3D runners, or games with 3D runner segments in them, have been around for a while now. The concept itself is incredibly straightforward. The genre is about running forward in a three-dimensional environment. I mean, the name pretty much sums it all up. Despite the genre’s simplicity however, there’s still plenty that you can do to add some spice to a 3D runner. Level gimmicks, power-ups, characters with different abilities… there are plenty directions you can go in. And, so long as you implement these features well, they can really enhance the quality of the game. I’ve seen quite a few examples of this myself. Unfortunately, Astral Traveler isn’t one of them.
Sure, its premise is cool enough — who doesn’t like high-speed space travel? Unfortunately, a cool concept (and nice aesthetics) alone can’t make up for gameplay that is at best fine, and at worst downright frustrating. I really think that that’s the issue that this game runs into. No, it doesn’t do anything shockingly bad or wrong. But everything it does do is so by-the-book that it results in a mostly forgettable experience.
According to the description on Steam, Astral Traveler is about you — a pilot — speeding through the galaxy in hopes of making it to the closest warp gate before your astral core completely fades away, thus leaving you stranded. And dead, probably. Now, I know what some of you must be thinking. “Why are you reading off information about a game that you’ve played from Steam instead of the game itself?” Well, because none of that’s in the actual game. While I don’t think that a game like this needs a definitive story, I do find it a bit strange that Astral Traveler requires you to look outside of itself to catch a glimpse of what’s going on.
Not surprisingly, nothing else is spelled out either. You’re never given any information on what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. Where am I? Why are these enemy ships trying to kill me? What even is an astral core? None of this information is provided. Yes, I know that it’s supplementary information. Like I said, a game like this doesn’t need some kind of epic story. Still, it would have been nice if I had even been given so much as a text crawl in the beginning of the game informing me on my current situation. Creating a story and then pasting it somewhere outside of the game itself just feels off.
As you’ve most likely figured out, the goal of Astral Traveler is to zip-zoom through each level before your astral core (denoted in the upper right-hand corner of the screen) completely runs out of fuel. The game’s controls aren’t hard to get down, and pretty responsive overall. Along with basic movement and acceleration, players are also able to jump, shoot, and phase. Those first two things should be obvious enough, but let’s focus on the phasing — the game’s signature mechanic — for a minute. Within each level are floating blue spheres known as pulsars. On their own, pulsars don’t do anything. If you press the phase button when ear a pulsar, however, you’ll gain a burst of speed. It’s a simple enough concept, but the timing is surprisingly difficult to get down. Alternatively, you can shoot pulsars for fuel. It’s up to you to decide what to do with them.
Phasing gets more complicated later on. Eventually, you’ll start to run into walls which you must phase through to proceed. Although these are actual hazards, the phase-able walls work the same as pulsars. With a little bit of practice, you won’t have much trouble with them. Where things really become frustrating, however, is when the beetles start showing up (which is actually before the phase-able walls). Beetles are enemy ships that hover in place, and shoot at you. Unlike regular enemies, you can’t shoot them down. In order to get rid of them, you have to successfully phase through one of their attacks… which somehow kills them. Given the fact that they show up during many of the more challenging levels, taking down beetles becomes a real chore. And even when you do manage to kill one, another one usually spawns shortly afterward.
Astral Traveler‘s mechanics would probably be easier to master with a proper tutorial. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. You either have to learn things yourself or, if the game allows it, learn a few things here and there from random pop-ups. Sometimes, information is also displayed at the bottom of the level select page. This happens so infrequently however, that it’s easy to gloss over the text (which is usually filler) that is there. It’s very possible that you won’t learn everything until later on in the game, and that isn’t good. Truthfully, I didn’t know that pulsars could be used for speed bursts at first. Nor was I initially aware that you could kill beetles. I ended up randomly figuring those things out on my own. Lack of clearly viewable, precise information, especially in games like this where accuracy and precision are key, are very detrimental to the player.
Coupled with with Astral Traveler‘s somewhat frustrating phasing gimmicks is its even more frustrating level progression. Initially, I actually enjoyed how things were set up. The first few worlds provided a challenge with a decent learning curve, featuring levels with an almost F-Zero-like vibe. It made it easy to get a feel for how the game played. Unfortunately, that pacing didn’t last for long.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Astral Traveler ramps up the difficulty in the third world. Soon enough you’re met with a handful of overwhelming gimmicks. Ice that unfairly botches controls. Lava that very quickly drains your fuel. Slime that makes jumping impossible. It all adds up to a frustrating experience. True, none of these things are particularly novel or new. I’ve dealt with gimmicks like this before, and I’m sure that I’ll deal with them in the future. The issue here is with pacing. Things start to become so difficult so quickly that the first few worlds feel like a joke.
Difficulty is a funny thing when it comes to video games. It’s incredibly fickle, and varies from game to game. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” level of difficulty; it’s all subjective. That being said, there are such things as balance and fairness when it comes to game difficulty. And it’s these two things that Astral Traveler seems to lack, if only somewhat. Generally, I love hard games. Challenges are usually satisfying for me to overcome. I never encountered that satisfaction with Astral Traveler‘s levels, though. Nor did I ever find myself wanting to go back to beat my old times (which is very uncommon for me). I just wanted to get each level over with.
It’s unfortunate to have to say this but, in a world already filled with 3D runners, Astral Traveler won’t be making any waves. While its premise is neat enough, it runs into several major issues — such as frustrating spikes in difficulty and general lack of clarity — which ultimately adds up to a very middling experience. With that being said, it’s not all bad. Fans of traditional 3D runners, especially those who like high levels of difficulty, might want to check this out — especially considering how cheap it is. And there’s some definite potential for improvement, should an Astral Traveler 2 ever come out. But that aside, Astral Traveler is one runner that more than likely won’t get too much distance.
FINAL VERDICT: 2.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Dragon Slumber ; Developer: Dragon Slumber, Brainoid ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 13, 2017 ; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $5.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Astral Traveler given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher