Ah, but to be a vengeful God; to carry out the wrath of the people, to strike down those who would threaten the empire, to build a lasting legacy on a foundation of blood and gold! If you’ve ever had these same daydreams of cataclysmic power when you’re at the office, it might be time to talk to HR into getting a few days off to go paint balling or something. But these thoughts and dreams may be a natural side effect to playing Aztez, the first game released from indie developers Team Colorblind. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I picked up the game, but the answer soon became explicitly clear. I was to deliver beatings, and I had a bag chock full to hand out.
Interestingly enough, the plotline of Aztez isn’t really explained in any way whatsoever, at least as far as exposition or a background detail prior to starting. When you fire up campaign mode, you’re dropped immediately into the omniscient role of an overseer of a pseudo Mesoamerican map. You are in control of Tenochtitlan, center of the Aztec empire and your job, should you choose to accept it, is to dominate and expand the empire until you have achieved a kingdom to last a thousand years, or roughly that amount.You take the role of Aztez, who is…a general? An elite soldier? A demi-God? It’s not entirely clear what Aztez is, but that doesn’t necessarily hamper what the game is about. The point is you are the diplomatic arm of the Aztecs, and diplomacy is achieved almost entirely through bloody, ridiculous amounts of violence. As you move forward, you encounter more and more of other forces who would try and crumble your hard work, as well as outside forces in the shape of plagues, darkness and generally bad elements.
For a game such as Aztez, the gameplay is the core support structure for the entire premise. Aztez is divided into two different games, the Campaign mode and the Arena mode. There is the essential Training mode, which I highly recommend when first getting into the game. Despite a relatively simple layout, taking the time to better understand how Aztez moves and does his damage will give you an edge when it comes to combat, and combat is about 85% of the entire game. You may also find that there are some things that, even when explained in the training, it can be especially difficult to pull off in real fight situations. More on that in a moment.
Campaign mode is an interesting take on trying to combine a 4X4 strategy game with 2D brawling. The overview map of the world gives you an idea of all the potential cities in the Aztec empire and, to Team Colorblind’s credit, they really did their homework. Every name is lifted straight out of a history book, from the cities themselves to the different gods that sometimes get evoked during combat. For each turn you take, the game will collect resources from different cities that you control, and then things…happen. Missions crop up, but you don’t have a control over what they may be or where they will happen. You can certainly have warning signs, such as seeing dissent breaking out in cities on the horizon, but, if you don’t already control those cities, there’s not a lot that can be done. Each mission is just an invitation for combat in different areas, complete with bonuses and prizes for successfully completing the event (read: beating a bunch of people to death). Once you’ve accomplished as many events as you can, you end your turn, more things happen and the cycle begins again.
As you complete the events, you will collect cards, which serve different purposes as both passive or active items. Some, such as gaining more Aztezs, allow for additional events to be performed and, as such, make the game expand faster. Some are items that’ll enable or prevent certain events from happening, such as stopping the theft of resources from your city. Other cards still will be unlocks that’ll make replay more interesting an exciting. At first, the only weapon your Aztez will have is a sword, but, through completing missions, you can unlock a wide variety of weapons to have at your disposal. You can also unlock different Gods to transform into, as well as cosmetic changes to make your character a bit more interesting.
To be completely honest, I was a bit cold to the entire strategy aspect of the Campaign mode. I enjoyed Civilization as a kid, but I haven’t really gotten into the modern scene with Civ V or Endless Legend and, frankly, I don’t like investing the amount of time that they require. In some ways, the strategy of Aztez is perfect for someone who is light on the whole strategy concept. There are nearly no choices to be made in comparison to other games and, frankly, you can skip most of it as long as you’re good with combat. The strategy aspect seemed to be a vehicle to deliver a longer, more drawn out approach to the fighting, to enable players a more interesting way to gradually improve their character and see what they liked best for their own warriors. But, as a result, the whole package felt a little bare bones. The resources are just a generically named concept that is used to fix things when the populous gets restless/you fail a mission, and the price can get crazy high towards the later half of the game. You have agents that are skills you can trigger in exchange for resources, but I often forgot they were there simply because I was more confident in my ability to beat obedience back into my followers (I am a generous God). I think it’s a good idea, and maybe even well executed, but it just felt unbalanced and almost left me frustrated while I mashed buttons to skip ahead and get to the next fight.
The combat of Aztez is really where the game shines. Despite being in 2D, you really need to get into being aware of the location of everyone and everything. There’s a wide, wide variety of enemies, and they will gang up on you in different quantities at different times. In the early stages, you might get the impression the combat is too easy: aggressive AI will give you a warning in the form of a colorful exclamation point before attacking, so you might feel like there’s just no tension to the war. However, you quickly understand that the warning signal is almost a mocking tone, because you can’t do a damn thing about some attacks. Yellow can be blocked or parried, orange can only be parried, and red means it’ll steamroll you, get out of the way. Given that the stages are surprisingly large, you can sometimes get attacked by an unseen enemy off screen and have no choice but to break the combo you’re currently in or get whacked upside the head.
