Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Astalon: Tears of the Earth Review

Developer: LABS Works
Publisher: Dangen Entertainment
Platforms: NS, PC, PS4, XBO
Price: $20
Version Played: Switch

Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a very interesting Metroidvania. It might look like the spiritual successor to an old Falcom game, like Legacy of the Wizard or Knightmare, but it's something more like Symphony of the Night but with a lot of NES game influence. It has a lot of Mega Man style platforming, Zelda-like key hunting, and a sort of Metroid-like way of not telling you things sometimes. It’s a great combination of elements that makes for a pretty fresh take on the Metroidvania.

The biggest thing that sets Astalon apart from the average Metroidvania is that you play as a party of characters. You start with a Mage, Rogue, and Warrior. Each character has unique abilities, so you constantly have to switch between them to progress. For example, only the Rogue can wall jump, so she's the only one who can reach higher platforms. You can't switch characters with the press of a button until the latter half of the game, though. You have to go to a bonfire (save room) to switch. A lot of Astalon’s gameplay revolves around simply opening paths for the rest of your characters to be able to access new areas. I thought that maybe the game would lose something when I got the ability to switch characters on the fly, but it ended up feeling more like the developers were free to do even more interesting and challenging things with the level design then.
Astalon is also more about finding keys and hitting switches to open paths than it is about gaining new abilities to reach new areas. Each character only gets a couple of new abilities throughout the game. Most items you get are either keys or map markers. Astalon feels very old-school in that way. It reminds me a lot of older Zelda games, where simply finding keys, maps, and compasses was a huge part of the game.
The other major aspect that sets Astalon apart is how the game handles death. When you die in Astalon, you go all the way back to the tower's entrance. When you save at a bonfire, you're only saving your character's progress and not your location. Bonfires also don't refill your HP, and there are very few health drops in the game, so you will die a lot. But dying isn't completely a bad thing because when you die, you get to buy upgrades. Not double jumps or weapons, though. It's more like HP upgrades, map markers, or magic that attracts money to you like a magnet. You can also buy 3 cutscenes that reveal a lot about the story. That’s kind of a weird way to do that, but the story is good.
Going all the way back to the beginning of the game isn't as bad as it might sound. Unlike in a Castlevania, where it's all about getting to the next save point, Astalon is all about opening shortcuts, portals, and elevator stops, so you don't have to go through the whole tower to get back to where you died. And just in case anyone is wondering, you don’t lose your money or equipment when you die, so you don’t have to do a corpse run. It’s not that kind of game.
I wouldn’t call Astalon a story-driven game, but I found the world it builds a lot more interesting than most indie Metroidvanias I've played. Astalon takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where demon-infested towers pop out of the ground, like tears from the earth. The idea is that the planet is trying to rid itself of the evil inside. These towers are ruled by giant demons called Gorgons, who are literally giant demon statues. These Gorgons are worshipped by cultists and gain strength from human sacrifices. If they gain enough power, they can leave their towers and attack the few human villages still left in this world. Our 3 heroes are going to this tower because the Gorgons have poisoned their village’s water supply. It’s a grim and tragic world full of potential for more games down the line.
I think Astalon does a pretty good job in mimicking the look of an NES game. Some of the sprites are probably closer to SNES quality in detail, especially in the backgrounds, but the color palette is spot on. Although, the way nearly everything in each area is the same color isn't very exciting to look at sometimes. The designs and animations of the playable characters definitely remind me of NES games like Mega Man and Castlevania. Or maybe something in between, like Kid Dracula, is a better comparison. It’s kind of weird that the story is so dark and the game's art style is so goofy and cute, but it works.
Performance on the Switch isn't too hot. The game aims for 60fps, but it usually hovers somewhere in the 50s and often drops into the 40s. It often gets noticeably choppy, even in rooms with no enemies around. The game also seemed to get buggier the further I got into it. My characters sometimes kept doing the ladder climbing animation instead of getting off, sometimes I'd clip halfway through platforms, my game clock reset at some point, and there seems to be a bug that skips screens, like the original version of Link's Awakening, if you go from one screen to another while jumping and attacking. There's also a block throwing mechanic later in the game and I never figured out if the blocks were supposed to stick to walls or not. That mechanic seems buggy whichever way it's supposed to work!
I really liked the soundtrack in this game. There's a lot of very Mega Man and Castlevania-like fast-paced hard rock songs in there I really liked. There’s also a few moody and haunting tunes I thought were really good, like “Dark Serenity” and “Threads of Fate”. It’s quite varied, but it all fits the 80s NES style of the game perfectly. One of the creators, Matt Kap, composed the whole thing and even did a non-chiptune version, which is even better than what's in the game. You can find both versions on Spotify.

Astalon is one of the best indie Metroidvanias I've played in a while. I love the party system, I was very intrigued by its lore, and I think the platforming-heavy, key finding, and switch pushing style of level design makes the game feel different from most games in the genre. I can't wait to see what's next for this series. It'll probably be a long time before we get a sequel, since their next big game will be Castle in the Darkness 2, but I know they already announced a small Game Boy style prequel called Astalon: The Crystal Sword, and I'm really looking forward to that.