How Metroidvania is it? High Fit. A robust non-linear map filled with the kind of secrets that will please any Metroidvania exploration fan
Primary Challenge: Exploration Focus
Time to beat: ~14 hours
Review Info: Astalon Tears of the Earth was played on a Windows PC using the Steam version
Buy Astalon: Tears of the Earth if you like…
- Tightly woven interconnected worlds
- Secrets and shortcuts
- Leveling up and overpowering your enemies
- 8-bit nostalgia aesthetics
- Meaningful story narratives
▼ Review continues below ▼
If you like surprises then stop reading this review now and just go play the game - don't watch any of the trailers or read too much into the game's store page. The thing I'll be spoiling in this review occurs within the first ten minutes of the game and it's included in the game's store description and in the advertising. I'm only giving this spoiler warning because it might be fun to experience the key mechanics as the game presents them to you rather than knowing about them beforehand.
Telling a story in the video game medium is still something that is growing and mutating – and I suspect we will never see an end to the possibilities available. With that said, every genre has been shown to have its strengths for telling specific types of stories. Adventure games have often been stand-ins for comic book style stories, JRPGs were inspired by anime in the first place, and Metroidvania games have been excellent for telling lonely and individual-focused stories. There have been attempts to include parties of playable characters in Metroidvania games past, but the result has been somewhat mixed. In most cases it has been hard to justify separating out important movement upgrades between other characters simply for the sake of having more than one character to play. Astalon: Tears of the Earth on the other hand does some interesting things with it. While its core feature of swapping out characters isn’t without its shortcomings, it becomes an important element in the fascinating world that Astalon creates – both for gameplay and narrative reasons. In tandem with level design of mind-blowing quality, Astalon’s unique gameplay features and supporting story are able to mold something that might seem familiar on the surface into one of the best Metroidvania games available.
The story opens up with a party of three young adventurers traveling into a spire full of Gorgons as they try to discover what has been poisoning their village’s water supply. The three each have the typical RPG party roles that you may be familiar with. One is a warrior with short ranged attacks and a healthy dose of almost delusional confidence. Another is a nimble archer with the ability to kick at walls for an extra vertical boost. Finally there’s Algus the wizard, who upon entering the tower renews a pact he’s made with the Titan of Death to ensure that the party’s victory is inevitable. There’s almost an expectation with this stereotypical team that the warrior ends up being the main protagonist, but in this game Algus is the clear point of view character. Early in your quest you’re forced to die at least once, and from there details of Algus’ deal with the titan Epimetheus are hung as a looming reminder of dark things to come for the rest of the game. Every time you die you appear before the titan again, free to make further deals in exchange for the orbs you find, and afterward time is reset and you’re placed at the beginning of the dungeon to start over again. It’s one of those setups that keeps every death a canon part of the narrative.
Interestingly, even though the theming of the game says that Epimetheus rewinds time after you die, the game’s world still remains changed based on anything you’ve done along the way. If you’ve unlocked a shortcut or explored some portion of the map, it will remain explored. Specific enemies, especially the bosses, will remain dead forever. So even though you do start in the same place every time you die, your progress is always remembered. Astalon is not a roguelike game like you may have heard. Previous Metroidvania games have had the exact same setup, like Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap or Lyle in Cube Sector. The only difference between the death mechanics of Astalon: Tears of the Earth and those other older games is that death also provides a convenient access to the game’s shop. There is no procedural generation, nor do you actually lose anything significant upon death besides being moved away from the location where you died.
The game’s shop does have a significant effect on your overall success since it is also a stand-in for a leveling system. Each character has their own set of purchase options, but an individual boost to attack, defense, or attack speed stats are common to every character. You can also buy one of their unique game changer abilities, such as adding a crit rate to the archer’s arrows or giving the warrior the ability to avoid death once per run. No matter which character you’re playing as, you all share the same health point pool, so raising your HP is a separate option in the shop. The cost of each stat increases with every boost, and each one has a maximum you can build towards. While combat for the most part is designed well enough that you could beat Astalon: Tears of the Earth on a single run, dying and then spending your orbs makes things significantly easier. So much so that with enough orb gathering and making the right purchases, many bosses and regular enemies can just be face-tanked until you achieve victory. This makes Astalon more similar to an RPG and less of a dexterity based combat platformer like the developer Mat Kap’s previous work Castle in the Darkness. Enemies are designed to be fair – with predictable patterns and plenty of telegraphs – but they can’t stand up to a well-leveled team of swapping heroes as long as you have the tenacity to keep spending those orbs. Astalon isn’t a game I’d recommend to those looking for a tough combat challenge, but rather to those who enjoy powering up through exploration and killing enemies.
