Review by YusakuG
"The best platformer nobody played"
When the Sega Saturn was being developed, Sega designed it as a 2D powerhouse. It could handle the most complex 2D games, and a previously impossible number of character sprites simultaneously. Unfortunately, when the 32 Bit wars began, people no longer seemed interested in 2D. Thanks to games like Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil, 3D had taken the video game industry by storm. Sega wound up spending most of the Saturn's life span trying to prove that the Saturn could indeed do semi-decent 3D. And that's a shame, because that means that early high quality 2D games like Astal got ignored.
Astal is a fairly basic 2D platform game, there's no doubting that. But, what made the game stand out was its stunning graphics, beautiful soundtrack, fun gameplay, and a semi-interesting story.
Astal's story begins when the Goddess Antowas created the world of Quartilia out of magical jewels. From her last two jewels (one red, the other green), she created two humans. Astal, a short-tempered and powerful young fighter, was born from the red jewel. Born from the green jewel was Leda, a young girl who was given the magic of life. It was Leda's job to keep the world in balance, and Astal's job to protect her. Antowas entrusted the world to them, and then went to sleep. However, while Antowas was sleeping, an evil demon named Jerado plotted to take over Quartilia, and change the world to his liking. Jerado created an evil human named Geist to carry out his plans. When Geist kidnapped Leda, Astal was filled with rage, and tore the world of Quartilia apart in his quest to find her. He finally managed to find Leda, but the Goddess Antowas was awakened by Astal's furious and destructive quest.
When Antowas saw what Astal had done to the world she created, she demanded that he be banished from Quartilia, and be chained to the surface of the moon for all time. However, Leda knew that Astal was only trying to save her. She gave him her green jewel so that he would always remember her. After banishing Astal to the moon, the Goddess Antowas defeated Jerado. However, she failed to notice Geist. After Antowas fell asleep once more, the evil Geist set about a plan to return Jerado to power, and kidnapped Leda once again. Astal heard Leda's cries for help, and broke free of the chains binding him to the moon. He is determined to end Jerado and Geist's wicked ambitions forever.
Shortly after beginning his quest, Astal comes across a strange bird that seems determined to aid him. Although Astal thinks the bird is nothing but an annoyance, it may prove more useful to Astal's mission than he ever imagined.
And so begins Astal, one of the first games that truly showed off the 2D power of the Saturn. You guide Astal, accompanied by the bird that follows him, across 16 levels. Astal may be small, but he has inhuman strength. His main attack is to grab enemies, and throw them over his shoulder. Another devastating move is Astal's ''head smash'' attack, where he leaps in the air, and smashes both of his fists down on the enemy's head. If Astal finds himself outnumbered, he can suck up air, and blow all of the enemies away with a powerful gust of wind. He can even pick up giant boulders that are five times bigger than him, and hurl them at monsters that cross his path.
The strange bird that seems determined to help Astal can be utilized in battle, as well. Certain enemies that Astal defeats will drop a glowing white orb of energy. When Astal collects the orb, it will build up a meter at the bottom of the screen. This meter allows Astal to call upon the bird to help. The bird's main attack is to zip around the screen, defeating any enemies in its path. It also has an attack that temporarily freezes enemies, allowing Astal to jump off their heads, and use them as platforms. Astal can even call upon the bird to fly away, and bring back health-reviving fruit, or even an extra life on occasion. Each time you call upon the bird, it uses up points on the meter. The more full the meter is, the more successful the bird will be. The game even features a 2 player simultaneous mode, where the second player can control the bird companion.
If there's a fault with the gameplay, it's that the game is terribly linear. There's only one path through the level. There are no hidden routes, no secret levels, and no bonus rooms. The game also features just about every trick in the book that's appeared in a 2D platform game - Everything from moving and disappearing platforms, to icy ledges that cause Astal to slip and slide. There's nothing wrong with sticking to tried and true traditions, but the programmers could have at least tried to think of something new. However, I must give them credit for not relying on the ''bounce on the enemy's head'' method of attack.
The graphics are the main thing that drew me to this game. This game is simply beautiful. The world of Quartilia is beautifully realized in the game's 2D hand-drawn art. From the icy depths of the Crystal Palace, to the serene River of Dreams, this is one of the best-realized fantasy worlds ever created for a platform game. The backgrounds are highly detailed, and some look like interactive paintings. The character sprites are small, but they hold very fluid animation. The enemies are designed well, especially the giant bosses that Astal faces. There are even some cool special effects in the game, like the way the flaming dragon boss zooms in and out of the background and foreground as it flies. And when you are in the ice levels, you can see realistic reflections of Astal and his enemies in the walls, and even the floors. The game's camera will zoom in and out at certain times to fit the situation of the present scene.
The game features cinemas in-between levels that help move the story along, but the cinemas are not animated. Rather, they are shown as one big scene that scrolls right to left, with dialogue being spoken over them. Although the art during these cinemas is definitely cute, I'm not a big fan of the character designs. (Leda has triangle-shaped eyes that make her look like a Jack O' Lantern.) However, there is a very cool short anime intro that plays if you wait long enough at the title screen. It makes me wish they had the budget to do all the cinemas fully animated.
The soundtrack is as beautiful as the graphics. Each level has its own unique theme, from the epic-sounding symphonic melody of level 1, to the soothing, new age-style tune of the forest levels. The game's soundtrack uses real instruments, giving it a symphonic feel. There's even a hidden Japanese pop song that was taken out of the US game that you can access if you put the game CD in your stereo. The only fault I can find with the music is that it sometimes seems to overpower the voiced dialogue during the cinemas, and in the game itself, so it can sometimes be hard to hear what the characters are saying.
But, perhaps that's good in a way. The game's dubbing certainly leaves room for improvement. The narrator who moves the story along has an appropriate soft and soothing tone to her voice, but she often lacks emotion, and just seems to be reading the dialogue off the paper. I also did not like Astal's voice. He sounded like a woman trying too hard to imitate a gruff little boy's voice. The demon, Jerado, had an fitting booming and foreboding tone to his voice, and was probably the best of the actors.
Despite the beautiful graphics and high production values, Astal falters slightly due to one major factor - the relative ease of gameplay. Even though the game boasts 16 levels, they are fairly short, and some of them are devoted only to boss battles. Health-reviving fruit never seems to be in short supply, and can usually be found when Astal needs it the most. You only get one continue in this game, but if you work at it, that's really all you should need. Also, as I said before, the game is terribly linear. It would be nice if the game had more secrets, and maybe some alternate paths through levels like most major platform games.
In the end, however, I still enjoyed Astal tremendously. It was nice to see a 2D platform game that actually attempted a plot that developed as the game went on. It's too bad that Sega did not make this game into a series, so that we could see more of Astal's beautiful fantasy world. The game seems like it was rushed. The programmers obviously had some big ideas, but they had to cut their aspirations short. As it is, Astal is a rewarding game that could have been even more rewarding.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/31/02, Updated 06/09/03
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