People talk about underrated games a lot, and I can understand why: uncovering those hidden gems that no one got the chance to appreciate feels like getting that new game you always wanted. However, these underrated gems always seem to come from the most highly rated game systems: it’s easy for someone to talk about Totally Rad on the NES, but when you have a system that no one’s played with a game that no one’s played, you have something no one’s ever played (I think I’m done hyperbolizing for now). So this week I’m looking at Astal for the Sega Saturn.
Astal stars the title character, which has many similarities to Knuckles: he’s a gruff loner who is in charge of protecting a giant green gem of amazing powers that gets stolen to start off our game. He even looks a bit like Knuckles, with a focus on his big hands and the color red. Anyways, the whole back story of Astal is really more complicated than it needs to be, but I supposed they wanted to establish a story arc for Astal where he changes over time to become less jaded. That does happen, thanks to a tiny bird that he saves and befriends him over time. As often with platformers, it’s not something that hasn’t been done before, and in this case the story doesn’t affect the game all that much, but it is cool that they tried to have the events and the journey affect the hero as it goes, instead of just a basically going back to the status quo at the end.
As already mentioned, Astal is pretty much a typical platformer, but it’s so polished and well done. It’s not one of those speed based ones, like a Mario or Sonic though. If I’d have to compare this to another game, I’d have to say it’s more like the original Rayman or Ristar (another failed Sega mascot series). The challenge comes not from wanting to move quickly and figuring out how to avoid obstacles in time, but more from how to deal with what the environment is throwing at you.
Oddly enough, another thing that makes Astal like Ristar is the fact that his main skill is grabbing. Most of the time he’ll just grab baddies and throw them aside for a kill, but there are moment where it gets used for puzzles (though, never really that creatively). However, Astal has other skills, such as a ground pound and super breath. If that’s not good enough for the scenario, the bird that he rescues can lend a hand, either by pin-balling across the screen and attacking all the enemies, or by bringing Astal some health, both of which are more potent depending on when you use them. All this makes for a game that is very intuitive, but still presents enough of a challenge.
As the game revolves around gems and crystals, it’s no surprise that Astal is a beautiful game. Although this game is in 2D, Sega decided to put the extra capabilities of the Sega Saturn to good use. Sure, it’s not enough to warrant a whole new system, but it’s still stunning. The game makers really dedicate themselves to the gem/jewel motif for everything and it really works in the game’s favor.
On the side of audio, it’s ok. The music suits the atmosphere fine in that somewhat mystical sense, but never really gets me pumped or excited. The sound effects kind of have that element to them as well, especially when you toss an enemy to have him break into pieces. However, I think the cut scenes have the most interesting audio since it’s just still images. The music is kind of too soft and the voice acting is really awkward. However, as I said earlier, I don’t think the plot is all that amazing, so it doesn’t take away too much from it.That’s all I can really say about Astal (once of the few times I’ve managed to talk about story, game play AND esthetics). It’s just a really competently put together platformer video game. The only thing that works against it is that it plays it pretty safe (despite the risk of being on the Saturn- heeeyyyyooo). There’s no moment where it gets really intense or tries for some unexpected twist, and there’s nothing that keeps you coming back for any reason. Other than that, this is a really good game, and if it were on the Genesis, I have no doubt it would be fondly remembered and often talked about. However, this isn’t what’s expected out of a new console. With the cost of the system and the game itself starting online at around 30$, it’s just not worth it for most people, but as someone who tumbled upon it, I was pleasantly surprised. I give Astal for the Sega Saturn 9 levels out 10.