Thoughts: Treasures of the Aegean

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Another day, another time loop ga- no wait, come back! This one’s actually good!

Admittedly Treasures of the Aegean isn’t good because of the time loop — or at least, not solely because of the time loop — which is leveraged in a surprisingly low-key kind of way. The premise is that the ancient island of Thera, thought destroyed thousands of years ago in a colossal volcanic eruption, has resurfaced just off the coast of the modern Greek island of Santorini, bringing with it a lost Minoan city and hundreds of ancient artifacts to plunder. This naturally attracts the attention of two treasure hunters, James Andrew and Marie Taylor; James provides archaeological support such as on-the-spot translations and historical background, as well as piloting the chopper that parachutes Marie onto the island at the start of every run through Treasures of the Aegean so that she can do the actual tomb raiding. This is achieved by way of using Marie’s parkour skills to tackle side-on platforming challenges in a vast, Metroidvania-esque open world map.

The reason I say Metroidvania-esque instead of just straight-up calling it a Metroidvania is because Treasures of the Aegean is a little different from other Metroidvanias I’ve played. Usually in a Metroidvania you’re gradually uncovering the map, picking up new, permanent traversal powers that let you reach previously inaccessible areas. There is a lot of backtracking, but also a permanent sense of progression in the skills and abilities you acquire; pick up the double jump power, and suddenly three new routes open up to you, and so on. But Treasures of the Aegean has no traversal powers, and neither does it have many blockers on your progress; there’s a few locked doors and treasure chests, but none of them require you to come back later once you’ve powered up a bit. Everything in the game is accessible to you from the moment Marie touches down onto the island surface for the first time — if you can figure out how to get at it.

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This is where the time loop comes in. Marie starts the game with just fifteen minutes to explore the island before the volcano explodes for a second time and buries the island forever. There’s only so much you can get done in fifteen minutes, and you have no clues to guide your way forward and only the most rudimentary of GPS maps that charts your progress with a crude black and white outline. There’s a timer in the top left corner of the screen that’s constantly ticking down, and when it reaches zero James will rudely interrupt whatever Marie is currently doing to extract her from the island moments before it blows up — but as she’s clambering up the rope ladder to the helicopter, she drops her phone with all of the mapping data and clues she’s discovered so far. The phone somehow gets transported 4,000 years into the past (look, just go with it, the plot of Treasures of the Aegean is not meant to be thought about all that hard) and found by the original Minoan inhabitants. They proceed to use the data to make a paper map of the island as well as a “prophecy” tablet containing all of your clues, which are then found in the future by James and fed back into the phone, and the paper map has a lot more detail, displaying biomes, architecture and important landmarks.

The mix of the GPS map with the uploaded paper version makes it very, very easy to see at a glance places that you’ve previously been, places that you’ve explored on this run and places that you’ve yet to visit. The game is quite deliberately mechanically flat in the same way that Outer Wilds is — you start Treasures of the Aegean with everything that you need to complete it — and a cool little feature is that after your first run your starting location will be randomised and you can be dropped anywhere on the island surface. There’s no such thing as an “endgame” area in Treasures of the Aegean; the closest it gets is putting plot-critical things deep underground where they’ll take a few minutes to get to from wherever your surface starting point is — but that’s all it’ll take. And just as with Outer Wilds, this means that Treasures of the Aegean is mostly about knowledge gathering, first to figure out what your overall objective is, and then to gather enough information to do a Final Run that unlocks it. There are puzzles scattered throughout the island, and most of them are relatively short and easy once you know what to do, but you need to explore to connect the dots, and you need to make notes on what you’ve seen. For example, I came across an “easy” puzzle where the solution was written on the wall next to it, but the puzzle mechanism was missing a sprocket that meant I couldn’t input said solution. I marked it with a cog symbol so that I could easily come back to it later, and sure enough two runs later I solved a puzzle in a completely different part of the map that lowered a platform that let me jump up to a room containing… a sprocket. I now had both ends of the solution, and it was the work of a couple of minutes to run the sprocket down to where it was needed so that I could complete the original puzzle.

