Hack 'n' slash dungeon-crawler feels like a difficult genre to get right. From Gauntlet to Diablo, the genre has seen many entries that have thoroughly explored every aspect of loot-hunting and attack-spamming gameplay. At this stage, it just doesn't feel like there's much new you could add to make the genre feel fresh again. Enter Aluna: Sentinal of the Shards, a hack 'n' slash crawler with a story and setting based on the 16th century, South American culture, and folklore. Can a unique and criminally underexplored setting keep things fresh?
Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards is a top-down isometric dungeon crawler from relatively new developers DigiArtInteractive. It tells the story of Aluna, daughter of a Spanish conquistador and South American nature goddess Pachamama. As a demigod, you're tasked with journeying the land, recovering the shards that contain the power of your goddess mother. Using your magical powers and physical prowess, you journey to recover the shards, facing enemy tribes, wild animals, and monsters straight from 16th century South American folklore.
One of the major strengths of Aluna: Sentinals of the Shards is the story and setting. It's rare to see a top-down dungeon crawler that isn't just some form of high or dark fantasy, and even rarer to see a game that uses South American indigenous cultures as its inspiration. There's also a fair bit of interesting art used in cutscenes that gives the entire game a pulp-adventure-comic style, which fits the mostly jungle and ruin-based map of the game. Unfortunately, that style isn't necessarily carried over into the gameplay.
The bulk of the gameplay revolves around combat, and if you've ever played an action dungeon crawler or MMO before then, it should be pretty familiar to you. Other than your single basic attack, most of your other controls revolve around various special attacks you unlock as you level up. There are three flavors of abilities to spend your points on: melee, ranged, and magic. When you start, you have basic "powerful" versions of regular attacks and slight buffs/debuffs, but within a few hours of play, you'll be shooting lightning from your hands and blasting AOEs for days.
When you get into combat in Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards, it tends to go the same way. You'll spam all of your various special attacks until you run out of mana, then spam your regular attack to refill your mana again, repeat this until everything that's not you stops moving. You can also throw a dodge in there if you're feeling fancy, but honestly, in most cases, it's pointless. All dodge moves do is offer you a way of getting some distance from enemies after you've run out of close-range attacks.
Typically, when you get into combat, it will be against a mixture of various enemies. You'll have some melee fighters running at you while a bunch of ranged enemies stand in the back and whittle your health down. At the same time, it's possible to dodge against an individual or a few ranged/melee attackers when the number of enemies is high (and it usually is). You're best off just keeping moving instead of trying to dodge. If you've got the right gear on, you can tank hits while you spam your attacks, then run back out again before you die and immediately heal.
If it's not clear already, there's something of a balance problem in Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards. On the one hand, the gameplay doesn't seem to have much bite to it. You can get numerous abilities that slow down or completely stop enemies. Running out of an enemy's range will have them walk slowly back to their starting position, giving you free hits, and you also have an infinite number of healing potions. As long as you can get distance from an enemy without dying, then you can always walk a few meters away until they forget they exist, heal, then run back in again and again until they're dead.
On the other hand, the game has a nasty habit of throwing one-hit kill enemies your way out of nowhere. In the first few hours of the game, you have to make your way through a temple guarded by an enemy tribe. Through the entire section leading up to the temple, you fight waves upon waves of enemies, each giving you a fair bit of challenge without being over the top. Then you have to fight a wizard with two super bears who spam a lightning spell that varies in damage from a quarter of your energy to your entire life bar with no warning.
Overall there's just a feeling of jank and shallowness that makes Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards a pain to play after only a few hours. Even if you ignore the balance issues, there's not much exciting going on outside the story and rare comic-style cutscene. Sure, you're flinging around god-like powers within a few upgrades of the magic tree, but all that really means is that you'll be spamming a slightly more shiny group of attacks when you get into combat every 2 seconds.
The monotony isn't helped by choice of locations. 90% of the game takes place in either some jungle or ancient temple ruins. There's no real way of distinguishing any given location from any other location. Combine the samey environment with the repetitive combat that makes up the bulk of the gameplay, and it's not hard to understand why I literally struggled to stay awake during some of the gameplay. That's without even getting into the performance issues that plagued the Switch version when there were many mobs on the screen at once.
There are some positives here. As I said before, the setting is pretty unique, and the comic book cutscenes tell an interesting story, but they show up too few and far between. If you can make your way through the slog that you have to do between points on the map, you are occasionally rewarded with the odd interesting encounter, and with the right upgrades, you feel really powerful, but the appeal wears off shortly. It's also nice that you can re-build your character upgrades at any time, so if you don't like your attacks, you can mess around on the fly.
At the end of the day, Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards has an interesting start but eventually becomes an endless cycle of the same combat over and over again. Even throwing in the occasional journey back to town to sell all of your useless loot doesn't help to break things up much, and it's not like the gear you get affects your appearance much. While it's totally possible to have fun with Aluna, no one would blame you for giving up a few hours in because you're struggling to keep your eyes open.
TechRaptor reviewed Aluna: Sentinel of the Shards on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on PC and coming PlayStation 4 and Xbox One at a later date.
- Unique Setting
- Great Comic Cutscenes
- Some Interesting Encounters and Abilities
- Repetitive Gameplay
- Not Much Level Variety
- Poor Performance