss just slams the brakes on your run again. It doesn’t flow quite well enough, and some it feels like it’s only so hard because that’s what’s expected of the genre. In catering to that notion, it loses a certain amount of accessibility. I’m all for a challenge, but not so much dying minutes into a run multiple times until I can find a rhythm.
Summum Aeterna is a decent roguelike adventure with a great aesthetic and superb music, but its gameplay loop and protagonist left me a little cold. It’s certainly a game that demands you “git gud”, and rewards you for doing so, but it’s a bit of a slog to get to that point.
Seed system is cool
Lots of variety
Frustrating at times
Combat can feel a little stilted
Protagonist has zero charm