Death is the Beginning
Astalon: Tears of the Earth has a familiar premise: in the year 21XX, humanity tears itself apart and takes the planet with it. What’s left of humanity is forced to inhabit radioactive deserts. Relics of the old world begin to emerge from the deserts a few years later, and our plucky band of heroes set off to investigate the Tower of Serpents upstream that appears to be poisoning their town’s water supply.
While the premise isn’t exactly original (I’m pretty sure humanity has destroyed itself about a billion times by this point due to selfishness and hubris) and it’s also yet another Metroidvania (look, there are a lot, OK?), Astalon quickly discards those genre conventions. This is because, after the game’s tutorial, your party of three fights the Black Knight, and they die. It’s violent, shocking, and just the beginning of Astalon’s genre-bucking adventure.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s take a closer look at our young intrepid adventurers who were just brutally murdered. Arias, the sword-wielding fighter, excels at defense and close combat. Kyuli, the arrow-shooting rogue, attacks from a distance and can double jump off of walls. Algus, the magic-wielding wizard, launches bolts from his staff that travel a short distance and penetrate solid objects. Algus also has a dark secret: he’s made a pact with the Titan Epimetheus. In exchange for his soul, Epimetheus will resurrect Algus (and his friends) until he completes his mission.
The Journey Begins (Again)
After resurrection, the party sets off again, with only Algus the wiser. At this point, the game takes the training wheels off and sets you on your way. You’ll fight aggressive enemies, dodge environmental hazards, fight a boss (if you’re lucky), and go as far as you possibly can until…you die again.
Fortunately, much like the beginning, death is never the end. When you die, you’ll meet Epimetheus again who will chastise you for not completing your mission. He does want your tasty, succulent soul, after all. On the plus side, he does sell you upgrades. Enemies and destructible objects drop soul orbs that you can spend. You can update each character’s strength, defense, and attack speed. Each character also has three unique skills. There are also plenty of items to purchase such as map upgrades, life upgrades, and the ability to vacuum up orbs, among many, many others. You can even buy scenes from a certain character’s childhood that provides some insight into his broken, tortured psyche.
After you die, you return to the tower’s entrance so that you can continue your journey. Campfires strewn throughout the tower provide a brief respite from the tower’s treachery; however, they’re mostly for saving your game and switching characters. You can rest here at predetermined narrative moments. You’re treated to a brief scene with the party, and you’ll heal a bit, but these moments are few and far between.
Healing is a Sign of Weakness
Part of Astalon’s difficulty stems from a specific design choice: healing is a nearly impossible task. Breakable candlesticks offer up a few HPs, but they don’t regenerate. Enemies rarely, if ever, drop any health. You’re given full life upon revival, but after that point, you are completely responsible for your wellbeing. There are discoverable items that slightly lessen this sting, but it’s not comparable to the way a save point heals you in Metroid, Castlevania, or any other adventure game.
Success is no longer assured because this injection of Souls-like gameplay shifts the gameplay dynamic. In any of the games that inspired Astalon, you can return to a save point to heal, purchase healing items, or maybe cast a healing spell. None of that is applicable here. This effectively turns each venture into the tower into a run, the sort of parlance used by a Slay the Spire player.
Better Luck Next Time
Unsurprisingly, Astalon is hard. It still has Metroidvania designs: there are invisible walls, locked doors, seemingly impossible jumps and barriers…everything you might expect and more. Again, that dynamic shift mixes it up. In other games, if I screw up and take too much damage by falling in a pit of spikes, for example, I can just go back, heal, and try again. In Astalon, I just have to keep going and hope I manage to unlock an elevator before I ultimately kick the bucket again.
Elevators become a driving impetus and the key to your success. The first elevator is located near the tower’s opening, so if you managed to unlock any others, you can fast travel. That’s all fine and dandy, except that there aren’t that many of them. There are huge sections of the tower that aren’t anywhere near one. No matter what you do, you’re going to have to backtrack.
Astalon’s early hours are especially difficult. Your capabilities are limited. Enemies take a ton of hits and can easily kill you if they surround you. They also respawn whenever you enter a room. There’s no direction whatsoever, and the environment is just as likely to kill you as the enemies. Epimetheus’s upgrades are expensive, and some of the most useful equipment items are outright hidden or located in the tower’s most treacherous areas. It can be a truly painful experience. Exploration is as necessary as it is dangerous.
