Review: Asterigos: Curse of the Stars
One of the recurring problems that has plagued the Soulslike genre basically since the beginning is that there isn’t a very good pipeline for getting into the games. Even if you’re someone who absolutely adores these titles, you had to get into it by just finding a game that really clicked for you and then exploring onward from there. That’s not to say that there’s been no efforts to make the genre more accessible over time, only that the problem of bringing someone in from more reactive action games or slower RPGs into the world of brutal stamina costs and careful resource management is ever-present.
Now, I was not on the early design meetings for Asterigos: Curse of the Stars, but I highly doubt that the outline for the game was “let’s make Dark Souls but way easier to get into if you’ve never played these games before.” More than likely this was a game made by people who just wanted to make a good title. But at the end of the day Asterigos definitely feels like it’s a lighter and more accessible style of Soulslike. Does that mean it winds up being a good game, or does that strip the genre of its teeth and enjoyment?
Asterigos: Curse of the Stars is out now on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/X|S, and PC. The PC version was played for this review.
The differences between Asterigos and its erstwhile inspiration start up right away. You’re playing as Hilda, a teenaged girl tasked by the Northwind Legion to follow in the footsteps of her father and investigate the cursed city of Aphes. He disappeared and hasn’t been heard from in quite some time, so now it’s Hilda’s job to seek him out and find what happened to his unit.
Once she gets closer to Aphes, of course, Hilda has to deal with a variety of nasty critters and beings intent on seeing her brought to a violent demise. And when she breaches the city walls she quickly finds out that she’s being press-ganged into working with Minerva, resident of the city in the midst of a long-standing magical curse that has led to a thousand years of strife against the architect of the curse, Eumenides.
By framing Asterigos with a firm (if somewhat predictable) narrative right from the start, the game very much sets its sights on being more accessible and giving players a place to start from with understanding. There’s still lore to uncover and elements that are left to innuendo and suggestion rather than being spelled out, entirely by design, but you don’t feel like the entire game requires you to collect every scrap of lore, take notes, check wikis, and still have a lot of its story hidden behind winks and nudges.
The cast isn’t what I would call particularly delightful – they’re mostly stock characters inhabiting their roles within the narrative, but they do so with decent panache and rarely feel like they’re being written to be pointlessly dumb. I didn’t find myself terribly motivated to find out what happened to Hilda’s father, for example, but I felt like she had an understandable motivation and was characterized well as someone seeking out her dad. There was authenticity there.
So the plot is a bit light and predictable, but it’s serviceable. And it aims for a nice balance between seeking out the lore and just telling you its story, which helps bridge the gap for people who might enjoy the more open feel of seeking out lore while still wanting to be told the base plot up-front.
Obviously, with any game like this, a lot is going to come down to the actual feel of combat and mechanics. It’s here where Asterigos most firmly pitches its tent and its overall seeming drive to be an introduction to playing a Soulslike game, because that balance of elements is core to the gameplay from top to bottom.
For example, the game has six different weapon options. That’s a reasonably small number, but it can totally work. However, far from having those six weapon options found across the length of the game, you get access to all of them within a few minutes of starting. Hilda can use any two weapons simultaneously, with the weapon’s attacks and an inherent special move bound to two different buttons. Right out of the gate you are given a clear picture that this is what you are able to do, this is how you will develop, and the gameplay will be expanding and refining those options rather than discovering totally new ones.
Refinement is, of course, important – every level Hilda gains a new attribute point and a new talent point, with talent points spent along the game’s branching talent tree to unlock new skills and new passive traits. Passive traits are either flat bonuses or build-defining options that can be turned on or off, while new skills have to fit onto her small bar of four active skills. Each weapon culminates by having a stance shift option, with various weapons getting ranged options, defensive tricks, control elements, and so forth.
Perhaps most notably for the formula, though, attacking does not actually cost stamina in this game. You always have access to your basic attack and you don’t have to choose not to attack in the hopes of preserving stamina for dodges. That doesn’t mean the controls are loose in any way; Hilda cannot cancel out of attacks into dodges, so you do still get the fundamental interaction of making sure you can dodge when you need to. It’s just that the resource with which you do so is far more forgiving than in the average Soulslike title.
From there… well, it’s the sort of thing you’ve seen before. Attacking, healing, and dodging are deliberate choices where you have to time things carefully or get hit by attacks and possibly die while trying to heal yourself. There’s no sort of Bloodborne-esque rallying system, which encourages you to be careful and not rush back in to be aggressive after you’ve gotten hit; at the same time, the salves you use to restore your HP are fairly plentiful and will accumulate past their natural limit of 20, so you have a limit to how many you can have at once but not in terms of collection. (And you will pick up more.) If you’ve played these sorts of games, Asterigos will feel familiar if more forgiving than you’re accustomed to.
Graphically the game has a very bright, cartoony style that mostly works for the level it’s going for. This is not a game of blood and stoic seriousness; it’s much more light-hearted than that, with engaging but exaggerated character designs. Like Dark Souls by way of Disney Dreamlight Valley, if you will. That’s not a mark of shame on the game, although it did bother me a bit that most of the character models don’t seem to have much in the way of mouth movements even when they’re talking. The actual animations work well enough, but that’s jarring.
Voice acting is… fine? It’s not bad, but it doesn’t stand out as having particularly stellar performances. I’m not sure how much of that is the material the cast had to work with and how much of it is direction or the cast themselves. It’s fine, it adds to the game, but it’s not a standout feature. Music is similarly atmospheric but largely forgettable, unfortunately.
One minor gripe I do have with the interface is how many things require holding a confirm button instead of just pressing it, including during dialogue trees. I understand using it when, say, you’re picking out weapons to upgrade; you want to make sure that players aren’t getting valuable resources deducted unfairly. But in conversations where you can always go back and ask more, it got very annoying to have to pick and hold each time. A minor gripe, but a notable one.
I find myself ultimately of two minds when it comes to Asterigos. On the one hand, it’s a game that solidly occupies a middle space between being an action RPG with a more fluid and forgiving combat system and being a more punishing title with a stamina system and strict timing costs; on the other hand, it’s… well, exactly that. There’s still the lingering question of whether occupying that midspace is a good thing or not, if it’s a game that bridges the gap or if it’s not Souls enough for the Soulslike crowd while being too hardcore for the people who dislike those games.
But I think that on balance, the whole thing works out to the game’s favor. This is definitely a title made with a lot of love and attention to detail, and while it’s hardly a flawless production, I think it’s worth checking out for people who sit on either side of the fence. If you’ve always wanted to love a Soulslike title but never quite got there, this might help get you over the hump; if you love them but don’t mind something being a bit more Souls-lite, this will delight you. It’s not going to make it on to my short list of worthy Game of the Year contenders, but it’s a solid outing all around, and that’s not nothing.
Review copy provided by tinyBuild for PC. All screenshots courtesy of tinyBuild.