[Update: I go on at length about only one elevator being in the Ruins of Ash, but the game was patched on 6/5 to add another one, which greatly reduces my biggest problem with the game.]
While I love Metroid-likes, many of them are less than intrepid. It’s rare to come across one that actually attempts to do its own thing. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but the best games in the subgenre are trailblazers. Astalon: Tears of the Earth may have 8-bit graphics, but don’t let that fool you. The tower in which it’s set is so dense with secrets and so endlessly clever, that I was still finding myself surprised after beating it. It has some issues with the signposting of its side content, and one section of the game is nearly ruined by pointless artificial difficulty, but this is one of the most engrossing games I’ve played in recent memory. Also, I’m going to bitch my head off about that artificial difficulty section later, so be ready.
Astalon focuses on the journey of a trio seeking to rid their home of poisoned waters. A nearby tower is polluting their water source, so they head out to put a stop to it. Unfortunately, the tower is crawling with monsters and protected by a black knight that’s happy to cut down any foes that step into his line of sight. Our initial three heroes are based on classes. The main character is Algus, the mage that uses spells to fight at mid-range. Then there’s Arias, the short-range knight that uses a sword. Finally, there’s Kyuli, a ranger that can climb walls.
But, there’s a catch. Prior to the events of Astalon, Algus has sold his soul to Epithemius. As such, he cannot die until the demon decides to take what is his. Therefore, whenever our heroes die, they’re whisked back to the start of the tower, with only Algus retaining his memories. However, this is not a rogue-lite of any sort. You don’t lose all the items and currency you’ve obtained upon death. The only thing you lose is progress. For the vast majority of the game, this isn’t much of an impediment, save for the aforementioned section. Don’t worry, my bitchfest is coming.
Choose carefully, at first
Initially, Astalon forces you to pick which of the three characters you want to use at campfires that double as save points. You’ll need to use specific characters to progress. Algus can activate specific switches, only Arias can cut away overgrowth, and you’ll need Kyuli to reach taller ledges. There are actually two more characters in the game, but you might not even find them before seeing the credits. They have additional abilities that you’ll need to fully investigate the tower.
Later on, you’ll find a relic that lets you swap between members on the fly, which you’ll need to use increasingly as areas will require abilities to be used in tandem. There’s also relics that increase the effectiveness of each character, whether it be pure combat or granting them the skills to interact with different objects. The problem is that it’s easy to get yourself into a position where you can’t find characters or abilities until much later. Astalon locks doors with keys and there are many doors for them to open. If you use a key on one door, you might not find one for a while. For new players, finding characters and relics will come down to the luck of choosing the right doors to open at the right times.
I didn’t even find the second new character until I had nearly finished exploring the entire map. It didn’t help that he was locked behind a door that required me to have an ability that was rather difficult to suss out. Knowing what I know now, though, has made it clear that I should have been able to track that ability down much earlier than I did. Such is the nature of Astalon, though. Its secrets are many, and its hints are willfully obtuse.
Break my rusty cage
Yes, you must return to the starting hallway with each death, but there are other ways around. You’ll create shortcuts in Astalon at a nearly constant rate. There are also elevators to find that instantly take you to new locations, plus a few warps that take you to other specific warps. For most of the game, you have to do a bit of backtracking to get back to where you were, but it’s not typically a big deal. Even then, the controls are responsive and the combat is quite enjoyable as well. Characters also become vastly more useful in combat as you get new abilities and purchase upgrades.
The basic structure of Astalon is that there are three Gorgon bosses with gems in their heads that must be defeated. Once you beat all three, you can use the gems to activate an elevator located in The Apex at the top of the tower. Getting to the first two Gorgons is no big deal. That said, the second fight is needlessly tedious, as its second phase can only be hit rarely, which makes it take forever to kill. Getting to the third Gorgon, however, is the worst part of the game.
Prior to entering that section, Astalon‘s general progression felt great to me. I was wary of dying, but the game isn’t mechanically demanding. Neither the platforming nor the combat are hard. The difficulty almost exclusively comes from the fact that enemy damage can be on the high side, plus the game’s death penalty. But this section throws the game’s difficulty curve out the window for no good reason other than to waste the player’s time and hammer away at their patience.
The actual ruination
It’s called the Ruins of Ash, and it’s not that much harder than the rest of the game from a gameplay standpoint. But the area is long and the elevator is located all the way at the beginning of the section. If you die at any point, you have to start the long climb over from the beginning. It feels like it goes on forever. It was such an unnecessary nightmare that, even though I love this game, I might have quit playing it had I not been reviewing it.
It’s not even that it’s hard. I was bored going through the lower sections over and over and over again, just to make a mistake and start over. It’s pure artificial difficulty and feels like it’s only in the game to pad out the length. Astalon is a great game, but only having just one elevator at the very start of this section was a terrible terrible decision. Terrible. Terrible.
To add insult to grievous injury, however, after you fight your way through all of the above, you then have to fight the third Gorgon. It isn’t difficult at all. But guess what? If you die, you go all the way back to the start. It’s needless, and some of the purest artificial difficulty I’ve seen in some time. You can fight the final boss after, and even though it’s multiple phases, it’s not bad at all. Especially after going through the Ruins of Ash. Yes, I’m still super mad about it. I’ll probably die mad about it. It made me so salty that I can eat fries plain for the rest of my life.
If you want to see Astalon‘s true ending, you’ll need to either get 100% map completion or complete a specific sidequest. Getting the good ending unlocks one of those Castlevania-type modes where you can play the game with a stronger character. They hit hard and start with all of their abilities, but if they die, they go back to the last save point. It’s not all sunshine, roses, and Ruins of Ash. The extreme anger of the last few paragraphs notwithstanding, this is a great game. The level design and gameplay are wonderful and it has some of the most rewarding exploration you can find anywhere. I probably won’t play it again unless they add an elevator or two to the Ruins of Ash, though. Ridiculous.