Victory is within Reach
And yet it’s compelling because it’s so rewarding when you succeed. This is especially true of the tower’s gorgons. They might be inspired by Greek mythology, but even Perseus would have been horrified by them. These hulking, disgusting monstrosities are fast, unpredictable, and overwhelming. Let’s not forget violent either. They’ve got an axe to grind against mankind, and you are an unwelcome presence. Of course, they’re just as likely to eat you as they are to eviscerate, smash, and/or burn you to death.
It never gets any easier either. Despite all the stat upgrades, abilities, equipment, elevators, and other advantages you earn, it’s still hard as hell. Disaster is always just a step away. You might also find that confidence is your Achilles’ heel. Your complete attention is required at all times due to the sheer number of adversaries and obstacles. The scales finally tip in your favor a little—a little—if you explore every single nook and cranny. A late-game item can ease the pain of death, but you have to work for it.
Part of Astalon’s difficulty is also attributable to your party’s abilities. You can only switch at campfires (well…), and, predictably, you can’t beat the game with just one character. I used Arias for general exploring due to his offensive and defensive capabilities, but only Kyuli can double jump. There are also specific switches that only Algus can trigger. Character swapping is essential, but that also means the necessary character might be a poor match for the enemies in that area. The risk/reward dynamic is always in play.
Haven’t I Been Here Before?
I enjoyed Astalon’s variation on the played out Metroidvania theme; however, there are a few side effects. I expect backtracking in a title such as this. It’s inherent to the genre. Due to how the game handles death, though, you can just about double the amount of backtracking. The low number and restrictive placement of elevators doesn’t help that matter either. There’s an especially long trek near the tower’s apex that’s especially brutal. There’s no elevator in this area, and even the shortcuts don’t manage to significantly shorten it. Areas are packed full of aggressive enemies, some of which can fly and will pursue you, and there’s no shortage of environmental hazards. This area even ends in a boss fight. If you took substantial damage on the way up, you’re pretty much guaranteed to do it again to ensure you can survive that fight.
The character-switching dynamic succeeds because it constantly makes you reevaluate your strategies. The issue here is the double jump. It’s an essential move and only one character can do it. This means, even for basic exploration, you’ll have to backtrack to switch to Kyuli. You’re constantly switching characters just to jump, and it quickly becomes a hassle. Depending on how you play the game, a certain item makes campfires obsolete, but you still have to cycle through characters just to pull off a basic move. It felt like an unnecessary complication.
A key part of the Astalon experience is finding and hitting switches to unlock pathways. There’s never any mystery as to where these switches are or how to activate them. It’s just a matter of finding the correct path to reach them. This one-note process could have benefitted from a little complexity. There are a few actual puzzles in which you have to light all the torches in a room, but these are few and far between.
Astalon’s narrative is solid enough, but I wanted more. The dialogue is well written and frequently humorous (wait until you hear about Algus and his, ahem, “cook hole”). You learn tidbits here and there about the characters, Epimetheus, and the gorgon’s motivations, but there are unanswered questions when the adventure concludes. I suppose a potential prequel or sequel might address that. This is episode two of the adventure, after all.
Grotesque Guardian Gorgons
Astalon’s design is 8-bit, and it looks and feels the part. It wouldn’t feel out of place beside other classics in its cohort. Each area is unique in the game but not extraordinary. You’ve got the catacombs, a clocktower-esque area, a cathedral…and plenty of areas that just look…like part of a castle. That said, the layered environments are packed full of little details. Not that you’ll have much time to look anyway.
The gorgons look like they were inspired by H.R. Giger. There are plenty of (hopefully) dead ones throughout the tower, and they’re as grotesque as the living ones. Some of the normal enemies are equally disturbing, and the fleshy ones would fit in well in Silent Hill. There are more than enough normal enemies, but I could have used a few more mid-bosses. Same goes for the gorgons themselves. It’s a testament to the design’s quality that I actually want more bosses.
A lively and engaging soundtrack accompanies you every step of the way. A few songs are a little too short and loop too often, but for the most part, the soundtrack is a welcome companion. The compositions remind me of an 8-bit interpretation of punk rock. The soundtrack is worth a listen even when you aren’t playing. All the attack sounds (player and enemy) are equally punchy, and the gorgons’ roars are particularly impressive.
Perseverance Rewards Victory
A blistering, brutal battle from start to finish, Astalon: Tears of the Earth is not for the fainthearted. It rewards talent and curiosity as frequently as it punishes inability and complacency. It will test your patience, abilities, and resolve, but the journey through the Tower of Serpents is so worth it.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.