Besides leveling up your characters there are also a number of other miscellaneous options you can buy from the shop. Some of these are actually critically important even if none of them affect your ability to progress through the game; they’re definitely something you want to spend your money on. The interesting thing about these non-character upgrades is that unlike the character upgrades they don’t tell you what they are before you purchase them. There’s no pop-up that gives you any kind of description of what the purchase will actually give you; all you have to go on is an icon and a name for the purchase option. This must be an intentional choice on the part of the game’s designers, because the UI for explaining things already exists for the stats, and the game usually gives you some idea of what the thing does after you purchase it, so that description could have just been moved to before you’ve made the commitment. The result of this design choice is that for a lot of Epimetheus’ choices you’re kind of gambling on what you get, and some options are very much a waste of your precious orbs depending on the timing of when you get them. I’ve already talked to quite a few players that really hate this design, but from a ludonarrative standpoint I think having these kind of “mystery” options are important. Algus isn’t just visiting the local shop to see what magic items they have for sale, he’s proverbially making a deal with the devil. By withholding the information on those shop purchases until after the fact, you’re meant to have some of the same feelings that Algus might have. That feeling that you’re gambling away something that is precious to you without knowing exactly what the consequences are is beautifully recreated through this intentionally frustrating piece of game design. I especially like how, after purchase, Algus asks Epimetheus for something non-specific, as if your choice has only given Algus an unformed idea of what he should request. It’s a nuanced interaction that in my opinion enhances the illusion of immersion that Astalon: Tears of the Earth provides. Besides, we live in the age of the internet, so you still have the choice of looking up a guide that adds descriptions to these mystery options. If you don’t care as much about this aspect of the game’s narrative, I think this is a good compromise.
Almost more important than anything you buy in the shop is what you can find through exploration. Each HP upgrade from Epimetheus gives you 1 HP, but if you find an HP item in the game’s world it can give you anything between 1 and 5 HP, making them potentially quite powerful in terms of orb value. This is also true for blue damage upgrades; they not only affect the character that obtains them, but also all of the other characters in your party. Thus, even though there is a leveling system that rewards murdering every monster you come across, exploration itself has a more addicting loop of discovery and rewards to enjoy. Even just finding a button that unlocks a shortcut is incredibly gratifying, since that represents one more step toward accessing more goodies, especially if you happen to die along the way.
Astalon does a great job giving the player just enough information to keep them intrigued with the exploration without simply giving things away. The game follows the single screen rule of secret conveyance, which means there is no scrolling except when you reach the edge of the screen. This allows the player to assess everything in any given room since all that information is given to them all at once, and they won’t miss anything solely due to a poor camera. There are many shortcuts and secret passageways that are hidden from the naked eye, but there are enough clues available to arouse suspicion that I found myself consistently finding a new secret pathway every few screens. The game’s map also shows the familiar gaps that indicate unused exits from rooms you’ve already been to, and checking those gaps is one of the oldest Metroidvania exploration strategies. You will also find or purchase tools that place reminder icons – such as where key doors might be – that help out a lot. The map could be improved though. One of the sections is highlighted in yellow which made it really hard to make out the missing gaps in the room’s white outline on my TV screen. I also think they should have added a way to add your own markers to the map, since not every suspicious thing is accessible the first time you see them, and as the map gets more expansive your memory might not be able to handle the weight of the information. This is the kind of thing that often gets added in later patches though, so I’m sure that some of these criticisms are going to be completely obsolete in a few months. Overall, the addictive nature of Astalon: Tears of the Earth‘s exploration remains strong from start to finish because of the breadth of options available to you at all times. It’s not so broad that the options become impossible to parse, and thanks to the strength of the rewards you find from exploration, going in almost any direction results in delightful discovery.
Literal keys are a major progress gate in Astalon, and in my opinion the way it’s executed is quite brilliant. There are three types of keys you can find: white, blue, and red. Blue keys tend to open up smaller areas that often contain one-off rewards. White keys often gate actual progress through the game, and red keys open up doors to the hardest segments available. What makes this key system special is that like in the Zelda games, each key can only be used once. This means you’ll be finding many keys, and you often have multiple doors to use them on. In my playthrough I had found an intriguing route off the beaten path that also had a few locked doors. This tempted me to use keys I had found on the “main” path, giving me a choice on where and when I could fill-in my map. Giving in to that tempting curiosity had some great results, giving me that feeling I was playing in places where I wasn’t supposed to. This made me fall in love with a key system that, if done poorly, could have had an awful opposite effect. The keys add some true depth to routing your way through the game, and serve as a great way to add replayability and value to subsequent playthroughs, especially if you’re running any sort of challenge run.
