You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or a game by its sprites, but I admit I initially overlooked Astlibra Revision when it came out in mid-October. The Steam page for this platformer action JRPG from a Japanese solo developer has over fifteen years of development time, but looks like some kind of crazy fantasy clipart collage. Even the catchiest screenshots are a confusing clash of mismatched art from different sources, poorly cropped images, and poorly tiled terrain.
And yet it now has over 5,000 Steam user reviews, almost all of them positive. Hundreds more are coming in every day – huge numbers for an unknown Japanese indie. Between the buzz in the store and a few people I follow on Twitter singing his praises, I took the plunge. I’ve now played about forty hours, enjoyed them all, and I’m not done yet, because it’s an almost endless source of surprises.
This might be one of the best games I’ve played this year. I think I even like the art now. What is going on?
First, let’s talk about the oddly parallaxed elephant in the room – much (though not all) of Astlibra’s art and music seems to have come from cheap or free libraries, seemingly thrown together with no regard for coherence. After Astlibra made a strong impression with an early demo release came Vanillaware artist Shigatake put together to contribute art and help improve the look of the game, hence the ‘revision’ part of the title. The presence of his and a few other contributors’ (admittedly impressive) sprite work makes the disjointed look all the more apparent.
And yet I can’t help but love Astlibra’s amateurish appearance. It grew on me, perhaps because you can feel the intent behind every choice – even without art to fit every situation perfectly, developer Keizo’s approaches are evocative in the same way an ASCII roguelike would. You can see what it’s supposed to represent, and the ghost fills in the rest. Moreover, it is not unheard of for Japan India to produce big hits with limited artistic skills; see the all-conquering Touhou project or visual novels like Higurashi.
Worshiping False Adols
Among the oddly produced sprites, Astlibra pays homage to a largely forgotten breed of platform RPG. While modern metroidvanias are similar in some ways, Astlibra feels more like a throwback to the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Japan’s PC game industry was booming and studios like Falcom ruled with games like Wanderers From Ys. A sword and shield-wielding hero who stands atop a thick status bar and explores a side-scrolling world of danger and adventure.
While intuitive enough for fans of metroidvanias, this is a subtly different experience, taking equal notes from Falcom and similar retro classics, as well as Vanillaware hack n’slashers like Odin Sphere and Muramasa. Astlibra is divided into a series of episodic adventures, each a small self-contained world with a city and its people with their own problems and secrets. While you can freely go back to previous regions, each area is simple and memorable enough not to need a map. That’s good, because there isn’t.
The soundtrack also channels Falcom in the best way. Anyone familiar with the Ys series knows how incredibly energetic their music is, awash with soaring, guitar-led themes of high adventure. Astlibra’s massive soundtrack draws on dozens of (fully credited) sources, and even as the genre and style change with whiplash-inducing frequency, it always matches the tone of the scene, from orchestral grandeur to cartoonish whimsy. Maybe it’s talking about Keizo’s prowess as a DJ, but somehow a vocal drum and bass track fits perfectly with a high-stakes bullet hell boss fight. It’s musical alchemy and I love it, completely and sincerely.
Supported by the music, the action also hits a lot of high notes. Like the Ys games (especially modern ones), Astlibra’s action moves at lightning speed. You rush from one fight to the next, bashing swarms of monsters, maintaining damage-boosting three-digit combo chains punctuated by violent spells cast with simple fighting game inputs. It’s fast, and on hard mode or higher, the stakes are very high. Almost any enemy can rip huge chunks off your health bar, making you dependent on snap blocks, parries, and the moment of invulnerability after casting a spell. It’s a complex dance.
The dozens of hours of combat are supported by a similarly complex, ever-expanding web of interlocking progression systems. Much of your power comes from a vast stat upgrade grid (ie is doing have a minimap) fueled by gems dropped from monsters. Defeating monsters grants you crafting parts and recipes, which lead to new gear. Use gear enough and it will gain new powers, or provide magical gems that allow you to use those powers to use independently of gear. New spells, skills, and items constantly provide new move options and tactics, and stats gained through traditional leveling can be redistributed at will, allowing you to fine-tune your build at any time.
It all starts simple, but respecting, experimenting and creating new (and storable) gear and builds at will can become an obsession. I built a boss-buster loadout around the Berserker ability, which triples damage at the cost of limiting you to 1 health. Skills that automatically block incoming attacks improve survivability, and another skill lets me shrug off one hit per room, adding a small margin of error. Optional bosses with seemingly endless health pools melt and all I have to do is play perfectly and never get hit. Simple! Even if the story fell flat, I’d be invested, but that part of Astlibra Revision is also surprisingly engaging.
A big ball of wobbly, wobbly, timely… stuff
Much like the game’s sink approach to aesthetics and systems, Astlibra’s story initially sounds like JRPG madlibs; the high fantasy adventure of a young amnesiac swordsman and his sassy talking crow friend in a world overrun with demons. And then the time travel begins, all bets are off and situations get messier and less predictable every time the clock is turned back to an increasingly strange world. Each standalone chapter has its own emotional arc (including some very Yoko Taro-esque plunges into desperation), but adds enough to the overarching plot that I didn’t realize how invested I was in the characters and world until it had fully been hook into me.
Cliché perhaps, but Astlibra is more than the sum of its parts. What looked like a mess turns out to be a fast paced, focused and highly immersive RPG with ambition and heart. It is also bursting with surprises. Several times I thought the game was coming to an end, only for the stakes to escalate further. Even deep in what it shyly calls the “post-game,” Astlibra is still dropping new twists and gameplay mechanics on me, turning disposable foreshadowings into major plot points, and finding new and creative ways to complicate time travel. No exaggeration: this game is practically its own sequel.
Most of Astlibra’s positive reviews come from China, where publisher and localizer WhisperGames is based (the English translation is passable save for the occasional typo or formatting error), but it deserves to be a global success. If you’re even slightly interested, try the surprisingly weird demo.