Retro Platforms: Sega Saturn
Platform Reviewed: Sega Saturn
Although many games tell stories with realistic graphics, it’s definitely possible to have an entrancing game take place within a fantasy world. Some of my favorite games have art styles that showcase the more beautiful sides of nature, and they convey relaxing areas while still having exciting calls to adventure. I love seeing dark explorations of our world, but sometimes I just want to escape into a breathtaking setting that has its own rules and creatures. Astal, an ambitious sprite-based side-scroller that manages to have a lot of presentation variety, is really lively, and its crystal theming and natural diversity certainly help it be a cheerful experience. But how are the game’s other aspects like its story and gameplay, and is there enough originality here to keep things interesting?
Although the main plot involves a rescue conflict, there’s some decent depth to the surrounding circumstances, and a few tropes are also subverted. The prologue involves a goddess who creates a world out of jewels, along with two human protectors: Astal, a brave and fiercely protective warrior, and Leda, a compassionate giver of life. The two characters love each other despite their occasional personality conflicts, and they’re meant to complement what the other lacks. Problems arise when a demon named Jerado rises to rule over the world, creating a human of his own, named Geist, to kidnap Leda and leave the world in despair. Astal manages to rescue her, but not without recklessly causing harm in the process; this leads to the goddess banishing Jerado and exiling Astal, but unknowingly leaving Geist behind. The gameplay follows after these events, making the playable adventure feel like it’s part of a larger story, and it’s nice to see attempts to flesh out the world.
While the actual in-game narrative is pretty simple and has some cliches, there are some basic attempts to develop the main characters, and story conflicts are revealed over time as opposed to all at once. During the first level, Astal also comes upon an imprisoned bird who joins as a companion, and the two characters are equally present throughout the narrative. Every few levels end with a reflection of a character’s memories, and we get to see Astal and his mysterious companion slowly bond with one another; in contrast with this, the antagonists never really develop, which feels like missed potential. The most active theme in Astal is the balance of strength and wisdom, and it’s slightly moving despite not being too complex; the overall plot’s nothing too special, but it’s better than most rescue narratives, and I did want to see the whole thing. There are also a few major plot twists: one’s pretty obvious before it’s revealed, but a second one provides new perspective for later playthroughs.
Astal is absolutely gorgeous, and it has one of my favorite art styles from any retro game. Visually, the game is themed around crystals: it’s embedded into enemy designs, character accessories, certain attacks, and some background objects, with the coloring and lighting for these effects being vivid and entrancing. Enemies have incredible variety: some adversaries fly, some are ground-based, and others have initial appearances in both foregrounds and backgrounds. There are scaling effects used for certain dramatic moments, light transitions happen in dark areas, creatures have highlighted details based on lighting, and different environments have diverse presentation elements. The graphics are extremely vibrant in a pleasant way, and the gameplay-related sprites mix well with the environments, all which have multiple levels of depth to them; I mentioned that foreground and background activities also typically occur, and these sometimes affect the gameplay as well!
There’s a lot of visual diversity between levels, with each main stage having unique natural details and technical effects: a volcanic level has animated heat waves, an ice cave has some transparent foreground crystals and terrain-specific reflections, a sky-based setting has moving platforms coupled with camera scaling, a prehistoric-like area has huge enemies whose physical movements need to be navigated underneath, many levels zoom out when picking up a large object, a river setting has fog that appears at different times, some floors have shadows, and there are many more examples that I just can’t fit into one paragraph! Additionally having separate times of day depicted across different levels, there’s an extreme amount of detail put into the game’s visuals, and I’m pleased to say that character animations (for our brightly colored heroes) process smoothly as well; there doesn’t seem to be any input lag either! Even the cutscenes have variety in the art department: some play out like scrolling and mosaic-like panoramas, several are animated, and the first opening intro uses sepia effects. Aside from a few animated scenes seeming slightly basic and compressed, I have almost no complaints with the visual department, something further helped by a two-thirds view perspective and lack of mid-stage load times.
Astal has a really moving soundtrack that actually spans almost twenty songs, and many of these tracks last for several minutes before looping. There’s not much repetition within the tracks either, as themes evolve over time and gradually add unique instrumental layers. The mood of the audio is also diverse and usually matches what it accompanies: early stages are calm and relaxing to ease the player into the experience, some areas have mellow tracks with traces of rock, dooming boss fights use serious and intense motifs, and some slow and sweet higher-pitched themes play during certain memory scenes. All the tracks enhance the adventure feel of their respective levels, although I suppose if I had to think of a con, it’s that while the music’s pleasant, it’s not too easy to remember outside of the game: not too many of the songs are catchy, but at least they sound really charming.
Sound effects are strong too. It seems like every attack has a unique and synchronized sound, and they almost never sound high-pitched or physically unpleasant; there’s one special attack notification that has an alarm-like effect, but it can be navigated away from. Some stage obstacles feature noises too, with one of the best examples being during a river level where you ride a water dragon: cries play when Astal ignorantly thumps the creature to move forward, and the audio makes the moment kind of sad. Later in that level, the same dragon ends up moving faster because of a spotted fish, and the accompanying audio helps make the moment funnier. The only real con to the game’s audio is with most of the English voice acting: impressively, all the voices are provided by one actor, but several characters feel limited with their expressions and come across as being cheesy. While Astal’s voice matches his careless personality well, and the narration is decent, villain characters tend to sound goofy when they’re meant to be serious. I also noticed that gameplay-related sounds for Astal seem to be in Japanese, despite cutscenes being in English; this isn’t bad, but it’s an example of inconsistency.
