Review: Astro Duel II

6 Mar 2024

Games specifically designed around the local cooperative and competitive experience can be few and far between nowadays. Once upon a time you could waltz into a Blockbuster and find any number of games exclusively created for going head to head with your friends and family, but as time has marched on, they’ve fallen somewhat out of vogue.

Every once in a while though, a release will come along that hearkens back to those multiplayer-focused games of yesteryear eager for you to pick up, play, and have a great time doing so with those around you. Astro Duel II, out March 7th, 2024 on PC and Switch from Wild Rooster, is vying to be one such game. It pits players against each other and/or alien monsters with a unique mixture of top-down ship battles and side-scrolling platforming combat in local co-op, so let’s blast off and take a closer look.

Choose Your Nano Fighter

To kick things off with the narrative elements of Astro Duel II, it should be clarified that the game doesn’t have a story as much as it has a general premise. Once you choose a method of play between the cooperative Bounty or competitive Versus or Cash Grab modes, each player is able to select their playable character, called a nano fighter, whom they’ll see through combat to glorious victory or a fiery defeat.

The Bounty mode has the most substantial storyline setup, with your chosen character taking on various odd jobs throughout space which comprise the games various stages. Thematically, they’re your typical extermination, wave survival, and heist-style missions; it’s all very fitting for a science fiction bounty hunter.

This is about as far as the storytelling in Astro Duel II goes. It works well enough to set the stage for the game, but that’s just about all it does, which is a shame as I’d love to have been able to learn more about the adorable little critters you fight with.

Zip-Zoomin’ Blastin’

Once your chosen pilot climbs into the cockpit in Bounty mode, you’re able to select the game’s first stage, which serves as something of an introduction to the overall controls and what you can expect to be doing. For this stage, the player is tasked with surviving against waves of enemies as they become acclimated to the controls. More on that in a moment.

Successfully completing a stage rewards the player with cash, which can then be spent to unlock new ships, new stages, and higher difficulty versions of said stages. The faster you get to the end of a level, the more money you receive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bounty mode was where I spent most of my time solo, hopping from stage to stage and improving my gameplay.

I appreciated the way better performance was rewarded with more cash and thus faster progression. It incentivizes the player to hone their skills and refine their routes through a given mission, which works well in tandem with each level’s breakneck pace. It’s easy to hop right back into the fray, and should you start to grow tired of one, chances are good that the next stage will task you with doing something different. Levels also emphasize spaceship and on-foot combat to varying degrees, which keeps things from getting too samey.

One of Astro Duel II’s main mechanical draws is found in its gravity zones. While you typically start out in the arena inside your ship with a top-down perspective, entering certain sections of the level will result in a seamless transition to side-scrolling, platforming action where your ship promptly disappears and you’re given direct control of your pilot. These zones come in handy, as if your ship gets destroyed, you have little recourse other than to retreat from your opponent and wait for it to come back so you can defend yourself.

Astro Duel II clearly shares a lot of DNA with the shoot ‘em up genre, but transferred over to a more competitive, free-roaming arena style. The scale is kept small which, when combined with the punishing nature of damage (two hits and your dead, unless you pick up a shield or the like) makes for some very intense stretches of combat. There’s a very tangible learning curve here, and the game highly rewards quick thinking, careful aiming, and maneuvering to both avoid your opponents and line up your shots.

And this is on top of the fast movement speed and restrictive spacing of the arenas. The Phoenix ship and its included parry was a personal favorite of mine, which led to some very clutch saves. The individual ships and temporary weapon feels equally balanced, with each offering its own respective strengths and weaknesses which allows for players of different inclinations to have different gameplay experiences without feeling punished for them.

Taking a step back to the game progression discussed earlier, there’s no denying that Astro Duel II’s single-player content is pretty slim pickings. This is a local co-op and competitive game first and foremost, so unless you’re playing with friends or content duking it out endlessly against bots, it will struggle to keep you engaged and hold your attention once you’ve seen everything.

This would be all well and good if it didn’t take such a short amount of time to reach this point, but unfortunately it only takes a few hours to see a majority of Astro Duel II. Even with decent balancing, tight controls, and multiple stages, there just isn’t enough meat on its bones to sink your teeth into for a lengthy amount of time. It feels prohibitive to longer play sessions, even when you’re with friends, when there are so few ships to choose from and stages to fly them in. I can’t help but feel that having a more traditional storyline with a beginning and end would have elevated the game significantly to function as an introduction to it, especially with the game’s emphasis on cooperative play, but alas. It isn’t a game you’ll be wanting to play for hours on end despite of the secrets there are to find.

Space Crunch

Astro Duel II’s chunkier, pixelated aesthetic is a very appealing one for the type of game it is. I particularly enjoy its emphasis on sharp, vibrant colors that pop just enough to let you keep your eyes on the action while still being able to appreciate the detailed backgrounds. The way the perspective smoothly switches from top-down space shooting to side-scrolling platforming action is well handled, too.

If ever there was a snag in the visuals, it would have to come from the more diminutive scale of the characters and some enemies while fighting outside of your ship. Because the nano fighters are so small compared to their vessels, it does take a moment or two of adjusting to the new scale of action, which just so happens to be the perfect amount of time to let yourself get killed. This is an experience that fades as you get more comfortable with Astro Duel II, of course, but it’s a challenge to see how their smaller scale benefits the experience.

When it comes to the auditory front, there’s not much to gripe about. The soundtrack is a thumping, pulsing, synth-heavy affair in a chiptune style that serves as a great companion to the laser-blasting and sword-slashing action on-screen. Weapons and ship sound effects carry a lot of weight as well, which adds no small amount to the fun factor.

Astral Derring-do

Astro Duel II is a quintessential example of a title providing exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a multiplayer-centric space combat fighter that sports a decent learning curve which thoroughly rewards mechanical skill and twitch reactions while still being easy to pick up and play. This naturally makes for a great time with friends, whether you’re working through its co-op stages together or going head to head with one another.

Sadly, problems begin to arise after you’ve spent a few hours with the game, largely due to the fact that it doesn’t take much time to see a majority of the content Astro Duel II has in store for you. What’s there is fun enough, but it’s hard to fight the feeling that it would be vastly improved by having more to play with—ships and stages specifically, but a more traditional story mode wouldn’t have gone amiss—to prevent things from getting repetitive as quickly as they do.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review code provided by Wild Rooster for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Wild Rooster.