When I saw the trailer for Astroman from StarQuail (which you can watch after the MORE button in the full review), I immediately wanted to play the game. I like platformers, and this one seemed to be quite polished for an Xbox Live Indie title.
Now that I have played it, I am in awe, because it’s a beautiful game with an atmosphere that very few titles manage to establish these days. But I also do have some mixed feelings for the game, because I can’t recommend it for everyone.
Hit the MORE button to read the full review.
As far as story goes, Astroman doesn’t offer much. Your spaceship self-destructed and parts of it were scattered onto neighboring worlds in a solar system with nine planets. You start on the first planet equipped with a Jump Module that lets you jump (a little bit) and a Blaster to shoot all the cute aliens that you encounter. You visit world after world to find all the parts to complete your spaceship. You can’t visit all worlds right from the start, because barriers like an asteroid belt hinder you from reaching the farther away planets. So the first job is to find the components that enable you to reach those worlds.
The cool thing is that you fly the spaceship yourself – so if you find a gun to blast away asteroids in your way, you actually get to use it in the level selection screen where you fly from planet to planet.
Besides the ships components you can also find three useful upgrades for your Jump Module that will allow you to reach new destinations on the worlds. So flying back to worlds that you already visited can prove useful–especially since hidden on each world are heart containers, which you won’t be able to reach unless you find all of the Jump Module upgrades first. Four heart containers will get you a health upgrade, so searching for them is absolutely worth the trouble.
All that health is needed because the further away a planet is, the more alien creatures you will find. While world number one is mostly populated by walking stones with rabbit ears, green anteaters that spit stones, and the occasional crab that shoots red lava drops from the ceiling, in later worlds you will find much more aggressive enemies, who (more importantly) will come at you in larger numbers.
Thankfully, there are plenty of checkpoints in the game, but having to use one has several disadvantages. First your ammunition count will be set to thirty (which sometimes might be good) and second all the little creatures you already did put out of their misery will come back to life. Even though moving through the worlds is mostly a linear experience, it sometimes happens that you want to go back or search an area more carefully because you suspect a heart container. Getting more health means less checkpoint usage and translates into more vacant areas to search for treasure.
Search for treasure – are you the exploring type of gamer? If not, sorry that it took me so long to tell you, but this game is not for you. I love to explore levels and even I sometimes lost interest in searching. A game like Astroman is something that I usually finish in one session. Some candy, a nice soft drink and a good platformer are all the companionship I need to have a couple of hours of enjoyable fun. This is not entirely true with Astroman – after maybe an hour of gameplay I sometimes became so frustrated that I stopped playing. I still had the urge to play further, just not right away; so why all the frustration?
The level designer did a very good job at hiding the stuff you are looking for. Maybe a little bit too good I think. Especially since he didn´t really do a good job at pointing the player in the right direction in the very big worlds you are visiting. You are alone and just have to search every corner – and if you missed it you often have to go back. Or start from the beginning. Since I´m not a fan of repetitive gameplay I tend to take a longer break before replaying a level for the fourth time. Astroman I played over four days – each day a little bit.
The level design is not the only source of frustration. The controls are very tight and jumping works extremely well, but I can´t say the same for ducking while shooting in a specific direction. Often you land on a small platform, try to duck to shoot the enemy in front of you before he manages to reach you, just to see Astroman looking and shooting into the wrong direction and getting his ass kicked by the alien. This is bad enough, but it gets worse. On enemy contact you lose control over the character for a short moment. This can catapult you into the next enemy, down a high platform or just into a pool of acid fluid. On more than one occasion, I had the pleasure of a chain reaction that stole all my hearts from me without a chance to intervene.
As mentioned before, dying means having all enemies reset. It also means getting back to the last checkpoint. While it’s obvious that the first thing is bad, it’s not so obvious why the second thing can be very, very bad as well. In Astroman, the checkpoints are not reusable. This means that if you reach the end of the world, and know that you must have missed your ship part, you sometimes go back the way you came. However, all of the checkpoints are inactive now. If you die you go back to the very first checkpoint, rather than the last checkpoint you activated.
Those were the reasons why I restarted the game. I first started with the “Astroman” difficulty, but since it frustrated me too much I started a new game and went with “Astrobaby” (as embarrassing as it is). I advise you to do the same; the game is much more enjoyable, and it’s still in a galaxy far, far away from the galaxy “easy” lives in. If you are a casual gamer that does not enjoy searching huge areas for health packs, better go visit “easy” in that other galaxy and stay away from Astroman (the game, not the difficulty), believe me. Choosing “Astrobaby” as a difficulty had another positive side effect. Some level parts you play in the dark with just a very small light bubble around you. This bubble is a lot bigger (still quite small) in the “Astrobaby” setting. You see just a wee bit of the surrounding level instead of nothing besides glowing enemies and some green glowing stones. The screenshot below shows you how it looks if you play as “Astroman” to give you an idea what to expect if you are still toying with the idea to be a “man”.
If you enjoy exploring and don´t mind a tough platformer with a little shooting action, go ahead. Astroman delivers big, big worlds that have beautiful graphics. It is a shame the game is not part of the Indie Games Winter Uprising because the polish of the title is fantastic. This is indie culture at its best. Later worlds could have used a little bit more diversity, but I never grew tired of the beautiful art in the game. The same goes for the music; it’s very ambient and fits the scenery perfectly. Almost constantly finding heart canisters gives you a great sense of progression, and the longer you play, the less impact the aforementioned design flaws have. I enjoyed Astroman a lot, and finding a long sought after ship part was very rewarding. It is in my nature to search every corner of a game, so I hope it´s in yours too. Because then you have a very fun to play platformer in front of you that is absolutely worth the $3.00 asked, and will deliver you four to six hours of enjoyable playtime – more if you want to find absolutely everything.