Astalon: Tears of the Earth (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Athanasios 10.09.2021

Review for Astalon: Tears of the Earth on Nintendo Switch

The overuse of some terms has turned them into instant eye-rollers; terms like 'indie,' 'rogue-like,' 'retro,' 'walking sim,' and finally, this critic's favourite overused word (next to soulslikes): 'metroidvania!' Once a somewhat rare occurrence, it now seems that you can't avoid those type of games. Not a problem per se, as this is a sub-genre that, unlike RPGs/Adventures/Sims, seems to be almost devoid of shovelware. The sad part is that, due to an abundance of titles, it's easy for some of them to remain "in the shadows," like how it took several years before most people realised what a masterpiece Hollow Knight is. Long story short, do yourself a favour, and put the 8-bit flavoured gem known as Astalalon: Tears of the Earth on your wishlist. Now!

Many retro-inspired indies begin with a "It's the Year 21XX, and humanity blah, blah, blah" kind of premise. If you want to be polite, these mostly end up being lifeless attempts at paying homage to the past. If you want to be rude and/or honest, such an intro is as lazy as it was back in the '80s. Luckily, while Astalon: Tears of the Earth begins like so, the way the whole thing has been handled is actually pretty good, making eager to know this post-apocalyptic setting, were a team of survivors of a torn-apart Earth, have decided to enter the ancient tower that has appeared from the bowels of the planet, poisoning their village's water supply. The excellent, 8-bit audio-visuals of this introductory cut-scene manage to provide a feeling of ominousness, as if something truly bad is going on here.

Screenshot for Astalon: Tears of the Earth on Nintendo Switch

It's mysterious, it's immersive, it's great, and the same can be said for the rest of the experience. No, this isn't a plot-heavy kind of deal. The core aspects here are platforming and exploration. That being said, it's nice that this actually has a story, but without it ever taking the spotlight, and having you deal with boring dialogue sequence after dialogue sequence. Instead, everything will be slowly given to you, via some well-written, short but sweat cut-scenes, where the protagonist trio will engage in some quick palaver, with some neat flashbacks thrown in as well. While not the main course, the story supplements the action, with the tale at hand being one that's worth giving a darn or two about.

Who are these monstrous gorgons hidden underneath the veil of statues made from stone? Why did their tower come into being? And who is this Black Knight who kills you minutes after entering the tower? Oh, yeah. You'll die, and there's nothing you can do about it. Or is it? A demonic-looking creature, the Titan Epimetheus, is waiting at the "other side," and it seems than the magic-guy of the group has made a pact with this being: his soul, for the chance to finish his quest. In gameplay terms, this translates to the resurrection of the party whenever the health meter reaches zero. While in the realm of the dead, players can purchase upgrades with the use of the soul orbs they gather from slain foes.

Screenshot for Astalon: Tears of the Earth on Nintendo Switch

Upgrades range from simple stat increases, or abilities unique to each hero, to temporary helper boosts. You'll need every single of these, as Astalon is an unforgiving ordeal that won't show you any mercy - and don't expect to substantially raise your chances through grinding. Disaster will always remain a few steps away. Now, it's important to note that, while this world is full of traps, and all kinds of critters that don't just stand there or die in one hit, the difficulty at hand has more to do with the "survivalist" approach this has, as each time the party returns from the dead, besides getting to the next boss in line, the goal is mainly to last as long as possible, with a rare occasions where one can gain a few measly health points back, and with the health meter always being alarmingly small.

Screenshot for Astalon: Tears of the Earth on Nintendo Switch

This rogue-like mindset forces you to really be in the moment, and make sure to avoid getting too confident after upgrading the members of the party. While the constant backtracking can occasionally get annoying, at the same time it's very fascinating, because it feels extremely rewarding when you finally succeed, and unlock a new quick-travel elevator, a new item or key, or, even better, manage to slay a Gorgon. It can't be emphasised enough, though: lots of backtracking will be involved. This is probably the one aspect of Astalon that may severely mar the experience for some. Progress is slow, and death comes rapidly if not careful, sending you back to the very beginning.

Elevators, and well as shortcuts, can be unlocked, but you'll usually have to make a short trip to go back where you died last and resume the expedition… right before dying, and doing it all again. The only bit that slows down the pace in a truly annoying way, is how characters share one health bar, which generally feels unfair. Also note that this maze is also very big, with no directions whatsoever, apart from a slightly archaic map system that gives you a general idea of where to go, but doesn't handhold you in the least. In conclusion, it's a bit of a slow burn that has a strong Dark Souls (as well as OG Metroid) vibe, that some will appreciate and some simply won't.

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Note that you can only control one character at one time. Want to swap heroes? Then find one of the many campfires to do so - but you can forget about picking favourites. When it comes to combat you are - mostly - free to choose the one you want, but in terms of exploration you'll need to use every single one. Arias might be great defensively, yet he can't double-jump off of walls like Kyuli the agile archer, and then there are switches that need magic to activate, which means it's Algus the sorcerer's time to shine… and so on and forth. This system succeeds because it makes players constantly evaluate their strategies. The party is somewhat unbalanced, however, as some characters (mostly Kyuli) will be used a lot compared to others, as this is mostly a game of exploration, not combat.

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Exploration is where Astalon blows most if its competition out of the water. The maze is big, but the metroidvania genre has seen much bigger. No, the fun here is how this is a world filled with secrets; and secrets of all kind, starting with the simple, walk-through-the-weird-texture ones, to some that are a bit more cryptic, and require some puzzle solving. Generally, you can't spend 10 minutes here without discovering a couple of new things. Beyond all this talk about gameplay mechanics and whatnot, however, this is great in something that hundreds of indies seem to forget. Immersion. Yes, this looks like something that belongs in 1991 not 2021, but that doesn't matter in the slightest.

In other words, it's beautiful. Even those who didn't grew up in the '80s will adore this ancient-looking, dark network of dangerous corridors and caverns, and the numerous, menacing statues that decorate it. The use of colour and contrast is exceptional, painting some stunning pictures with what is basically a small palette. The sinister aura of Dark Souls meets, The Legend of Zelda's fairy-tale vibe, and all of that is sprinkled all over a Castlevania-esque setting, in a game that doesn't try to be retro, but is so… and yet it plays like something that came out today, and doesn't carry with it the issues of its forbearers. Long story short. Play it. Play it. Play it.

Screenshot for Astalon: Tears of the Earth on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

9/10
Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10

Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a very, very simple mix of metroidvania-like exploration, and rogue-lite challenge, but a simple mix that works wonders. You'll die a lot, but you'll keep on returning just to get a little further on the journey towards the top of this treacherous spire, and learn of its secrets, with your skill and perseverance being your main tools. Don't miss out on this modern-yet-retro indie gem. 'Conglaturation!!!' LABS Works!

Developer

LABS Works

Publisher

DANGEN Entertainment

Genre

Action Adventure

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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