Astal is a 2D side-scroller, although the game encourages a slower and steadier approach than most games from the genre: you can try to dash through stages, but it’s usually safer and more ideal to handle obstacles individually. Levels play from left to right, with a few specific exceptions, giving you control of Astal as he walks, runs, jumps, and attacks his way through a wide landscape in order to reach an exit while avoiding damage; there are occasionally branching paths to find some healing items via well-timed enemy jumps, but otherwise, it’s a mostly linear experience. The actual controls are interesting in that all your moves are available from the start, but they also have context-sensitive advantages across different levels, and the standard uses are pretty great too! Astal can walk left and right, and double tapping results in a Kirby-like dash that feels satisfying; the hero can flexibly jump and duck as well, and the latter becomes surprisingly useful for general dodging. Additionally, Astal can pick up and throw enemies (ideally after stunning them) and giant roots, being able to set off chain reactions against enemies caught in the crossfire. There are also two special moves whose uses vary by enemy: Astal can inhale air and then blow away (or stun) enemies, and he can also pound the ground to crystallize some enemies and interact with a few environmental obstacles. Although I didn’t find many reasons to use pounding a lot, the moves are generally fun to experiment with despite some too-near distances required for normal attacks.
Astal quickly finds a bird companion in the first level; revealing the bird later is ideal since it introduces the controls without requiring an invasive tutorial. In single-player, the bird has a gauge that charges up with successful attacks: the higher the gauge, the more bird commands Astal can choose from. Bird abilities can be cycled via shoulder buttons and then selected, but the upper three buttons also serve as shortcuts, which is effective mapping of the Saturn controller. One useful ability sends the bird off to find fruit (and occasionally extra lives), another has the bird do a dash attack, and the highest ability has the bird either perform a screen-wide attack or focus on a boss for a while; the enemy AI works fairly well, and choosing which ability’s most useful for the current situation encourages a lot of thinking. But what’s extremely impressive is that if a second player joins the game, then the bird has an entirely new set of moves: the second player actively flies around and can dash, charge an arrow attack, perform a high-speed flight attack, or sacrifice some health for the ground-based player. There’s even a special combination ability that requires teamwork, and it’s really awesome to have multiplayer that assigns different controls to each player! That said, there is one minor flaw in that if one player dies, then both players die, but that’s about the only real problem I have with the multiplayer mechanics.
The game does a great job at teaching you new ways to use your moves without interrupting the gameplay flow. For instance, a lava level has enemies that can only be attacked after being blown on, and Astal first conveys this during his stage entrance. Another level has a moving dragon that can be pounded in order to be launched high into the air, and again, this is conveyed in an intro transition before the player ever takes control. Astal has plenty of environmental diversity, but beyond just affecting visuals and special moves, it also changes the kinds of obstacles you face: a sky stage has lower gravity coupled with floating and moving platforms that can be stopped via the bird, some icy levels have differing amounts of friction mid-stage, one area has an antagonist toss boulders from the background as you try to find cover, a cave setting has swarms of bats who appear in regular intervals while the lighting changes, and there are many more examples. The level lengths aren’t usually long enough for any mechanic to overstay its welcome, although the lack of mid-level checkpoints might be considered a con to some people; personally, I only find this a problem in a few levels that have death pits.
Over a third of the stages consist of boss fights, which I find half to be legitimately good, and the other half to be awkwardly designed. First, here’s what I like about all the battles: there are usually background attacks, the animation rocks, the health bars are displayed well, and each fight’s really unique. Some battles are pretty fair, such as an early fight against a horizontally moving bat who can be easily attacked with Astal’s hands or the bird’s dash moves, giving you multiple ways to face your foe without requiring memorization. Another fun battle has Astal face a dashing behemoth; this involves anticipating enemy leaps in order to land a close attack on the beast. However, many bosses also seem to require some trial and error to figure out their attack patterns before they can be easily dodged, as in getting hurt first, especially with the final boss who can launch certain attacks that are unavoidable while you’re in the process of picking up an object (that the game gives you) to defeat him. Some bosses have very short vulnerability times too: for instance, an early plant boss is hard to hit with Astal’s short grab distance due to the tiny amount of time that it lowers its weak point. The game’s most dramatic boss battle involves temporarily changing your control style, which is really awesome in terms of gameplay diversity, but it’s also a very difficult fight that expects you to immediately adapt to those new controls.
Besides the mixed quality of some bosses, the game’s difficulty curve isn’t always consistent, particularly with a few levels that introduce instant-death pits as an immediate form of failure: the first sky level is the worst example of this, with the stage involving a stressful amount of precise jumping that no later area in the game seems to match. Parts of the game’s second half are much harder than the first, which is expected, but the difficulty also slightly jumps around. However, this isn’t a deal breaker, as levels don’t take too long to get used to, and the central mechanics are still fun. There’s still wonderful environmental variety, the combat’s still engaging and encourages multiple approaches, and deciding what abilities to use continues to be involving. Astal also has a satisfying amount of content, containing sixteen levels that mostly stand out from one another. A lot of menu options are also available, including AI settings, multiple control layouts, adjustable life amounts, music level balancing, and multiple sound tests; there are lots of useful cheat codes (like a much-needed level select) too!
Astal has a few gameplay flaws with regards to its difficulty curve and some boss fights, and there are some minor issues with grabbing certain enemies, but these problems are outweighed by the majority of the stages just being really fun to play through. You have many abilities that have various uses in different areas, the stages change level approaches in ways beyond different platform shapes, and the gameplay offers a notably different experience when playing in single-player versus multiplayer (one involving real-time considerations for move selections, and the other featuring asynchronous controls). And present throughout the entire game is an absolutely gorgeous art style that provides an extremely relaxing and entrancing visual presentation. Add some great music onto this, and a decent if sometimes cheesy story, and you have yourself an excellent Sega Saturn exclusive that’s definitely worth hunting down! Seriously, this game alone makes the Sega Saturn worth buying!