REVIEW: Astralis

Long the theory and premise of almost every science fiction story ever told, we are definitely not alone in the universe. As our technology advances, and humanity yearns to stretch its corruptible arms across the greater heavens of interstellar space, we will finally learn the truth, for better or worse, and where we stand in the then much-larger food chain. According to Astralis ($1.00), the future of space travel is decidedly Russian (Putin doesn’t mess around), and has us meeting face to face with some very tough alien adversaries in the form of the Macropai.

As the unnamed and faceless Commissar, you’ve been sent to investigate the recent production troubles on a terraformed world far away from home, and find those responsible for the stoppage. You are essentially Judge and Jury and Space Marine all rolled into one badass package, which perhaps explains your exalted title. Unfortunately for all involved, those troubles are not of the human variety. Flying aliens have overrun the entire colony, placing nests near every major artery and complex. Most of the workers have perished, and the military (and its supplies) is scattered. Guess who’s just been promoted to de facto exterminator, comrade?

And exterminate you must. The entirety of Astralis is an open-world laundry list of cleanup objectives, mopping up one alien mess just to move on to the next. The helpful minimap and marker keep you on the path, with plenty of optional exploration to find ammo dumps, alternative weapons, and deserters to judge. Whatever route you travel, you’ll fight for every patch of ground you take. Your enemies are a smart bunch. Their resilience increases according to size (bigger guy = bigger trouble), and they come with some serious (and literal) teeth, attacking in packs and retreating to recoup health when damaged.

Almost a character all by itself, the environment on Tellaryn IV is among the most beautiful on XBLIG, with foreboding structures, gorgeous vistas, and a dynamic weather system that literally changes the color palette as you traverse, howling wind and heavy rains popping up without a moment’s notice, making an otherwise hostile alien world seem strangely all the more natural. While there’s no direct impact on the gameplay, it’s those little details in world construction that you silently appreciate.

Though it plays like almost any third-person shooter on console, the fact that it does is a testament to the controls and attention that went into the camerawork. For me, I never had to tweak the sensitivity, and I never once felt the action wasn’t perfectly framed. The shooting feels solid, and, regardless of weapon choice (shotgun, sniper, plasma rifle, etc.), incredibly effective. The challenge, too, is expertly balanced. Combat is combo-driven, with points / multipliers awarded for kills, which then translates to a save beacon you can place anywhere within the world. On Normal, you can fully enjoy the game without too much trouble, but the tentacled monstrosities really become a menace on the higher difficulties, where ammo conservation and a steady, tactical approach are vital.

Astralis - Screen

And you thought they smelled bad from far away?

Some minor quibbles. Given the world and surrounding set pieces, it’s a missed opportunity that Astralis doesn’t explain its universe a little more. Instead, it quickly ushers you from objective to objective, and any exposition given during the judgment conversations is kept largely superficial. Even the judgments themselves feel basic, with no real weight behind your decisions other than what you invent on your own. Points are handed out whether you forgive or punish. These are small nitpicks at best, mind you, and probably good news for the TL;DR set that abhors anything with a complicated plot, though I would’ve preferred more story.

Still, from the action / adventure viewpoint, the game is top notch. Easily the best third-person shooter available on the service, it’s worth so much more than the $1 it asks for. It’s like playing a really great N64 shooter during its heyday. And in a lot of ways, Astralis should be remembered as a landmark XBLIG, not just for its ideas, presentation, or its visuals, but as another title that turned the corner from simply being another independent game, or a copy of an existing property. Instead, it’s a game that shows what small teams with talent and dedication can produce, and their joy in creating and sharing that project reminds us why we pick up a controller to play them.

45 thoughts on “REVIEW: Astralis”

  1. I drop out of the scene for 4 months and look what happens! One of the games I was looking forward to the MOST to peer review is already on the system!

    Congrats Foxhaut! It looks great! Too bad the sales data is still stuck, I would have loved to see your post in the sales thread!

    1. The sales data issue is one of the reasons why I don’t completely buy into Microsoft’s plans for indies on Xbox One. Calling everyone’s game a game, and not labeling them separately is nice, but with the way things have gone for XBLIG, I can’t blame developers for being skeptical. You guys are getting a raw deal. That shit should’ve been fixed by now.

