These days, there's nothing special or surprising about retro-style indie games designed in the Metroidvania mold. Once a vanishing resource upon the earth, the Metroidvania has become one of the mainstays of contemporary game development. And that's fine by me—I say, keep 'em coming. That said, a new work in this style really has to step outside the extremely well-defined boundaries of the Super Metroid template in order to catch my eye at this point.
Matt Kap's Astalon: Tears of the Earth hits the mark. A follow-up to Castle in the Darkness, Astalon sees Kap reaching back into video game history to a time well before Super Metroid. It arguably looks back to even before the original Metroid. Instead of taking the familiar Nintendo-inspired road, Astalon draws heavily upon the old PC and 8-bit console works of developer Nihon Falcom, particularly their Dragon Slayer series. Americans saw a handful of games in that franchise manifest back in the day with Legacy of the Wizard and Faxanadu for NES and Romancia for PCs, but their work in this style goes back even further, to 1985's Xanadu.
Kap admits he's never really dedicated much time to mastering those particular games, but he finds them fascinating and inspirational. Astalon, then, is designed around his vision of what those games were like—the ideas they evoke in him. What he's created is an exploratory platformer with a heavy puzzle element, but without the crushing difficulty for which Falcom's work was known.
Astalon gives players control over three different characters, whom you can alternate between at campsites located around the game world. You have your standard warrior with a strong, short-range sword strike; a wizard whose projectiles only travel half the screen but can pass through barriers; and a valkyrie whose arrows fly the length of the screen but can be blocked by walls and obstacles. The characters each appear to have minor differences in their play handling, but all three can perform a wall jump to reach higher areas. And all three share a common health bar which can't initially be recharged—damage, at least in the BitSummit demo, is permanent.
This isn't a short, nasty, brutish game like Rogue Legacy, though. Permanent death doesn't factor into Astalon. Instead, much as in the Ninja Gaiden-inspired The Messenger, death isn't the end here. When your party inevitably falls in action, they form a pact with a demonic presence who returns them to the world—presumably at a cost. According to Kap, this infernal ally unlocks new gameplay options and mechanics throughout the full game as well.
What really sets Astalon apart from countless other free-roaming platformers, at least to my mind, is the deftness with which the game captures the vibe of early proto-Metroidvania games. Progression plays out screen-by-screen—there's no free-scrolling—so every screen presents you with a sort of isolated puzzle to solve. Except these puzzles aren't really isolated. They often involve bringing keys or objects from elsewhere in the dungeon to a specific place in order to unlock a door. Even in the early going, you'll often need to reach an out-of-the-way objective by tracing an alternate route that begins several screens back. Again, Astalon feels heavily puzzle-oriented, with progression gated less by character skills and more by keys located within the environment.
It's sort of an obvious detail, but the screen-by-screen design of Astalon feels distinct from old-school action games like Montezuma's Revenge thanks to the aspect ratio of modern screens. Astalon presents itself with NES-style graphics, but like Shovel Knight, it doesn't restrict itself to 256x224 pixel resolution. Instead, you have roughly two NES screens worth of widescreen pixel information splashed across each screen, which allows the puzzle-like nature of the action to breathe a little more freely than it did on actual 8-bit systems. Combined with the fluid controls of the characters, Astalon really does capture the exploratory essence of those old PC action games without becoming mired in the frustrations they suffered from. The closest contemporary it really has is La-Mulana 2, although it seems brisker and less focused around solving cryptic riddles than Nigoro's long-awaited platformer.
Unlike Castle in the Darkness, Kap will be bringing Astalon to a variety of platforms. He admits he built his previous game in software that doesn't easily allow for porting. Astalon, on the other hand, has been built from the ground-up in Unity. Although the game is definitely early at the moment (Kap says he tossed together a demo build and decided to bring it to BitSummit at literally the last moment), it's already shaping up to be quite a promising take on a well-worn genre.