The storytelling of Groundhog Day is remarkable for how it can take something within a circular rotation and make it different every time by only changing one variable, and many stories since have attempted to mimic the plot structure. However, video games are not a normal medium to tell such a compelling story, but that doesn’t stop developers from trying. Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a game that attempts such a structure with its unique approach to the action platformer genre as it never really ends upon death but resets. It is a fascinating concept that grabs the attention of the player and challenges in ways uncommon.
But does Astalon: Tears of the Earth hook the player in the same way Groundhog Day hooked its viewers? Or is this simply an indie game within the action platformer genre that tried something ambitious? Let’s find out!
The story of Astalon: Tears of the Earth is legendary. A village is being plagued by a poison that is oozing from a nearby tower that is full of negative energy, evil, and cult-like behavior. Three heroes band together to stop this to save their village, so they traverse to the tower to begin their ascension. Our heroes, Algus the mage, Kyuli the archer, and Arias the warrior, have no idea what they are about to face, but the twist is that Algus made a horrific decision to ensure their victory.
Algus has basically sold his soul to the demon Epimetheus, and now in a Groundhog Day like scenario, death has lost its sting. However, the only person who remembers the previous experiences is Algus himself, so his conversations with Epimetheus upon death are his alone. Kyuli and Arias are left in the dark, and it is assumed that they think they are making perfect progression through the tower with no complications as they are unfamiliar with the many deaths they experience along their journey.
This is one of the most complex and compelling indie game stories I have ever played. I was constantly drawn by each meaningful conversation, and the dynamics between Algus, Kyuli, and Arias are rich with history and complication. You can sense the real desire to succeed from all of them, especially Algus, who has genuinely sacrificed his life for the betterment of his home village and friends. There is a desperation, and it is one that requires a whole lot more than simply willpower, because apparently there is a plot against the village and its people and our heroes are faced with an even bigger threat than they initially conceived.
It does not end there, either. Astalon: Tears of the Earth also tells the story from the other side so you understand the Gorgons and why they are running the tower the way they are. Seeing the strong conviction of both sides creates a scenario where it is difficult to truly villainize anyone, but it is clear who the real protagonists are and thankfully you are playing as them.
The gameplay is incredible, albeit quite difficult at times. This is an action platformer similar to many of the metroidvanias that have come before it. However, the major difference which ties in with the story is that there are no save points or save stations to cement your progress like your Metroids or Castlevanias. Instead, when you die, Algus returns to Epimetheus who offers things to purchase, such as upgrades and special items, before returning to the very first room of the game. This may sound like a daunting task, but Algus uses his previous knowledge to access shortcuts, elevator passage, and teleportation passage to quickly get back to previously visited areas. It is a unique approach to the genre, and it blends perfectly with the story at hand.
The other major gameplay mechanic is that you are controlling three different characters, but not at the same time. Early in the game, you can only change characters at campsites where you can save your game and rest, but later on you will gain an item that allows you to change characters more freely. Each character has strengths and weaknesses, as well as abilities, that serve to progress. One of the very first tasks in the tower teaches you some keys differences: Algus can use his magic through walls to activate certain switches; Kyuli can wall jump to get some extra height; and Arias can break through seemingly impenetrable blue veins with his powerful yet short-ranged sword.
These slight advantages and skills compliment the gameplay in wonderful ways, and learning how to switch characters in the early game to solve puzzles is tons of fun.
Combat is interesting, because in the beginning, all three characters deal the same amount of damage, which clearly puts poor Arias at the disadvantage in the early game due to his short range. Because of this, a lot of early combat against mini-bosses and even the first major boss are subject to Algus and Kyuri by default due to their range, particularly Algus because his attack is faster than Kyuri (Although her range is full screen compared to Algus’ few frames.).
However, as is the case with all metroidvanias, each character evolves over time thanks to some fantastic powerups, and by the end, none of them feel disadvantaged. Arias went from my least used character in the beginning to my go-to in tight situations by the end. When talking to Epimetheus, you are also given the ability to spend orbs (in-game currency) upgrading each of the three characters individually, which means you can overpower any one of the characters you enjoy playing with the most en route to overpowering all three of them. It is a unique approach, and I think it pays off really well.
The map in Astalon: Tears of the Earth is massive, and each section is equipped with its own puzzles, enemies, and traps. It is easy to get lost at times due to the size and the mechanic of getting sent back to the beginning upon death, but certain purchases from Epimetheus allow for better knowledge on the map when it comes to available items, doors that have not been open yet, and even where you last perished. Getting these items early is super helpful for navigating, because as you get into the 3rd and 4th floor of the tower, things can get complicated quickly.
Boss fights can feel like a bit of a grind if you are not well-equipped, and it usually feels like one character is better suited for fights than others. That doesn’t mean it is impossible to defeat any of the main bosses with all three character. It is just that one usually feels best.
One issue I have with Astalon: Tears of the Earth is that spacing between certain area shortcut openings and elevator entrances seems a bit too long at times, so when you die, it can be quite painful traversing through the same area over and over again until you get to the appropriate point to make travel easier. There was even one situation, in particular, that caused me a lot of angst, and that was the long distance required to move before encountering a strong boss. You see, prior bosses prepare you well with an elevator stop right before the boss fight, making your return after death much easier. However, this one boss’s pathway is littered with tough areas inhabited by enemies that are hard to predict, like the Lich who can spawn right on top of you causing you to lose precious health points. Thankfully, this is seldom the case, but when it does happen, it is a bit annoying.
Secrets are a mixed bag for me, too, because there are the exciting Metroid-like secrets behind invisible walls or that need a progressive powerup to tackle. Even the multi-colored locked doors and finding the corresponding keys is fun and nostalgic. However, there are also some really abstract puzzles that take a ton of research, clue finding, and thinking outside the box. They are not necessarily bad puzzles, but they are a bit mind-boggling if you are not reading the notes scattered around the tower.
Astalon: Tears of the Earth is a fantastic yet challenging action platformer that is going to satisfy the thirst of many fans of the genre. This is a huge game with tons of awesome secrets and powerups to find, and there are even multiple endings to discover based on how you clear the game. It may have some slightly aggravating moments here and there, but the overall experience is top-tier and one of the most captivating stories I have had the pleasure of enjoying in quite some time. It is only complimented even more by its stellar soundtrack, amazing metroidvania gameplay, and unique mechanics that set it apart from others in the genre.
Our heroes will not accept death until their task is complete, and I implore you to help carry their mission to completion in what is now one of the best metroidvanias around.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
Rich and compelling storytelling
Huge map with tons of secrets and corridors
Unique mechanic of three characters earning their own progressive powerups
Awesome shortcut system to take the sting away from death
Absolutely bumpin' soundtrack!
Difficulty can be rather high at times
Spacing between certain areas can be a bit long
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My name is Jason Capp. I am a husband, father, son, and brother, and I am a gamer, a writer, and a wannabe pro wrestler. It is hard to erase the smile on this simple man.