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Now, since everything resets at the start of each time loop Treasures of the Aegean would be somewhat tedious if I had to do both of these puzzles and the sprocket run every single time I wanted to try and complete the game, but it’s a little smarter than that. Each time you complete a major objective that opens a door to an item or location you need for the final run, a helpful Minoan ghost will show up — this is a game about a time-travelling telephone, so believe me when I say that the ghosts fit right in — and state that they’re going to keep the door open in future loops from now on. Treasure of the Aegean’s map is very large, and it’s only Marie’s parkour skills that ensure she can move across it at a decent clip; there’s a lot of moving parts to this game and a lot to keep track of, but this slightly-crude method of occasionally saving your progress means you can focus on the atomic chunks of what you need to do, one or two puzzles at a time. True, it’s not as elegant as the way Outer Wilds handles it, but it is admirably well-pitched in terms of difficulty; I think it took me twelve or thirteen runs to complete the game in the end, and I felt like I made tangible, worthwhile progress towards my overall goal on every single one despite most of my actions being undone at the end of each run. Thanks to the prophecy clues and the map I was never unclear on what to do or where to go next, and I never ended a run feeling like I’d wasted my time. Which is an extremely important thing for a time loop game to get right.

It helps that much of the game’s challenge comes from its platforming, not from its puzzles, which are mostly pretty straightforward to figure out the general shape of; it’s the detail that’s the tricky part, and the detail usually involves bouncing up walls to access some seemingly-unreachable spot, or activating a timed door, jumping over several platforms and then timing a slide so that you just manage to pass underneath it before it closes.  You’d expect this kind of thing from a side-on parkour platformer, of course, but Treasures of the Aegean is particularly wise to put the emphasis on the platforming and movement because its platforming and movement are absolutely top-notch. Everything Marie does is extremely well-animated and carries a real sense of speed, effort and momentum as she flies around the map. The controls are good and responsive and pulling off complicated precision maneuvers one after another felt easy and natural after a couple of runs to get used to them, and the platforming even integrates the run timer in a cool way by making it impossible for Marie to die during a run; if she falls from a great height or gets shot by a guard (since there’s no combat mechanics the guards just function as walking turrets) the screen fades to black, there’s a quick interlude as she picks herself up off the ground and cracks her neck to limber up again, or pries the bullet from her bulletproof vest, and then the adventure continues on just as before with a couple of minutes deducted from the timer. My one complaint here is that the wallrunning/jumping could be a bit finicky and sometimes refuse to register my “up” movements on the analogue stick, resulting in Marie slowly and sadly sliding down the wall instead of scrabbling up it and then leaping backwards to her objective. I also occasionally found myself pining for a look up/down feature like Spelunky has so that I could see what was on the level above/below me; the map compensates for this a fair bit so it’s only really a missing quality-of-life feature rather than an actual flaw, but I did miss it.

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These are just niggles, though. Once you get into the platforming groove Treasures of the Aegean is a joy to explore, and it’s one which is made doubly so by the environment artwork. The cartoon, comic book style fits the subject matter very well and I must admit it’s highly refreshing to play a game that’s this unafraid to be colourful. Every area on and inside the island is picked out in vivid splashes of blue, orange, and purple; even the underground areas are lit by lava flows or shining crystals embedded in the floor and ceiling, and there’s a hell of a lot of background detail such as sculptures, columns, tombs, frescoes, inscriptions, what appear to be whale skeletons etc. etc. Just watching Marie jump around these environments is a genuine pleasure, and it’s backed up by music that is a tad understated, but good nevertheless; it’s nothing that’ll stick in your brain after you put the game down, but it’s thematically appropriate and never unpleasant. It might have the occasional rough edge, but it’s actually pretty difficult to pick holes in the bulk of Treasures of the Aegean’s gameplay and presentation because it’s all about as well thought-out and well put-together as I’d expect an indie game to be.

