Preview: Rivals of Aether puts a spin on Smash Bros. gameplay

Rivals of Aether is an upcoming indie fighting game for the PC and Xbox One that finds its core in the mechanics of Smash Bros. This allows the game to have a small roster, but deep gameplay that is easy to pick up. I had a chance to go hands-on with the game at E3 2015.

Just as other fighters take some variation of the controls introduced in Street Fighter 2, Rivals of Aether takes no shame in lifting its controls from Smash Bros. The only omission is the ability to throw opponents, which probably wouldn’t work here considering how crazy some of the other moves are. As we have seen with post-melee Smash Bros games, the GameCube controller cannot be beat, but the Xbox One I tried out in at E3 are a better substitute than the Wii-mote. Even the c-stick shortcut for smashes is mapped to the right thumbstick, which is probably the most use the right thumbstick will get in a fighting game in the history of Xbox. I would also say that the dodge feels better here than in Smash Bros.

Elemental battles

While Rivals' graphics may be 16-bit sprite based, they have an inspired charm. Each fighting animal represents one of four elements, earth, fire, water, and air (sorry Captain Planet, no heart here) that informs their aesthetics, and it shows in the animation. Each character's play style takes on an aspect of the element they represent; such as one on of the fire characters using smoke-based moves to scatter poison clouds around the stage, while the other one can set opponents on fire.

While the story currently isn't as in-depth as what you'll find in something like Skullgirls, there is a little bit of narrative for those looking for it in the arcade/story mode. As the title states, the characters are pitted against one another as rivals in the land of Aether, which is dominated by the elements the combatants attacks come from. Pretty basic, but interesting -- and I enjoy the lengths taken to explain why an Orca can fight a lion in a forest: it has legs!

The character attacks and techniques on display in Rivals are pretty wild. One character can summon a pillar underneath his feet which can either save him from a fall or surprise an opponent and throw them out of the stage bounds. Most of the cast is easy to grasp, but the smoke character and the Orca use clones and teleportation that require careful a lot of planning ahead and really make you work to win. I was also a little upset that I couldn’t hangout in the air with the air character as much as I can with my main in Smash Bros, Peach.

The match types here are limited, with only stock (lives) being available, but the stages can have the hazards toggled with tournament play in mind. Most of my playtime was with the stage hazards removed, but having them enabled not only changes safe zones, but how some characters' powers function. The Orca's safety teleport is affected by moving platforms on the harbor stage, for instance.

The roster shown at E3 contained 6 characters, but two more are promised to give each the wind and water elements another representative. There were also a lot stages yet to be shown, which makes me think that the ones missing will have some crazy obstacles, and we may be getting a Final Destination type stage. While the game is pretty solid in its current state, the team has mentioned that there will be a balance patch sometime after release. Aside from on- and offline versus and arcade/story mode, "Abyss" sounds like a survival mode that allows characters to be customized for a separate versus mode.

Rivals of Aether will come out sometime later this year, and plans for Early Access was announced at E3.