by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
A Simple Game
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Astral is an incredibly polite game. Borrowing heavily from the likes of Inside and Limbo, the game tells the story of a boy that wakes up in a laboratory, finds a device that lets him body-hop into the monsters that have overrun the world, and must use it to save the planet. If that sounds interesting, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is that the premise and mechanic are cool ideas. The bad is that they sound much more interesting than they ever actually become in the game.
A side-scrolling platformer, Astral’s gameplay is simple. Platforming is partnered with some puzzle solving by use of the mind-control device. The game really struggles with basic quality of life elements and it ends up making it much more frustrating than it needs to be. For one, pacing in each level is odd and oftentimes feels unfair. There are awkwardly long stretches of map where all you need to do is move sideways. Not incredibly long, but it wasn’t uncommon to just move sideways through 10-15 seconds of nothing. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but in a game like this it is, and when dying means respawning before a little hike the time really adds up. Additionally, monsters have a tendency to appear on-screen without enough time for you to reasonably react, meaning that trial and error plays a large role in the game. That’s not inherently bad, but it’s done too often and does little but kill the flow of gameplay.
Problems and Inconsistencies
Speaking of quality of life elements, the game command prompts are frustrating. While you can view the key bindings in the main menu, you can’t access them in-game. At the beginning of the game, as it’s teaching you how to play, all commands say things like “push the action button,” “or press the device button.” Without the ability to see what those are without going to the main menu, though, the system is flawed. Either put the key-bindings in the pause menu or, better yet, write the directions with actual keys instead of key labels. Also, hitting the main menu button doesn’t throw up a “Your Progress will be Lost” indicator, but it does indeed bring you back and removes your progress, so make sure you don’t misclick.
I found the difficulty of Astral to be oddly inconsistent. Some of the puzzles are almost insultingly simple. Others, involving monsters, are incredibly frustrating and took me far too long to eventually luck my way into figuring out. What it boils down to is I very rarely felt satisfied during play. While there’s potential in the premise, things are too often too hard, easy or dull to see that potential through. It’s also odd that failure sometimes puts you in situations you can’t advance from. Instead of reloading at the last checkpoint on failure in these instances, you must manually reload. Why? There were a few times where I was at a dead end and spend time backtracking and looking around to see what I’d missed, only to reload and find out I’d just killed something I wasn’t supposed to.
There isn’t much to report on the presentation front either. The game is certainly not much to look at. A lot can be done with simple graphics, but the graphics here are largely uninspired. Animations are odd, both stiff and unnatural. The movement of the monsters is particularly rough, looking more like someone limping to the restroom than an intimidating creature. My girlfriend stepped in while I was playing and laughed when she saw a monster run and that’s not a good thing in a title aiming for horror. The music is generally nice but unmemorable. The snippets of story are basic and written in poor English.
This isn’t the most exciting article I’ve written, and it lacks the verbal flair that I normally try to throw into my reviews. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems fitting given the subject matter. Astral isn’t the worst game I’ve played, but it’s a game in which virtually everything that it aims to do is done better elsewhere. Even if you’re looking for something in the niche of horror-esque side-scrolling platformers, you’d probably be best served looking elsewhere.
The music is generally nice
Visuals and animations are poor, gameplay is lackluster