If Treasures of the Aegean has a serious flaw, it lies with the game’s story — even here there are mitigating circumstances, however. For the majority of it the biggest problem is that the studio behind Treasures is Spanish and did the translation in-house, and while it’s better than some videogame translations I could name it’s also very obviously not written by somebody who translates things into English for a living, with minor mistranslations and spelling mistakes scattered throughout the game; one of the very first things you’ll see less than sixty seconds after starting the game is a butchered line of text in the game’s intro, which is not the best first impression the game could have made, and it continues in this fashion throughout. Because of that the story struggles to make itself heard, which is a shame because otherwise it appears to be rather more coherent than any of the modern Tomb Raider games, with major story beats communicated in screen-sized comic book panels that are tremendously effective. Despite being extremely silly the narrative does have a certain earnest charm to it despite the wonky translation, and it takes place against a background of actually-good historical detail about the Minoans that feels very appropriate for a game about tomb raiding.

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Why, then, did I feel the need to specifically call out Treasures’ story as the weak link? It’s because of the flashback sequences that it makes you do between each run that delve into Marie’s backstory. First, I do not care about Marie’s backstory. The very first Tomb Raider didn’t feel the need to explain why Lara Croft enjoyed gunning down dinosaurs in pursuit of ancient treasures, and Treasures of the Aegean shouldn’t have either; I don’t need to know why Marie is a parkour expert, or why she’s turned her talents to looting ancient artifacts, or her history with the group of rival treasure hunters on the island. That makes the flashback sequences explaining all of this doubly insulting because they’re the only part of the game that are flat-out terrible; they take the form of short platforming puzzles in modern-day environments such as Paris where the visual language that the rest of the game uses is tossed out of the window and the levels are almost completely unreadable. If you get caught by a guard in one of these sequences you get sent all the way back to the start, and you have to complete it before the game will let you go on another run to the actual island. It’s absolutely obnoxious, and the only reason the flashbacks aren’t a much bigger problem is that there’s only two or three of them that spill over into “bonus” gameplay segments, with the rest taking place via those easily-skippable comic book panels.

Other than these annoying blips, though, Treasures of the Aegean is a great way to spend six or seven hours. It looks good, plays well, tickles the exploration and puzzle-solving part of your brain without taxing it too much, and is sensible enough not to outstay its welcome by overdoing the time loop concept and wraps up after a dozen runs or so. I would hesitate in calling it a great game rather than a good one, but I think it is an outstanding one as it’s increasingly rare that I come across a game with this kind of clarity of vision behind it; Treasures of the Aegean knows what it wants to be and — flashback sequences aside — doesn’t waste any effort on not being that. Tragically it seems to have been almost totally overlooked by pretty much everyone on the planet — hell, I wouldn’t have known about it if a friend hadn’t mentioned it — which I take as a brutal indictment of the current challenge of making and releasing indie games, because if a game as good as Treasures of the Aegean can sink without a trace in today’s overcrowded marketplace then it makes me wonder how many other good games I’m missing out on because I simply never hear about them.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts: Treasures of the Aegean

  1. ilitarist says:

    Nice read. I might not be interested in this specific game but you’re spot on about how hard it is to find a game that might interest you in the sea of modern releases. For every game like Disco Elysium or Outer Wilds or even Wildermyth there are probably god knows how many great games no one hears about. I’ve only played adorable and clever Griftlands because it’s Klei, I’ve played A Short Hike because you wrote about it. I look at that Steam sale and I’m gravitating towards familiar names that will not surprise me but will give me some reliable entertainment. A pity.

  2. RetrogradeRun says:

    Always enjoy these articles. Take a peak at “Vagante” if you’re looking for an under-the-radar Spelunky-like with a few more RPG elements. Criminally underrated and I’ve played a good amount of roguelites.

  3. Marijn says:

    I’d love to see your take on Echoes of the Eye.

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