Retro action platformers seem like they’re a dime a dozen – the Steam store is practically overflowing with pixel art games. A fair amount trickles down to the Xbox platform and it feels like I end up playing most of them. I get a heavy dose of nostalgia when playing pixel art games, and it can reach intoxicating levels when I encounter a game that implements a realistic retro style, where the game looks like it could have been released on the NES or SNES. Some of my favorite modern indie games have taken this approach, games like Shovel Knight, The Messenger, and CrossCode. I now need to add another game to that list: Astalon: Tears of the Earth – the latest title to release from pixel art game specialist Matt Kap and his team at LABSworks and publisher Dangen, who are starting to build a pretty solid catalog. LABSworks have put together a brilliantly paced 2D adventure with some Metroidvania elements, a unique gameplay loop, and tons of secrets and fun extra features. If you like retro action platformers, then just go buy the game. If you’re on the fence, keep on reading and I’ll do my best to explain why I enjoyed it so much.
The world that Astalon: Tears of the Earth takes place in is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Long ago the countries waged a catastrophic war over natural resources that left the planet in ruins. Not everyone perished in the fighting or the perilous aftermath, and the current civilization that remains hundreds of years later struggles to survive in the harsh climate. Recently strange structures from the past have been rising out of the desert sand. Our heroes’ village thinks that one large, looming tower, in particular, might be the reason their water supply is now contaminated, so the trio set off to investigate the tower. Once inside they realize they must traverse the tower and defeat the group of fearsome Gorgons that lurk inside in order to save their town.
There are multiple reasons why I like the gameplay in Astalon so much. The biggest reason might be the pacing. The tower is made up of hundreds of rooms, spread out across multiple sections, each with its own art style, color palette, and theme. Each room is the size of the screen and when you change rooms the camera quickly slides over to the new room, so there’s no waiting to get back into the action. Most of the rooms have multiple entrances and exits. As I played, it always felt like I had multiple exploration options, whether it was in my current room, or a path I passed in a different area. There are a total of 84 enemies to encounter in the tower, 68 of which are regular enemies that respawn every time you come back to a room. There’s also a ton of variety in the enemies; they range from traditional fantasy-type enemies like slimes, skeletons, and gargoyles to a few robotic ones, with plenty in between. Because of all this I rarely felt bored when retracing my steps. The monsters will always be there and I continued to find new secrets.
It seems like every few rooms you explore you’ll find some sort of reward, whether it’s a concentration of soul currency or an item to help you in your travels. The most common things you’ll find are keys and instant upgrade shards. The first time you enter many of the rooms, they’ll feel like little puzzles. Which enemy should I kill first? I need to raise that pillar. I wonder if I need to kill all the enemies, or if there is a hidden switch? There are also a few actual puzzles, like the ones where you have to get all the statues in a room to activate at the same time, or another where you have to destroy all the red-eyed gargoyle faces in a certain area, but as I said there are only a few puzzles like that – I would have liked to see them implement a couple more.
Each of the three heroes has his or her own strengths, in both combat and exploration. Arias, the slightly brash young knight, has a short-ranged melee sword attack that can be used to cut through blue veins blocking his path. Argus, the wise mage, has a short-ranged magic orb projectile that can travel through walls. There is a special type of switch that only he can unlock with his orb attack and sometimes they are behind walls. Kyuli the rogue looks more like a ranger, and has no roguish qualities; she’s more likely to give you a smile and a hug than try to pick your pocket. She is armed with a bow that can fire all the way across the screen if it doesn’t hit anything. She also has special boots that allow her to do a single wall jump to reach higher platforms.
Certain rooms/paths require the use of a particular character, but luckily you can switch characters at any campfire by pressing Y. The campfires also offer the option to save the game; additionally, at certain points in the game, they allow the characters to regroup, rest, and heal some of their wounds while a little cutscene plays. Some are just humorous conversations between the characters, while others give context to the story as the characters plan their next moves or reflect on a recent encounter. A lot of times it seemed like the developers designed sections that would use one character’s ability multiple times before needing a different character. You’ll usually enter a room with one character, make use of their ability a few times, and then unlock a shortcut which will allow you to progress through that section with any character.
Some of the items hidden in the tower grant each character additional abilities that could help with combat or exploration. The sword of mirrors extends the reach of Arias’s sword and allows him to deflect projectiles. The banish spell book enchants Argus’ attacks so he can destroy ghost enemies. Once you find the Griffon claws Kyuli is able to wall jump to her heart’s content, no longer limited to just one. Overall the exploration design and layout give the game a slight Metroidvania feel, only a few of the items actually expand your exploration options but it’s always exciting to find one and remember an area you can now access and go back there to explore.
Overall the combat is a little basic, like many other elements of the game it reminds me of something you might find in an NES game. When you hold down the attack button the characters will repeatedly attack. Arias and Argus’ starting attack speeds are faster than I expected, but Kyuli has a much slower bow and arrow shot. You can’t walk or change direction while you are holding down the attack button (with the exception of Kyuli, she can change direction), but you can jump, so the combat scenarios always involve me hopping around each room trying to hit the enemies while avoiding taking any damage.
