Review: Astalon: Tears of the Earth

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There are truly few things as gratifying as a well put-together metroidvania. The persistent popularity of the ancient Metroids and Castlevanias from which this awkward moniker was taken should be testament to that, but so many recent indie attempts have been just as captivating, if not moreso. Astalon definitely deserves a place among these modern adventures, with its gorgeous, detailed pixel art and creative upgrades. It’s got plenty of interesting design decisions that set it apart from others of its ilk, too, though not all of them may have been the best ideas. Still, there’s so much good about Astalon that I couldn’t help but dip into its bonus modes, even after taking the time to 100% the main game, and that’s something I don’t normally do.

Astalon Episode II (it’s doing a Star Wars thing, you didn’t miss anything) chronicles the adventures of Algus the mage, Kyuli the archer, and Arias the knight. In their post-apocalyptic world, the ancient ruins of those that came before are re-emerging, and a nearby tower has poisoned the water of our plucky party’s village. Together, these would-be heroes climb the tower to uncover the secrets of this blight. Inside they’ll find all manner of grim creatures serving the gorgons, great stone beasts sealed within. They’ll need a host of powers to overcome the challenges before them, and not all of these powers will come from mortal sources.

One immediate draw of this game is the many unique hooks it has for its story and structure. I had to mention the gorgons because they’re a new and creative adversarial force for a game like this, rather than vampires or demons or evil AIs. The continue and upgrade systems are also tied into a neat story element that gets introduced almost immediately; your buddy Algus has a deal with Epimetheus, the Titan of Death, who refuses to let the party die until the bargain is complete. He’ll even grant you new powers in exchange for the souls you hoover up while exploring the tower, what a guy! But really, it’s these elements along with the exciting discoveries you make as you ascend that helps Astalon stand out from other metroidvanias.

If you’ve played more than a few metroidvanias, I’m sure you’ve had that moment where you got a new power and it changed your very perception of the game world. Games like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge do this, and I was pleased to see Astalon do it several times to great effect. There’s one particular power I got that I was not expecting at all, and it felt like it opened up the game in so many ways. It also helps that there are a vast array of secrets to find as you ascend the tower, none of them particularly torturous to find but some of them impressively expansive. This is a game that’s a pleasure to explore, especially if you’re keeping up with your character upgrades to ensure you can dispatch enemies quickly and efficiently. The combat in Astalon is thankfully quite good, and offers you several approaches to battle that are sure to include something that you’ll find fun.

I will say there are parts of this game that don’t quite live up to the others, and the big one for me is the map. Metroidvanias live and die on their map designs, because if you hate trying to get around the world, you’re going to run out of steam real fast. Astalon doesn’t have a bad map, and like I said, some of the secrets are really quite interesting to uncover. However, this is one of those games where the map might show three exits out of a room, but only two of those are connected. The tower is intensely maze-like, and several sections of it don’t connect like you’d expect they would. If you’ve ever played the middle child of Castlevania on the Gameboy Advance, Harmony of Dissonance, Astalon has a lot in common with the twisting castle there.

It’s also worth mentioning that the health system is a bit unusual, and while I won’t spoil it, I will say that it can be hard to recover from heavy losses. Coupled with the proliferation of traps like spikes in this game, I can see health being a frustration for some, though ultimately it never was for me. I was having too much fun teasing out the tower’s secrets for any of these complaints to really bother me, and I think that’ll be the case for most people who give Astalon a chance. It took me about a dozen hours to 100% complete a normal playthrough, and that opened up a whole host of bonus modes, included a New Game + that actually mixes up the map a little. With solid gameplay, unique hooks, and a gorgeous presentation, I can definitely recommend Astalon to anyone needing a new cursed tower to explore.

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