Aztez isn’t lacking in the combo department, but he is lacking in combo variety. You have no advantage to changing between your two attacks (X and Y) other than for your own amusement. Mashing either button five times successfully creates a combination, but mixing the buttons just means hitting something longer. Taking to the air is a bold choice, and can sometimes be beneficial, as long as you learn quickly that jumping is vertical by nature and you need to add extra buttons if you want to move forward while becoming airborne. I loved being able to whack an enemy into the sky, beat them and then strike them back to the ground. I didn’t love needing to get the perfect timing for hitting RB and jump in order to jump forward, as it was often unsuccessful and then I just hopped around like an Aztec idiot. It made me absolutely mental when I had to run to the other side of the stage to find one enemy still hiding so that I could finish, but it was so satisfying to send him flying with a running kick and then just liquefying him in the corner.
One truly fantastic mechanic in the combat is the blood gathering. As you are playing for the Aztec empire, you should imagine that human sacrifices play a large part, because that’s a goddamn important part of their awesome narrative. As you’re raining pain down upon the insurgents, they will bleed. A lot. If you stun an enemy to a near death moment, you can sacrifice them with a heavy blow, which causes them to bleed a LOT. You can then suck up their blood to fill a blood gauge, and, when it’s full, you summon an Aztec God for one powerful attack. It could be offensive, it could be defensive: one god fills up your health, and that can be critical depending on the fight. You do leave yourself exposed when vacuuming up blood, so try and time your vampiric nature wisely. Regardless of how wise it is, it looks great and adds a wonderful, visceral feel to everything that reminds you of what the nature of combat is, and why the Aztecs are still glorified to this day for the way they ran things.
If you just want to fight and avoid the whole Campaign, the Arena, while short, is definitely where you want to be. At the time, there are fifty four different combat scenarios, complete with weapons variety so you can try out everything and see what you like best. The first few may breeze by, but, somewhere around the twenty mark, the difficulty really ramps up and you gotta plot out your damage well. I found it to be a refreshing breakup to the normal Campaign mode, and I urge the devs to add more stages so that players can focus on what this game does best: destruction.
Anyone ever played MadWorld? There’s a handful of us, I’m certain. The stark black-and-white nature of the whole game was a stark contrast with the redness of the blood from cuts and slices, and Aztez has an incredibly similar approach. There’s plenty of color on the Campaign map, with oranges, greens and yellows indicating the network of cities and blacks and reds showing shadows and bad omens coming up. But the combat is left in a mostly monochromatic field, which makes the flashes of color all the more important. The red blood shows what you can collect to summon your deity of choice. The exclamation points scream out warnings before you become on the wrong end of another round of pain. And the entire presentation lets you admire the artwork of how Aztez is presented.
I absolutely adore the way the entire game is drawn and created. It shows a deep, deep appreciation for the historic culture that’s being used as a backdrop, and Team Colorblind is spot on with the imitation of the pictograms that remain from the once mighty Aztec empire. Rather than go high tech and make everything CGI and polished, the enemies and heroes of Aztez embody some real, painstaking design concepts brought to life in an organic fashion. Everything feels sincere, and the flash of the victory logo when you’ve decimated the opposition is still a rush every time you see it. Along with another recent game, Asura, it shows me that developers can take great references from different times and cultures and bring them into the new age of gaming without needing to conform to a certain idea or mold in order to make players engage with their vision.
I feel like I’m pretty weak at reviewing sound, as a whole. The music of Aztez is atmospheric and captures a driving power of the empire expanding and growing in power. There’s a lot of drum work, along with some light flute, which is akin to what you might expect to hear from tribal music at the time of the Aztecs. Sound effects are sparse and a bit wet, since you hear a lot of cutting into flesh and smashing bodies. The one note on sound that I really enjoyed was the roar of the jaguar upon completion of a level. Again, there isn’t anything here that I was totally blown away by, but I still enjoyed the way the picture was painted for my ears.
Dammit Aztez, why can’t you make this easy for me? On the one hand, the 4X4 strategy isn’t enough for some and is definitely too much for others. I got my ass handed to me several times because the parrying system is a bit wonky, and I lost a lot of will to fight on around six hours into the Campaign. On the other hand, the combat is fresh and clean, the blood and weapon choices are excellent, and I would highly recommend this to anyone looking for a great time with combat. All in all, Aztez is a solid B in my books. It stands out, it has a unique concept, and the execution for the things that I enjoyed was spot on. The Aztec people are an important part of history, and any game that does a solid job of honoring their legacy and their power is a noble effort in my book. If you can, find a friend who likes to strategize and let them helm the main decisions between the fights. Or, if you’ve got someone with a deep grudge against Cortés, let them step into the shoes of Aztez and deliver some long overdue justice.