The longevity of the metroidvania continues to impress. It feels as though every new year brings with it an ever flowing stream of new iterations to the genre that expand on its staples while throwing their own flavors into the mix.
Astronite, releasing November 30th, 2022 from developer Dume Games Studio and publisher JanduSoft, is the latest metroidvania to join the genre’s ranks. Sporting a throwback 1-bit style and a science fiction aesthetic, its visuals are an obvious treat from screenshots alone, but there’s considerably more to say when it comes to the title’s gameplay.
Astronite is available for PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Switch, with the PS5 version being played for the purposes of this review.
Astronite’s story begins in the dark vacuum of space. A ship with a one-man crew approaches the planet Neplea on expedition dubbed Mission 2205. Although it was once the home of the astronaut’s people, the discovery of a living “entity” in the center of the planet and its influence over monstrous creatures forced them to settle elsewhere.
Just as Central Command is about to inform the astronaut aboard the ship of his objective, a sudden collision with an unseen object forces him to make an impromptu landing on the planet’s surface. After exploring for a moment, the astronaut encounters the entity and is promptly robbed of his traversal capabilities and weaponry.
The concept of going up against a creature living within a planet and battling the ravenous hordes under its control is an interesting one to be sure, but even by metroidvania standards, Astronite is light on story. The narrative is less about an overarching storyline and more about the individual interactions the protagonist has with the NPCs peppered throughout Neplea.
This emphasis allows for some highly appreciable sequences in the game’s brief cutscenes. It was hard not to enjoy an NPC fashioning himself in the style of a superhero with your equipment and challenging you to catch him. It was similarly easy to smirk at the in-game explanation of a mechanic similar to Souls-like bloodstains being met with a “That seems familiar…” from the astronaut.
Outside of moments like these, though, Astronite’s story is largely unambitious and does little to endear you its key figures outside of these quick dialogue exchanges. This focus isn’t inherently a problem, but enjoying the presentation of the story is difficult when the English dialogue can feel awkward and is consistently mired in typos. Seeing missing letters—and in some cases, entire words—is a common occurrence, and acts as a significant barrier to immersion in the world.
The astronaut’s gameplay will be immediately familiar to those who have prior experience with metroidvania titles. The player has access to a jump (which can then be extended with a quick burst of speed via jetpack), a dash, and a ranged attack. It’s a limited toolkit, but they can be upgraded through the in-game shop and collectibles found throughout the world. The controls are largely responsive, tight, and even provide something of a learning curve when it comes to managing the cooldown of the dash and adequately preparing for how much extra height you’ll get from the jetpack.
When the game first begins, Astronite shows a lot of promise. It controls well, its introductory boss fight offers a solid degree of challenge, and the adorable throwback visuals perfectly encapsulate that aged, 1-bit feel. Sadly, this honeymoon phase ebbs away just as quickly as it arrives.
Though it may not be immediately apparent, Astronite’s difficulty is also very much in line with its older stylings. At the start of the game, the astronaut is only able to take three hits before being sent back to his last save point, and enemies are designed and placed in such a way that most rooms provide a decent mountain to climb. This difficulty is a great strength in the beginning of the game, but it becomes a double-edged sword in record time.
The commitment to difficulty feels appropriate when you’re fighting against Astronite’s bosses; on top of sporting unique visual designs, each boss presents a different style of challenge to the player. Whether its a new way of avoiding attacks or finding new windows to maximize your damage, the boss battles on offer are highly enjoyable. If you enjoy memorizing boss move sets and trialing your way through optimal approaches, you’ll absolutely enjoy the encounters here.
When it comes to the metroidvania elements between these bosses (read: a majority of the game) though, the high level of difficulty becomes little more than a frustrating roadblock to progression. Exploration in Astronite is characterized by long stretches of gameplay where every enemy in every room can take a beating and is precisely placed to send you to your death.
The game demands a high level of execution from the player for the entirety of its runtime, which is highly fitting for its premise, but Astronite does exceedingly little to reward you for your efforts outside of opening up a new boss fight to experience. Upgrades to the astronaut are equal parts difficult to obtain and only minor in efficacy—being able to take one extra hit doesn’t matter much when you still have to traverse six or seven tough rooms before seeing anything new.
Progression via the merchant’s shop allows the player freedom to pick and choose upgrades they may want (i.e. spending a little to see enemy health bars or saving up your currency to increase your damage output), but the amount required for each upgrade is so high that your only recourse is pooling the large amounts of currency you get from the bosses. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the fact that the game requires you to retrieve your currency upon death means that one small slip-up (in a game spares no expense attempting to kill the player) means you’ve lost them all permanently. Exploration itself is also disappointing given the very scarce placements of save points and the general weakness of upgrades.
Moreover, the map employs many dead ends that force the player to retrace their steps rather than tying back into the rest of the map. This sometimes occurs after a boss fight, which immediately cuts the satisfaction from beating it short when you’re once again faced with overcoming the gauntlet you passed to get here from the other direction.
All of these aspects compound exponentially as you spend more and more time with the game. The boss fights are largely great and fairly challenging, but the execution of the metroidvania elements surrounding them feels rote and unrefined.
An area of Astronite that’s difficult to take umbrage with is certainly its visual style, which mimics the old school platformer to great effect. The purely black-and-white pixel work offers up a lot of character while still communicating visual information clearly in the heat of the moment. There are also multiple CRT/scanline filters available, and these can really add to the feel if you’re into that sort of thing.
There’s an excess of flickering and flashing lights in the game by default, but this can mercifully be toggled in the options menu. Even as someone who doesn’t struggle with photosensitivity, I found myself quickly searching for the option simply due to how jarring they were.
In the vein of older releases, the sound effects are appropriately chunky and straightforward, but certain effects veer into annoyance territory given how often you hear them. This is especially true for the jumping sound effect, but the effect of the gun firing becomes grating after long play sessions as well.
A lack of notable music is also something of a letdown. The track that plays while you’re perusing the map screen is great, but just about every other track in the game feels like it goes in one ear and promptly out the other. The music isn’t bad by any means, but it doesn’t carve out much of a place for itself, and the lack of music during exploration only serves to call further attention to the issue.
For better or worse, enjoyment of Astronite hinges heavily on how much you appreciate an old school approach to difficulty. From boss fights to simple exploration, the title will consistently put your execution to the test, while the means to counteract the degree of challenge are difficult to obtain and only marginal in impact. This difficulty causes the boss fights to be a highlight of the playthrough, but it severely dampens the quality of the metroidvania elements surrounding them in the same stroke.
Thanks to sparse placement of save rooms and challenging enemy locations, the player will be constantly hitting walls to their progression and replaying the same paths repeatedly (and in both directions). Tragically, the only reward for triumphing over these is often a predictable, meager upgrade or another equally difficult stretch of rooms, thus forcing Astronite to be a monotonous experience. The quality boss fights simply aren’t plentiful enough to make up for its shortcomings.
Review copy provided by JanduSoft for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of JanduSoft.