The Astronite looks like it’s from the ZX Spectrum, and that’s exactly what it’s designed for. Advertised as a “1-bit Metroidvania”, it’s rendered in stark black and white, with thin lines and all the evocative hallmarks of a bygone era of PC gaming. It even has little floppy icons in save points and old phones in teleportation devices, allowing you to jump from one side of the map to the other.
The difficulty of Astronite is also another nod to the nascent years of video games. A good, serious challenge, he starts digging already in the Abandoned Grottoes with a nasty set of Mario World-like stone plungers, spikes and water interfering with your movement.
On paper, it looks and sounds very similar to Devolver Digital’s Gato Roboto, but the Astronite is different in that it’s simpler on one side and generally harder on the other. While its structure is typical of Metroidvania, anyone who has recently played Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth will be able to easily spot the differences. While Deedlit stressed the need to grind enemies to level up and drop key items, placing your campaign’s hopes on weapons, strength, and combat skills, Astronite goes in a different direction.
You start out with your crashed spaceship, as stocky and charming as anything else in Neplea’s dark, dark world, and after using your jetpack, map module, and weapons to navigate the initial set of screens, you’ll quickly lose it all. . While the task of restoring and fortifying your equipment is familiar enough, in Astronite you don’t level up by killing enemies, but rather send them out for Neplea’s elusive currency, Spirtis, which can be spent in shops to purchase upgrades. These include improvements to the rate of fire and range, jetpack accessories that increase your time in the air, a useful dash feature, and even the ability to see the number of shots it takes to defeat an enemy. But, in a nod to Dark Souls, death will strip you of all Spirties you’re wearing unless you’ve purchased Spirty’s Insurance, which saves 25% of your supply.
In order to recover your reward, you need to return to the place of death by daring back from any save location you have been to before. It’s a system that works surprisingly well for this type of adventure and encourages you to return to the shops to make sure you’ve paid your bills while you can. This can be frustrating if you’ve accumulated a large amount of Spirti, died, and returned to the place of your demise, only to die again before you get there, because, as you might expect, the most recent death pool replaces the previous one, which means that you could end up losing a ton of currency if you’re not pragmatic about saving and repeating your steps.
However, there are places where you can take advantage of the odd grind. One area near a save point in Daedel’s Caverns gives you the option to clear a busy screen, save, and then respawn enemies (and they won’t respawn unless a death or save occurs). It’s also located right next to the teleportation center, which means you can return to the store to spend the money. However, some items must be found first, including your dashboard module and jetpack, indicating that your first purchase is best spent on a relatively inexpensive map module to get an idea of your location. As you search the far corners of the map, you’ll also earn currency from hidden chests and other secrets, some of which can save you money.
Astronite’s clean visuals are accompanied by well-weighted, responsive controls, and everything runs smoothly. Although it looks like a 1-bit game, it uses modern hardware with nice atmospheric animations and big boss battles. It’s a very well designed game: fun to play from the start, easy to set up, and gets less confusing the more maps you open up. Boss fights are often amazing, especially the one where you fend off a machine gun ship on a bridge. In this game, the emphasis is on navigating the rough sections of the platform and using your ever-growing skills, rather than slaying large roaming monsters.
At the same time, it can be quite difficult to break the spirit of some at an early stage. By comparison, Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is child’s play. Here, some of the screens are designed to challenge your reflexes, making your timing and approach key, and sometimes repetitive to the point of gnashing your teeth. Whether it’s jetpack speeding through tunnels littered with wandering saws or figuring out a strategy for gritty boss fights, Astronite loves to put some decent pressure on.
But it’s also thought out enough to help you through the first trials, encourage the gathering of Spirti, and then help turn the tide. When your health eventually increases, when you have a double dash and can stay in the air longer, things start to fall into place. Then it remains just to train rough skills until locked doors open and new locations open up. The campaign has a good length and the map eventually starts to add up as you unlock secret items and areas, the world gets satisfactorily smaller as you speed things up. It’s a very enjoyable process, and in many ways losing health and magic points, mountains of items and weapons, and focusing on an astute platformer is a very big merit. It also has a wonderful vibe, with occasional musical interludes marking a dive into the watery depths, or dripping, cobwebbed crevices of subterranean cavern networks adding just enough detail to let your imagination do the rest.
There are downsides. Some objects that look like spiky hazards will make you avoid them like the plague until you realize that they are actually meant for the background. The old PC monitor filters aren’t particularly good, and one of them is a mess. The vibration feature does get used a little too often, especially when it threatens to blow the screws out of your tablet, permanently turning off on the last health bar, but it can be turned off at any time in the pause screen settings. The soundtrack is a little too sparse at times, although the silence of things adds to the mood. And yes, some people might be bothered by its harshly old-fashioned level of difficulty. However, it is worth sticking with.
Astronite is a modern-day Metroidvania game that delivers fun with clean design, map layouts, currency systems, and ability upgrades. Its simple focus on platforming traps and cave talks is more Metroid than Vania, and refreshing in a genre that usually follows the Japanese grind path for levels and magic. With a little effort, it turns out to be a well-thought-out and well-executed action-adventure with a few magical moments in boss battles and NPC characters. Its black and white style may not appeal to everyone, but it’s easy to recommend to those who are intrigued and will make a good companion for Gato Roboto fans looking for more of a challenge.