There’s much hype surrounding the release of Astalon: Tears of the Earth on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch and PC, with players across the globe holding out for the chance to get hands-on with the long-awaited 2D action platformer. We put ourselves in that camp, so when the opportunity arose to spend time with the team at LABS Works in order to find out more about the game, we jumped at the chance.
Hi, could you please introduce yourself. What is your role at LABS Works and on the creation of Astalon: Tears of the Earth?
Hello! My name is Matt Kap, and I’m the final boss of LABS Works, as well as the game designer, lead artist, and composer of “Astalon: Tears of the Earth”! Nice to meet you :)!
Congratulations on the upcoming launch of Astalon: Tears of the Earth. Can you give us a brief development history behind the game, and also share the process of finding the right publisher?
Thank you! So basically, some time after my previous game (Castle In The Darkness) was released in 2015, I wanted to make something new and more original. I thought of a universe that was kind of a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting, where the kingdoms of the past were destroyed and buried under a nuclear desert. I’m bad with dates, but I think I probably started prototyping Astalon at the end of 2016. But it didn’t fly, so I restarted it. And that didn’t fly either, so I restarted it again. Then THAT got roadblocked, so with the help of a programmer, Jon LePage, on the 4th iteration of the game, I was finally able to complete my work!
Finding the right publisher was a bit tough – we were in touch with a small handful of publishers at first. There is a lot to talk about, especially when you want your game to be ported and localized to as many platforms as is viable, so we just looked for the best accommodation for what we were trying to do, and ended up in the nest of Dangen Entertainment. I had met Nayan from Dangen once in Osaka, and him and the rest of the team were very interested in all the things that LABS was working on, so it was pretty natural to strike a deal with them!
Can you tell us a little bit about your previous work in the video game industry before creating Astalon: Tears of the Earth?
I’ve been working on games for myself as a hobby ever since I was a kid. I think I made my first game when I was in Grade 7, and I tried to sell copies of it on a floppy disk to my friends at school. It was really bad, haha. But I guess I got good enough at it over the years, and eventually ended up showing off Castle In The Darkness on Twitter. That lead to me working as a pixel artist on games like “The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth“, “The End is Nigh”, and “Panzer Paladin”, and several more. I don’t really freelance anymore since the start of LABS Works, there are a lot of games that I want to make with a small, trusted team, and not enough time to do it :P.
The key artwork looks amazing. How did the involvement of Ryusuke Mita come about?
Ryusuke is one of my favorite artists, and one of the main reasons I started to take drawing seriously in the first place! Several years ago, I got in touch with him just to see if on the off-chance he was available to help out, and thankfully, he was! Astalon was in the middle of it’s 2nd prototype then, and he had worked on the 3 main characters, even that early in Astalon’s lifetime! Since then we’ve met a few times, and I’m hoping to keep collaborating with him. He really is a cool guy. His 2nd big comic series “Darkhair Captured” is one of my favorites. His art style really became refined in that era, but it’s really hard to find and unfortunately, never was translated into English…
When you first conceptualised Astalon: Tears of the Earth as a video game, how much of the original vision and concept was retained in the final game that will be launching soon?
With each iteration and restart, more stuff was introduced that brought the game closer to it’s current form! The first prototype had room-by-room exploration, and that stuck all the way through. At first there was only one playable character. Starting from the 2nd prototype, 3 characters were introduced. The third prototype was basically the same game as what you see now, but being made in a different development language/software. Maybe sometime after launch I’ll do an article where I show all the prototypes, that could be interesting to some people I think.
For readers who are curious about Astalon: Tears of the Earth, what’s the best way to describe its fusion of different gameplay styles?
First off, it is NOT a rogue-like or rogue-lite :). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we focused on a more hand-designed style of game. It is an explorative adventure game, influenced by all the well-known greats (as well as not well-known greats), but it really doesn’t feel much like any of its inspirations. Also, Jon says it best when he says that the exploration in Astalon is very chill. Despite the high-energy music and the fact that you have to fight lots of different monsters and that there are traps at every corner, it really is kind of relaxing to explore the tower and find shortcuts/items/secrets. It feels new.
