Review by MartinIIIa
Far too little is done with him in this game, but Astal is a great platformer hero
Astal is an early Saturn title which, oddly, never got a PAL release. While Clockwork Knight decorates its 2-D platform jumping with pseudo-3D graphics and gameplay tricks mixing 2D and 3D elements, Astal is an up-front 2-D platform jumper, allowing the Saturn to display what a 2-D powerhouse it was to those gamers who hadn't decided to ignore anything that wasn't 3-D. Lush, colorful backgrounds, dramatic boss sequences, and an eye-catching hero make Astal a strong visual fest.
A good concept is key to the success of any platformer, and Sega found one. The setting is Quartilia, a peaceful world crafted of jewels by the goddess Antowas. Antowas also created two humans: a girl, Leda, who has the power to make things live on Quartilia, and a boy, Astal, whose purpose is to protect Leda. The parallel to the Garden of Eden should be apparent, but Astal is the sole participant in Quartilia's original sin. When the evil god Jerado has Leda kidnapped, Astal rips the land apart searching for her. As punishment, Antowas banishes him to the moon. Unfortunately, Leda is kidnapped again while Antowas is asleep(why is that goddess never around when she's needed?). Astal breaks free of his prison and again sets off to rescue Leda.
The in-game story maintains this children's tale tone, climaxing with two great plot twists and offering a moral or two on the way. All the voices and narration in the USA release are done by Lani Minella, who carries the storybook feel well. The quality of her acting is mixed, but there's no question that she voices every character appropriate to his personality.
But most importantly, this story makes a great visual theme, with gorgeous settings and enemies that are crafted of crystals and shatter when you defeat them. The bosses even use gems for health meters; dealing a hit shatters a layer of the gem, making it smaller. The whole game world has its own unique look, and it's a pleasing one. Astal himself looks cute yet tough, with his prison manacles still dangling from his buff wrists.
So he looks cool, but how does he play? With a variety of moves well-suited to his Incredible Hulk, Jr. personality, natch. Astal can grab enemies and fling them aside, bash them with a mid-air punch, stun them by hopping on their heads, or even blow them away with a gust of super-strong breath! He can also deliver earth-shattering blows to the ground, lift up pieces of the terrain(trees, boulders, etc.) and throw them, and command his little bird friend to attack enemies or retrieve items. If only he had a way of absorbing his enemies' abilities, Astal would have more moves than Kirby!
Yet for all his abilities, Astal has a more than sufficiently tough challenge ahead of him. You have to give thought to how to use his moves to get through a number of tricky situations and aggressive bosses.
The bird is the one downside to playing the character. She's effective for the most part, but an alarm goes off whenever she has energy left and can perform a special action - and keeps going off until you use her or leave the area. This is very irritating when you don't [i]want[/i] to use the bird. For instance, the bird can freeze moving platforms, an ability which you need 2/3 of the way into level 9, a level filled with moving platforms. What that adds up to is that you have to go through most of the level with the bird alarm constantly beeping for your attention.
This annoyance is absent in the cooperative two-player mode, since the second player controls the bird. This is a brilliant concept for a two-player mode, and the designers further spiced it up with a synchronized special move, not accessible in one-player mode. You can conveniently switch between one and two-player at any time. On the down side, the bird's flight controls are a touch sensitive, and for several reasons two-player mode is unnecessarily harder than one-player. For instance, in one-player mode Astal can have the bird bring him bonus health refills, an extremely useful ability the bird does not have in two-player mode.
But hiccups with two-player mode are not what keep Astal from being a classic. The real trouble is, as with many of the Saturn's first party titles, Sega relied entirely upon the game's concept and did little with the actual content. 16 levels sounds like plenty, but 7 of them are boss levels, and even the 9 true levels are shockingly short. You can easily complete all 16 levels in under 45 minutes. The game is extremely linear, to boot; aside from two items in hard-to-reach spots, the only way through any level is in the same straight line. Compared to 3rd party platformers such as Pandemonium!, Gex, and Rayman, Astal seems like a mere sampler.
This would be forgivable if, as in Clockwork Knight 1 and 2, the brevity were a trade off for consistently imaginative design. But in fact, a good chunk of Astal is standard platforming elements: icy floors, moving platforms, rhythmically descending spikes, etc. In some cases Astal's unique abilities allow him to tackle these sections in ways other platforming heroes couldn't, but most of the time, all he can do is jump and run like any other platform character. Even a couple of the bosses seem like no more than regular enemies with extra durability.
This is not to say that the game doesn't have its share of great ideas. Some of the bosses are imaginative (the final boss particularly so), and level 5 adds a new dimension to platform raft rides. But it's too little, and the lack of a save function forces you to replay levels that just aren't fun to replay. The USA localization team did the right thing by lowering Astal's health points from 3 to 5 and limiting him to one continue, as the Japanese version is too easy, but they should have added a save function too. Being able to save at the five mid-game cutscenes would have eliminated the frustration factor without making the game truly any easier.
Despite its shortcomings, however, Astal is good fun, and the title character's abilities make it a unique game that no platforming fan should even consider passing by. The average gamer can afford to give it a miss, as the Saturn has better platform jumpers, but everyone is sure to find some enjoyment in controlling the versatile title character.
And now, the rundown of the nitty gritty:
Gameplay: 8/10 An original and versatile player character brings life to the sometimes simple level designs
Graphics: 9/10 A so-so intro FMV aside, this is a splendid and vibrant display of the Saturn's 2-D capabilities
Sound: 6/10 Music is rather low key but pleasant, some sound effects don't fit what they represent
Longevity: 4/10 Challenging enough, but very short and lacking in replay value
Cuteness: 8/10 With loveable and short-of-stature heroes, a morality tale with a happy ending, and a gentle narrator, this is right up there on innocent charm. At the same time, it's not layered on too thick.
Overall:7/10 More should have been done with the content, but the player characters alone make this a platformer worth owning.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Astal (US, 09/27/95)
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