    2. Yeah… on one hand, this is the way things are going with marketplaces. No meticulously curated list, just a free for all for anyone willing to pay the (yearly) entrance fee. On the other hand… I really don’t see MS going down this path in this generation. I could be wrong… but why be secretive about it? Seems like it would be a huge PR boost for them.

      FYI : Our reports STILL show different entries for Trials and Purchases… it’s just that we can’t tell which is which as both have a value of zero. It’s definitely just a conversion issue in a database query… I could fix that in no time flat. MS could fix that in no time flat. Either they don’t want to fix it, or there is no one around to fix it.

    3. Probably no one around. Wasn’t the main contact for indies either let go or placed somewhere else? Usually that’s what I hear from other developers, queries going unanswered. Not hard to imagine things falling through the cracks with a large company like Microsoft, but you’d think there’d be someone, somewhere, that’s in charge of fielding indies. I’m sure that won’t be the case on Xbox One, but it’s not doing any favors for their PR department now.

    4. Thankyou! It was a joy to release it, and I’m glad you like it. I think the Xbox team will fix the sales data once Xbox One is launched, they have tweeted that they apologise for it, and it is probably ‘all hands on deck’ for the launch there I guess

    5. Time will tell. The launch is important, of course, and the ID@Xbox thing has been getting rave reviews to start (I’m curious to hear what developers think after the ‘events’ are concluded). Even if they never fix the sales data issue (I’m cynical, so forgive me), they can make up for it by supporting indie developers strongly in the new-gen.

    I have produced a list of tactics that should help you in your quest for space russia on the hostile planet.
    Things Commisar Saansilt is not allowed to do anymore on Tellaryn IV (And possibly everywhere else)
    1. The shot gun only makes death come faster
    2. I will kick enemies when they are close instead of just waiting for my weapon to reload
    3. I will not throw a landmine in the above situation.
    4. Or gernades.
    5. Or use the gernade launcher at that range.
    6. You are so shooting that foreman.
    7. Don’t use the plasma pistol on everything.
    8. But it is great for taking those little green and white floating lima bean marcopi.
    9. No, running to water will not save you, if you are swimming, you can’t shoot. The enemy? They already fly.
    10. Appreciate the assault rifle. Space russia leaves plenty of ammo for it.
    11. No, you can’t rocket jump.
    12. You place that save beacon now commisar…
    13. Or just die and lose 20 mins of progress, AGAIN.
    14. Circle strafing the marcopi is okay, running around in circles attracting every swarm you see is a very, very bad idea.
    15. Space russia does not like to see it men trying to leave the battle feild. There is no climbing gear for a reason, so don’t look for it!
    16. Giving liberty to almost everyone makes us wonder how you are a commisar.
    17. Never switch out an assault rifle with over 500 ammo for a shotgun in twele shells.
    18. Why haven’t you placed a save beacon?
    19. Stop shooting the pistol randomly, you could attract a swarm.
    20. That was the plasma rifle? Now theres only 6 ammo.
    21. Thats a big swarm.
    22. Explosive stupidty should be outlawed.
    23. Starting on hardcore wasn’t best idea.
    24. Wonder where are the females, if any, look for some, get swarmed.
    25. Reload before you enter combat, leaving one burst in the rifle was a bad idea.
    26. The sniper thins out swarms nicely. Shoot the weak ones.
    27. The gernade launcher only exsists to present the darwin award to the best and brightest of its commisars.
    28. (Facepalm) Comrades, SAVE BEACONS!
    29. Strategy is fun. The human wave technique tough? Not so much.
    30. The above is an automatic failure upon realizing you are ONE man.
    31. Hoping for a giant monster size marcopi is a sign of mental illness comrades. Please reaport to the medical wing for a beati- I mean… Treatment.

    1. Haha, #12, #13, #18, and #28 happened to me more than I’d like to admit playing on the Commissar difficulty. #10, though, come on, shotgun was my friend. Much better than the assault rifle, until I found the rocket launcher and just started winning, over and over again. The game hands out extra rockets like Halloween candy!

