Astalon: Tears of the Earth Review
There are a lot of retro indie games on the market, but most aim for the brightly colored sprites and expansive worlds made famous by titles like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Astalon: Tears of the Earth is drawing on the aesthetic and mechanics of an earlier time. This action-platformer looks like it stepped out of the 80s alongside the original Megaman, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy, right down to three potential levels of anti-aliasing to capture that fuzzy retro sprite aesthetic. Despite the old-school aesthetic, its mix of excellent writing, creepy art design, slick controls, and high-difficulty, high-reward gameplay leaves the game feeling both antique and cutting-edge.
A Journey Into Darkness
In the aftermath of a devastating war, the remnants of humanity struggle to survive on a dead planet. Three adventurers–naive warrior Arias, perceptive rogue Kyuli, and temperamental mage Algus–explore the ruins of the old world in search of a way to save their village. Their quest brings them to the Tower of Serpents, which appears to be poisoning the village’s water. However, this ruin is unlike any other they’ve come across, and one of their own is keeping a terrible secret. After a terrifying encounter nearly brings the adventure to an abrupt end, it becomes clear that Astalon: Tears of the Earth is as much a horror game as it is a fantasy game. From then on, a sense of dread weighed over me as I ventured deeper into the tower, knowing that no matter what, one of the trio would not be emerging alive.
The game manages to create a truly creepy tone, but the writing is at once simple, deeply affecting, and surprisingly funny. Algus doesn’t let the grim fate awaiting him stop him from complaining to—and gossiping with—Epimetheus, the monstrous Titan of Death that will inevitably claim his soul. Rest sequences help to establish the bonds between the main cast just as the post-death upgrade conversations help to establish the friction between Algus and Epimetheus. This contrasts sharply with the genuinely ominous environments and off-putting enemy designs that range from oversized insects to twisted cyclopes to rotting corpses. It really feels like the Tower itself hates you.
The character design draws heavily on 80s and 90s anime. The cast, with their huge eyes and stylized armor, wouldn’t look out of place in the original Puyo Puyo or even Madou Monogatari games. The 8-bit soundtrack and sound effects that might as well have jumped directly out of an old-school arcade machine help create an atmosphere that’s equal parts nostalgic and unsettling.
This game is not a roguelike, but it could easily be mistaken for one. Not only is it about adventurers attempting to climb an enormous tower while battling respawning enemies, but the game’s harsh difficulty level also gives you the same feeling of being slowly ground down. However, the levels aren’t procedurally generated and the map does not reshuffle itself, so the resemblance is ultimately superficial. It’s closer to a hybrid of roguelike, platformer, and Metroidvania. There’s a lot of backtracking to unlock new doors and areas, and even more backtracking while you’re trying to get past a boss. Speaking of which, this game is hard–be prepared for boss fights to take hours, especially when you’re still getting used to the control scheme.
Dying means putting the dungeon-crawling on pause for a bit while you renegotiate terms with the Titan of Death. As you explore and slay monsters, you gather the souls of the dead in the form of blue orbs, which you can trade with Epimetheus for permanent power-ups. Upgrades range from increased damage to health bonuses to the ability to automatically absorb orbs. While monsters respawn after your death—and every time you exit a room, for that matter—puzzles remain solved, bosses remain slain, and you keep any keys you picked up. Each character has different abilities that can counter specific obstacles, meaning you have to regularly switch between them to advance. Fortunately, the map color codes rooms where you can swap out party members.
One of the best and most frustrating elements of this game is the hidden secrets. There are secret passages everywhere and they aren’t marked on the map. Keep an eye peeled for invisible switches and cracked stones. Some of them are only concealing stashes of orbs or optional enemies, but others are hiding keys or secret doors that must be found to advance.
Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a great reminder of what small developers can achieve with simple graphics and simpler controls. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who craves some old-fashioned platforming action and isn’t afraid to die a lot. Just remember to turn off the flashing lights and screen shake if you’re sensitive to that.
*** PC code provided by the publisher ***
- Ominous retro graphics
- Solid sound design
- Creepy atmosphere
- Great writing
- Very difficult
- Controls take adjustment
- Secrets needed to advance
- So much backtracking