The other unique layer to the exploration that Astalon provides is based on how character switching works. You can only play one character at a time, and you must switch these characters by returning to one of the bonfires scattered throughout the game’s world. Each of the three main cast has their own specialty. The archer is the character that will get you places the easiest, since she has the game’s double jump alternative. There is a major limitation to this extra lift however, since she needs to kick off a wall for it to work. The places where this skill really shines aren’t so prevalent that picking her becomes a default choice, plus her attack starts out as somewhat unreliable. Firing the archer’s bow has a long recovery time, and compared to both other characters, she attacks the slowest. The warrior is the opposite in almost every way; he has the fastest attack speed in the game, so even if he lags behind the other characters for damage-per-hit, he will still usually put out the highest damage-per-second, of course accompanied with the risks related to his melee range. If the archer is your vertical exploration character, the warrior is the ground-based explorer. This is also emphasized by his main gimmick, which is cutting through blue vines that block your path, forcing you to use the warrior when those vines show up. Algus the wizard is more of an all-rounder character. His medium ranged fireballs are more rapid than the archer’s and they have the ever useful feature of being able to shoot through walls. Algus is also the only character who can activate magic switches, so sometimes you absolutely have to use him. My opinion of which character was the “best” rotated quite frequently as I collected more movement upgrades (which only affect single characters) and as I purchased the character’s unique powers. In the endgame I think it’s possible your most upgraded character will become your dominant strategy, but I’ve already seen some forum discussions that suggest that identifying which character is the most broken may not be so easy. The game makes you use all of them anyway, and it’s really fun to play around with their strengths and weaknesses as they become more powerful individually.
The character switching isn’t without its niggles though. Sometimes you have to backtrack to a bonfire just because you had no idea that a character was absolutely necessary in the direction you were headed. This to me is a minor nuisance, since that spark of realization that you have all the tools you need just a few screens over can be gratifying as well. Where the character switching becomes a bit troublesome is that there is only one button to swap between them. This means if you want to play as the warrior you might have to swap through the archer to get to him, which can be slightly cumbersome, especially if you hit the button too many times by accident. This is of course not a problem at the beginning of the game where swappable bonfires are usually located in relatively safe areas, but it becomes a problem later on when you might need a specific character’s abilities more urgently. Ideally each character would be given their own button to switch to them, but at the very least two buttons that let you rotate between them or even a pause menu where you can just select the character you need could alleviate the problem. I call these criticisms “niggles” because I don’t think the game ever gets so intense at any point that you can’t just deal with the single button system, but I don’t see any reason why a second switch button wouldn’t just make things better.
On the subject of niggles, in spite of my ludonarrative related defense of the game’s shop not giving you all the information you need, there are still some gamey aspects of the mechanics vs the narrative that arise. In order to get the game’s best ending you have to 100% the map, but from what the game tells you is necessary for that ending to happen, it just doesn’t make any sense that you’d need to do all of it. I don’t necessarily have any issue with the game rewarding you for finding all of the items – Metroid has done that on multiple occasions – it just clashes with what the game’s story elements are telling you.
For the most part though, the story is very well told. I felt a connection with each of the cast through the gameplay because of how important they are to your progress, and I even enjoyed the game’s cutscenes. The main source of direct characterization comes from sleeping at campfires, at which point you get some dialog shared between Algus and the other characters. Often this is just discussing some of the things you may have discovered, but some more personal stories are also told, and there’s also plenty of comic relief. Referential humor which was a staple of Castle in the Darkness is very rare in Astalon – it does exist, but generally the game keeps its more serious tone throughout. I usually say that a Metroidvania story really only needs to create enough of a mystery for the player to want to see what happens next, but Astalon goes above and beyond that. I legitimately found Algus relatable by the end of the game. I even found the game’s villain relatable by the end of the game. Ironically while Astalon pulls off doing a party of characters extremely well in a genre that’s usually about solitude, the story it tells is about the lonely plight of a wizard who’s made a raw deal that he’s too afraid to tell his friends about. It’s more of a twist on what Metroidvania games do best rather than an attempt to tell a completely different kind of story.
Taking familiar tropes and turning them into something new is Astalon: Tears of the Earth in a nutshell. It has a compelling narrative and a diverse cast of playable characters in a genre that doesn’t always do either of those things very well. Its level design is a masterwork, where the combination of powerful rewards and meticulously woven interconnectivity makes it difficult to put down. Any time you think you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, you discover some new gimmick just around the corner that recontextualizes the entire experience. It doesn’t deliver every possible thing that a Metroidvania can offer – particularly in regards to combat – but between the design of its world and the fact that its narrative is also so compelling, Astalon: Tears of the Earth really is one of the best recommendations I can offer.
Bosses have interesting powers and unique gimmicks, although leveling up can trivialize the challenge if you're not imposing a limit on yourself
There are constantly traps or breaking platforms that you have to keep track of, though the level of precision never quite hits the strides of more dedicated platforming games
If I could give this game a 5.5 or 6 for exploration I would. The level design is a masterpiece, with ingenious inter-connectivity and meaningful choices
Most of the game's thinking elements are wrapped up in the exploration aspect - there aren't a ton of actual spatial reasoning puzzles or riddles to solve. With that said, there are a few that serve the exploration nicely
There are some surprising nuances that give the motivations of the characters a nice amount of depth, moving Astalon beyond the usual video gamey excuse to go kill some monsters
The character animations are a bit simple, but the real star of the show - the backgrounds - are meticulously crafted to convey the sinister nature of the dungeon. Almost every screen is a pixel art painting
It's 8-bit style music done well, as in you'll be struggling to get the tunes out of your head once they've dug themselves into your brain
The only thing Astalon lacks is truly diverse character customization. Besides that it has multiple game modes, meaningful non-linearity in the main mode, and hundreds of ways you can route self-imposed challenges
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