The game takes a lot of inspiration from the NES era of gaming, tell us about some of your favourite games from that time, and which of these directly influenced Astalon: Tears of the Earth whether in gameplay or visual design?
The main ones (Castlevania, Megaman, Zelda) have really influenced my whole video game development career, but Astalon is more directly influenced by lesser-known gems! Stuff like “Faxanadu” was a huge influence, as being a super-early Metroidvania style game. “Lickle” (“Little Samson” in the US) really kicked up the NES’ graphical potential to maybe the highest point seen in a platformer! I made the animations in Astalon as fluid as I could because I wanted to make graphics similar to Lickle. Strangely enough, I didn’t really play many of the room-by-room games like “Legacy of the Wizard” or “Tower of Druaga”, but maybe I saw some video or something at some point that inspired that concept within Astalon!
Could you tell us a little about the three main characters. How challenging was it to create the right mix of play styles between the three and then make it all fit in the game design?
It wasn’t very hard, to be honest. The physics of the characters are all the same at the start, and they only have minor differences that allow them to pass certain obstacles. Arias, the fighter, has a short range and SUPER fast attack, higher defense, and can cut through veins. Algus, the wizard, can shoot mid-range magic through walls, and can activate crystal switches. Kyuli, the rogue, has a slow but super long range arrow shot attack, and can wall jump once to get to higher platforms. Throughout the game, all the characters gain skills that make them more diverse, but the differences at the beginning are just the attributes listed above, and a different set of sprites :). Balance was the key though, we want players to mainly use whatever character they feel like using. If one of them felt flimsy when compared to the others, we would improve them. And we would do the opposite if a character felt too overpowered. I imagine for some fighting games with 50+ characters, balancing would be a monumental task, but for 3 characters, it wasn’t too difficult.
Although Astalon: Tears of the Earth has NES-inspired aesthetics, the animation and detail are clearly high quality. How challenging is it to make a retro style aesthetic look appealing to the modern gamer?
The more charming and “alive” you can make pixels look, the more appeal the aesthetics will have to a wider audience. I wouldn’t call it challenging, it’s just something that I like doing. Also, it’s something I’m getting better and better at, and naturally, the appeal factor goes up. I already feel that my next NES-styled game will be leaps and bounds better than Astalon in terms of visuals, even in the same limitations. I guess it just comes down to always striving to do better.
On the other hand, there are people who just see all pixel art as “baby games”, and I don’t think I’ll ever sway their opinions about retro-style art, despite my best efforts to make it as beautiful-looking as possible :P. But I’m not making games for them, so it doesn’t matter to me.
As a game developer and designer, who were your biggest influences and what games forged your preference in video games?
I am influenced by anyone who has a limitless motivation to do something they love and build a career around that, and never stop until they have made it! Japanese retro game development studios like Falcom that started basically as an indie team, selling copies of their games on floppy disks (just like I did as a kid) are now basically AAA studios. That is really inspiring, and it’s those kinds of footsteps that I want to follow. I want to build up a budget to do more ambitious things with LABS Works!
I’ve already talked about my retro preferences in previous responses, but these days, games like “Nier: Automata“, and “Cuphead“, and “The End is Nigh” are ones that stand out and really inspire me. I like seeing games take more and more risks in design. If the Astalon series continues, I really want to reach out and do some wacky things in subsequent stories!
And finally, is there anything else that you feel our readers need to take away from Astalon: Tears of the Earth?
Not really, I’m just really excited to finally share our last 5 years of work with the world! Let us know what you think, and we hope that you like it, or that you like something about it!
Huge thanks go out to Matt at LABS Works for giving us some of his time and allowing for further analysis of Astalon: Tears of the Earth. You’ll find the game releasing on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC come June 3rd 2021. It’ll cost you just £16.74 from the Xbox Store.
Keep an eye out for our full review of the game on Xbox soon. Or check out some of the gameplay in the trailer below.