Summum Aeterna

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Aeternum Game Studios
Release Date: Sept. 14, 2023


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PC Review - 'Summum Aeterna'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 13, 2023 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Summum Aeterna is a roguelite game that combines dungeon crawler mechanics with fast-paced combat and a unique 2D art style.

Aeterna Noctis was a charming little indie Metroidvania that was clearly a labor of love. Its crushing difficulty at launch turned off a number of people, but the developer went back and remade huge chunks of the game to be more accessible for those who weren't fond of instant death spikes. That made the title a lot easier to pick up and play. It's no surprise that the labor of love doesn't end there. Summum Aeterna is a spin-off and shows that the first game wasn't the end for this franchise.

Summum Aeterna is a prequel to the first game. Once again, players control the King of Darkness, one of two monarchs destined to wage an eternal war between light and darkness. Summum Aeterna represents more of a standard experience for the monarch, with a near-endless amount of warring and fighting. There isn't so much a plot as an excuse to see the characters from Aeterna Noctis again, fill in some lore, and make a lot of goofy jokes. It knows what it's trying to be, and we can't fault it for that.

The easiest way to describe Summum Aeterna is, "What if Aeterna Noctis were Dead Cells"? This isn't a criticism. Instead of exploring one big open world, you explore randomly generated miniworlds, with the goal being to get powerful enough to face the tough bosses at the end of zones. Healing is limited, death comes quickly and viciously, and you're going to die a whole bunch of times throughout the game, only to come back stronger and stronger.

In Dead Cells fashion, you will find various weapons scattered throughout the map that have special effects. You may find laser pistols that are weaker but hit twice, a scythe that summons a ghost on hit, or a sword that does more damage with the more foes you kill without taking a hit. The further into a run you are, the higher level a weapon will be, which in turn improves its base stats. Each weapon also comes with a rarity meter. Rarity is used for gems, which are special passive bonuses to slot into the weapon. However, you can't transfer all your gems from an old weapon to a new one, so if you get a particularly good build running, it may be tempting to stick with a weaker weapon rather than trade something like "25% more damage to bleeding foes."

More interesting is the Summum mechanic. Weapons have various special hidden challenges to unlock their full potential. Once the challenges are completed, players gain special bonus attacks that are unique to that weapon. This encourages you to try out different weapons because unlocking the bonuses tends to require experimentation, but the actual reward can be kind of crazy. My only real complaint is that it's sometimes unclear how I unlocked a Summum. I've had them pop-up mid-run, and the game isn't very clear about how I did it.

Summum Aeterna is a roguelike, and that means you're intended to die a lot. When you die, you lose weapons, gems, and progress in a level, but you keep an absurd amount of resources to bring back to the base and spend on permanent character upgrades. There are a dozen different collectible resources ranging from runes to sap to dark energy to ore, and each has a distinct purpose. Some change how levels act, some increase stats, some unlock weapons, and some even unlock equipment that can be further upgraded to improve base abilities in dungeons.

It can be a tad overwhelming, and unfortunately, it also means that Summum Aeterna does not give the best first impression. It takes a shockingly long time before you unlock all the various mechanics and upgrades and even longer before you can reliably start investing in them. A lot of resource requirements can sound crazy or overwhelming because you're hours away from unlocking them; for example, the Bank lets you trade one resource for another, but it needs to be unlocked first. Once all the systems are unlocked, it works well, but they could easily have frontloaded more stuff to prevent the early parts from feeling empty.

Summum Aeterna's method of generating runs is unusual. While in stages, you find Seeds, which can be used to germinate a world for the next run. Seeds have different traits and levels. Higher levels offer better rewards and greater challenges. One seed might have stronger enemies, another more deadly traps, and so on. There are even special seeds that change some of the gameplay mechanics. One is the power of the tarot cards, which cause cards to appear around a level to offer bonuses when they trigger. Another is chaos, which grants access to more powerful but more costly gems and weapons — and inexplicably means you might get into a boss fight with Freeza from Dragonball Z.

Of course, you can customize the seeds. You can fuse seeds together to try to get something that has the best parts of both, or mutate them to reroll random traits, or even spend special resources to give them unique attributes and abilities. You don't have to do it, and the game throws plenty of good seeds at you, but the option is there.

The seed system is probably the most distinct part of Summum Aeterna, but it also detracts from the roguelike fun. The amount of customization you can get over the next seed is impressive, but it also makes it so some runthroughs feel more important than others. If I create an incredibly good seed, it feels a lot worse if I die before the end than if I used a nothing seed. This is also how regular roguelike runs go, but it feels a touch worse when it is overt like this. It also doesn't help that certain valuable gimmicks only show up in certain kind of seeds. I'd much rather tarot cards or chaos areas be part of the natural gameplay instead of something that I have to specifically aim for.

Beyond that, Summum Aeterna basically feels like a roguelike adaptation of Aeterna Noctis. It has the same characters, same enemies, and very similar physics and feel. There is less of a focus on precision platforming and a greater focus on combat, but for the most part, it's pretty clear that Summum Aeterna is a way to revisit and reuse the basic concepts of Noctis in a new way. It works pretty darn well. You lose the Metroidvania elements, but the core gameplay works well enough that it makes for fun, bite-sized bits of the same basic flavor. It feels less punishing than the original game, which is amusing for a roguelike where you're expected to die a ton.

Visually, Summum Aeterna looks quite good. The character models and animations are extremely nice, and the backgrounds are vivid and awesome, even if a number of them are recycled from Noctis. The boss battles are darn impressive and a lot of fun to see in action. I am not fond of the character artwork for portrait shots, but that was true of Noctis too, so it's not unexpected. The soundtrack is also quite nice, with a lot of memorable tunes to set the dungeon-crawling mood.

Summum Aeterna takes a difficult Metroidvania and converts the basic ideas and characters to a roguelike. The result is a lot of fun, somehow managing to capture the best parts of the original game in a more digestible chunk. It isn't necessarily going to win you over if you dislike roguelike titles, but if you were a fan of Noctis, you must try Summum, which has all the makings of a perfect gateway drug to roguelikes.

Score: 8.5/10

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