There are many retro NES-styled games all over the Xbox storefront, and while most of these games are generally good, for the most part they are largely derivative of the sources they draw inspiration from. It’s not often when an indie developer uses gameplay and presentation conventions from yesteryear to create something that not only feels unique, but also modern at the same time. Astalon: Tears of the Earth lands on Xbox during a very busy release cycle where there is no shortage of games; indie or otherwise. And yet this may just be one of the sleeper indie hits of 2021.
Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a throwback and love letter to NES era gaming, back when 8-bit classics like Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and more created the foundations of gaming we know today. Astalon takes bits and pieces of these iconic games, whether it is in the graphical style, the sprite design, character art, or of course the various gameplay systems and hooks. It may borrow a lot of ideas but, ultimately, they all come together like no other game has tried to before, and that’s where Astalon succeeds in standing out from the many, many 8-bit-style games on Xbox.
The game takes place in a dying post-apocalyptic land where humanity is hanging by a thread, and three heroes embark on a dangerous quest to help find a way to rid their village’s poisonous drinking water, and other hellish problems. This brings them to a mysterious tower where there is far more than meets the eye. Within the opening moments all three heroes are immediately killed by a dimension warping dark knight, and yet their death is where the story really begins, as it turns out one of the heroes has made a deal with a demonic entity called Epimetheus, which allows them to come back to life again and again until they have conquered said tower.
In Astalon: Tears of the Earth players take control of three heroes: Arias, the typical well-rounded knight armed with a sword, Kyuli who, as a rogue, has a long-range bow attack has a more agile jump, and finally Algus the wizard who can cast spells, and also so happens to be the one who made the aforementioned deadly deal with Epimetheus. All three characters are versatile and adaptable to most situations, and yet their unique abilities lend nicely to the level design of the game as players need to figure out how to reach new areas and solve environmental puzzles in the process.
Although Astalon has a world structure similar to a Metroidvania-style game, the experience feels more akin to Castlevania III on NES, in particular the emphasis on having multiple playable characters to traverse some tight and challenging platforming segments, while also battling a range of really tough monsters. Unlike a typical Metroidvania, there is no wasted space or area here as every section feels like a tightly designed level from the NES era of gaming.
The game is tough, especially when all three characters share the same health bar and players can only switch between them at bonfire sites which also serve as sporadic save points. Players can expect to die a lot, but thanks to Algus’ deal with the devil, death simply means a quick trip to the underworld. More than that though, it is also an opportunity to use the various collectible orbs as currency for upgrades, where most upgrades are shared between the three characters with some upgrades and abilities being unique to each of the three. This is an interesting design choice and ensures that dying and retrying feels less of a setback given that you can spend them making the characters stronger and versatile.
The thing about Astalon: Tears of the Earth is that as challenging its systems may be, every bit of it is intentional and comes together cohesively as part of the rules of the game. Certainly, it would have been cool to swap between characters on the fly rather than only at save points, and yet the idea of choosing the right character to uncover a new area is part of the rewarding puzzle challenge. While you will die and die again, each death is also an opportunity to get better at the game, both through experience and authentic upgrades.
It’s helped that it all feels like a mix of the original NES Metroid and Castlevania III, coming together in a thoughtfully designed game world where there is no shortage of clever level design, tough foes, epic pattern-based boss encounters, and plenty of things to discover. Game progression is largely built around collecting various coloured keys to access different areas, and is certainly a throwback to the gaming conventions of yesteryear. Finding the right key and then backtracking to a specific door is a rewarding exercise, but thankfully there are maps to guide the player. There are a lot of moving parts to the gameplay and game design, but everything comes together cohesively, demonstrating a lot of deliberate thought and foresight in how everything was put together and structured.
Although made to resemble a classic NES game, Astalon: Tears of the Earth looks anything but dated, as the various character sprites animate with great fluidity, especially the running animation of Kyuli. The key artwork is brilliant too, coming from famed manga illustrator Ryusuke Mita. The music is a standard chiptune music affair, but what really shines through ultimately are the detailed sprite animations, especially during cut-scenes. Although the game isn’t narrative-focused, it does manage to effectively convey emotion and depth at opportune moments, such as during campfire conversations between the heroes at certain points.
Astalon: Tears of the Earth is one of those rare cases where several influences and moving parts come together to create an experience which feels unique as a whole. Every nook and cranny of the gameplay and level design feels thought-out and deliberate, and as a whole the journey is both memorable and challenging, with a gameplay hook that makes it hard to put it down. With so many indie games available, this is one special NES era homage you don’t want to sleep on.
Astalon: Tears of the Earth can now be played on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One via the Xbox Store