Perhaps the most interesting mechanic in Astalon is the negative feedback loop associated with death. Every time you die you are taken to a mysterious area with an imposing creature named Epimetheus. Argus is familiar with this being and is able to use the soul orbs you’ve collected so far (most enemies drop some after you kill them) to buy various upgrades. These range from increasing each character’s attack or defense to making enemies more likely to drop green health orbs. There are a lot of options, and more are added as you play. You’ll need A LOT of souls to unlock everything. Once you are done Epimetheus sends you back to the tower entrance, which almost gives the game a roguelite feel, but unlike roguelites the tower layout stays the same and everything you’ve collected and explored remains how it was. In a way, this rewards you for dying hence the negative feedback loop, and I found myself purposefully killing my character a few times because I was nowhere near any of the elevator, and starting from the entrance would be quicker, plus I would be able to buy some upgrades. Another interesting idea the game encourages is a “suicide run” or purposefully taking damage to reach a new area. There’s one room that has a long rolling spike obstacle across most of the ground with a note right before it saying that maybe it would be worth taking some damage to get to the other side. The one aspect of the death loop that players will either love or hate is how you eventually end up becoming extremely powerful, to the point that the final few bosses are somewhat trivial. The game does feature an unlockable Boss Rush mode, but that goes in the opposite direction, making you severely underpowered.
I’ve mentioned the massive size of the tower so I’m sure some people are curious to know if it gets tedious running all over the tower, switching back and forth at campfires? All I’ll say is that the game changes up the mechanics of this about half way through to make things flow much more smoothly. One other aspect of the gameplay I’d like to mention are all the secrets and extra features. The developers have said they wanted to make a game that harkened back to the days where you would share tips with your friends at the playground at school. As I played there were a few times I wished I could have received some tips on the playground, but there are actually a few hints built into the game. I really wanted to complete the bestiary, but I had no idea where to find the last entry’s monster. Then I stumbled into a room that I vaguely remembered reading a hint about earlier in the game and that’s where I found the last monster. Let me know if you want me to tell you about it, maybe we could meet by the tire swing at lunch – or I suppose you could just comment below.
I mentioned before how I enjoy games that use the limited color palette restrictions of past generations. Astalon: Tears of the Earth looks like it could have been released at the end of the 8-Bit generation – the three heroes each have their own color and only use shades of that color, and for some reason, I really like that. Each area in the dungeon only uses a set amount of colors but the artists get so much done with the limited choices. Most of the backgrounds are exquisite, and the monster designs are all fantastic. As I looked through the bestiary I realized that they reused some of the designs but because the colors are different and the monsters have separate attacks I didn’t notice before that point.
The designers make use of a lot of screen effects (like shaking and flashes) to really make the action in the game stand out which if done correctly (like they are) always makes a game more interesting. There are also loads of menu options giving players the ability to turn all that stuff off. In addition, they have several graphic filters to change the appearance of the game, many of which add to the game’s retro aesthetic. One additional aspect of the art design that I really like is the little loading screen animations featuring different sprites from the game interacting with each other. There’s also a short anime-style video trailer for the game that always earns bonus points in my book; perhaps Dangen was behind it since their last Xbox release, Smelter, also had an anime-style video. If so I hope they continue doing it for all the games they publish. The only complaint I have about the graphics is the in-game map, it could use a lot more information. I think it might be the one instance where they should have considered straying away from the 8-bit art style and making it a little higher definition and adding more details. As you play you can get items that add information to it, but even with all those items, the map is hard to read, and just looks like a huge jumble of little squares.
If you’re a fan of retro chiptune soundtracks then you’ll love the audio design in Astalon. The soundtrack features 34 tracks and they’re top-notch. Matt Kap is also a musician so he strove to make the soundtrack stand out. Most of it sounds like a literal chiptune symphony which is funny because he is actually planning to release a higher fidelity version of the soundtrack with some tracks being fully orchestrated. The sound effects also add to the game’s nostalgia value, everything sounds like it’s coming straight out of an NES sound chip.
It took me roughly twenty hours to beat the campaign, find all the items, and discover the entire map. That will earn you roughly half the achievements. There are a few extra features in the game that will extend your playtime another five to ten hours and they’re a lot of fun, although I could tell the same massive amount of polish didn’t go into them that went into the main game. I’d like to talk about it more, but I enjoyed discovering all of that on my own so I’ll end it there.
Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a retro-fueled adventure that combines satisfying combat with extensive exploration to create an exquisitely crafted, nearly flawless experience. Matt Kap and his team at Labworks have studied the classics well while interweaving new ideas and mechanics into the formula. I look forward to what they do next – I have my fingers crossed for an Xbox release of Castle in the Darkness 2.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.