  3. Hey guys, I’m the Developer of Blood&Bacon, and also a really old indie game called Bloodycheckers…I bought Astralis after playing the demo. The game is fun and addicting…The creatures change over time once you get about 40 minutes into the game, and become even more difficult (also depends on your settings) . The sheer size of the map is what makes the game better than most, with zero lag, and 60 fps…..the game is smooth and fun to play. The game is only a $1 !!!!!!!!!!

    1. There you go, high praise from another developer that knows how to make fun, addicting games himself. You can’t get a better endorsement than that!

  4. Ok so tried the demo, def a nice 3ps engine but not enought creature variety, no bosses, I just wish it felt more visceral, the world did feel open and swimming and weather is a nice touch but moral judgements should be seen when executed. Hope it sells for the developer. But it seems indie games are dying fast imo. Hope the guy whos doing Dawn of the Ronin doesn’t decide to just release on pc now. sigh.

    1. If you’ve only played the demo, that means you’ve played for a maximum of 8 minutes (less when you factor in loading times). It seems a little hasty to declare that the game lacks variety after 8 minutes.

    2. The demo would do a good job of introducing the controls and representative gameplay, but Alan’s right, you can’t get all of what the game offers in eight minutes. There’s not a great deal of variety in enemies, but the combat is really fun, and the variety in enemy count / strength helps make up the difference.

      The game promises ‘Combat’, ‘Exploration’, and ‘Judgment’, and it fulfills all three. Excellent controls and pacing, too, just like Blood & Bacon 🙂 I was with you in wishing for an end boss or something in that vein, but after playing the game, it might’ve been a bit too predictable to drag out some larger alien for a showdown. If anything, I would’ve preferred more storyline, or even more combat with the regular enemy types.

      I’m pretty sure Dawn of the Ronin is coming to PC, though I know the Dev is committed to bringing to XBLIG as well. We’re safe on that front. It’s the old ‘publish on XBLIG so you can say you’re on a home console’, and put out the PC version so you can actually make some sales. Sad, but largely true, save for a few smart / lucky developers.

    3. Dawn of Ronin is looking really polished and well crafted. I’ll certainly be buying my copy. Blood & Bacon actually has the most epic boss battles I’ve seen in an XBLIG. As I posted in Tim’s review “Really glad you like it Tim, I helped to play test this, and found it great. Best coop wave shooter on XBLIGs? For my money… yes.”

  5. Great.
    Now I can buy it when I get home.
    I can see Starship troopers but I got a warhammer 40K vibe.
    Must be being called commmisar.
    Idea: A chainsaw sword upgrade to the the kick.
    That’d be epic.
    Great value tough.
    Hopefully it does well.

    1. I like your thinking as well, but how ’bout I 1UP that idea… chainsaw already -in- the boot, with the chainsaw teeth running around the length of the boot. Borrow another idea from Gears of War, and have the boot ‘revving up’ as you go into your roadie run. Russia does it better. That way, you can keep the boot kick animation you’ve got, and just add a chainsaw / required effects. Win-win. Eh? Eh?

      Don’t think about the logistics of the idea too much, just how badass that image is. …Boot Chainsaw. Yeah, you’re welcome. 🙂

  6. I completely agree, Astralis feels like a top-tier N64 game, in a good way. The controls, as you note, are pretty much perfectly pitched. That’s a miracle – I don’t think I’ve ever played an indie FPS/TPS either on XBLIG or PC that has had the ‘right’ controls. It’s responsive without being twitchy, the camera does what it’s told, the whole interface feels clean and smooth. Good work, Astralis people!

    1. Thanks Alan! We have a bunch of different systems processing the input under the hood which work in parallel to achieve this, and did a lot of play testing prior to release. Controls should never be part of the difficulty curve – if they work well they should immediately feel familiar to fans of the genre.

    2. I’m glad the ‘N64’ comparison came off as a good thing. I was worried that by not putting in some kind of disclaimer saying it was a compliment, people might get the wrong idea. Still trying to place what game made me come up with that comparison. I thought ‘Jet Force Gemini’ for a second, but I don’t think that’s it. Hmmm…

      @Daniel: I know you and I have discussed this before, but that’s a very good point on the playtesting, making sure that these kinds of things work automatically, with no learning curve / frustrations getting in the way. You guys did an excellent job in that regard.

  7. Delighted by your review – feels like we hit the target! There are a lot of interesting ideas here in relation to the backstory and characters, which would be interesting to explore. It is great to be part of XBLIGs and the indie movement!

    1. Yeah, Erik, but did you ever stop to consider that maybe it’s the aliens’ fault?

      Maybe the humans noticed that the aliens lacked hands / opposable thumbs, and they wanted to come in and build huge shopping malls for the aliens to shop at, or install cable so they could have access to 24 hr. (assuming Tellaryn IV’s day / night cycle is similar to Earth’s) ‘reality television’. You know, like the ‘perks’ us humans take for granted. Why should the rest of the universe be deprived?

  8. This game reminded me of the movie(s) Starship Troopers except the aliens are floating. (In fact I’m downloading all of them to give them a watch through….did you know there are 4 of them now?) I must agree that this game is one hell of a send off for the XBLIG channel on the Xbox 360. Personally I prefer the single player experience on the console considering there are plenty of free multiplayer games on the computer.

    xionix55 you must give a go at Alan Wake. The game is and incredible change from the norm for gaming in general. I like what Tim said about it being like a Twilight Zone but with your character narration. I need to get back and finally finish that game. I’m so bad at finishing games but I like to play a lot of them.

    1. I do love the original, but I stopped watching after that one, even when they brought back Casper Van Dien for the third. I momentarily forgot about the fourth film, then I remembered it was CG and not live-action. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything by not watching the others, though I may one day find myself in the mood for campy sci-fi.

  9. So the “Perfect Three” symphony have begun. I got some question, how long is the game? Also, I’m curious, the game is 3D or 2.5? I played the demo and it feels like a Doom II mod, the way you control the caracter, feels like a 1st person shooter with a character instead of a gun. Not that is bad thing, Doom II is one of my favorites 1st shooter. For what I played, its seems like a very fun game, but I will not put any judgement until I have played the full version. 3D single player games are hard to deserve much attention on the indies for what I have seem ((maybe Im wrong), but you can see the effort so I hope its get the credits its deserves.

    1. A winner is you! I’ll send the code along shortly.

      My first playthrough (on Normal) was an hour and a half. The second run, on the Commissar difficulty, was about the same. You’re graded on your performance, so it seems most players will probably do two different runthroughs at the least.

      It’s fully 3D, open world, though I can easily see some Doom II in there, with the enemies. From the camera style / controls, it feels like an adapted form of Gears of War for me. Single Player games can have a rough go at times, but I think there’s a market for it, especially when it’s going for a $1. Time will tell, of course, but it certainly deserves to find success.

    2. I see thx for the info and the code. Between “Games With Gold” (Halo 3? COME ON!!! Everybody have played that game, even if not you can find it with case and instruction manual plus no disc space for like 5 dollars) and the “The First To Anwswer This Comment”, the latter offers the better service plus no gold required. I think Gears Of Wars is the only Xbox exclusive I like that I have played (not tried Alan Wake yet), I pick up the 360 for the XBLA, then I discover the indies and you know the rest of the story, thx again lad.

    3. Ha. Thanks. Nice to hear that the ‘First to Reply to This Comment’ service is occasionally more worthwhile than XBL Gold. Astralis should keep you busy for a few hours, but I’d recommend checking out ‘Alan Wake’ before the 360 goes extinct. Really interesting game and mashup of styles on that one. Like a ‘Twilight Zone’ shooter, narrated by yourself (Alan Wake, of course, not actually you).

    4. Alan Wake is Awesome.
      Get it Xionix.
      Sorry tim, going on mobile, accidentaly hit the down thumb.

  10. Want to mercilessly hunt down and slaughter some alien bugs, comrade? First person to reply to this comment earns a copy of Astralis, courtesy of the fine folks at Foxhaut Games.

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