As part of our Steam Next Fest coverage, I decided to try out the demo for Astral Flux, an upcoming action-adventure 2D platformer set to release on October 28th. If you want to try it out yourself, I suggest playing through it now and coming back later to read the rest of this article; there will be minor spoilers! Steam Next Fest is still running until October 10th.
The demo is relatively short, my run clocking in at 48 minutes including pausing to take notes. Regardless, it does a fine job at conveying what the game is about, how it feels to play, and what you can expect from the full version. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
The demo is divided into one tutorial level, a cutscene, and the entire first level of the game. The tutorial is your usual, run-of-the-mill obstacle course that teaches you the various movement mechanics you’ll have to deal with as well as how to interact with objects, climbable surfaces like ladders and nets/vines and so on. So far, so good.
Then, there’s the cutscene. It serves to set up the reason you’ll be going into the first level: looking for a resource to power your space ship. Your partner goes to the nearby planet while you stay behind to defend the ship, but eventually you go after him after he’s been gone for too long.
The cutscene does an alright job of leading you into the first level without taking five minutes to get to the point, which is great, however the way the cutscene was edited felt a bit off. Now, the sequence is composed of still images which are cycled through one after the other, with dialogue running at the bottom of the screen. With a relatively static scene, it felt jarring when, five seconds after your partner leaves for the planet, the next frame has your character saying (paraphrasing here) “he’s been gone for quite a while, I better check on him”. There could be space for another image in-between those two that shows the passage of time.
The entire first level of the game is the actual selling point of this demo. The level itself is thematically divided into three sections: Getting to the boss, defeating the boss and getting back to your Space DeLorean. It’s not as straightforward as you might think!
Without getting into the individual parts of the gameplay, like monsters, combat and loot, just yet, I want to take a moment to talk about how the level runs.
The environment is procedurally generated, meaning you’ll always have to navigate a unique landscape when you start over. Yes, you will most likely start over: Death resets you to the beginning of the level, and you want to avoid dying for two reasons: To save time as well as to avoid the truly ominous experience of dying. I don’t go into what happens when you cross over, for I fear they will find me as they found the main character.
My first death came rather unexpectedly. Once the level booted up, the first thing I did was take my sweet time to try and see if there’s anything above the main screen, as numerous other platformers taught me that’s a great place to hide loot. Only when my vision started to blur did I see the little countdown timer on the left side of the screen telling me I was about to asphyxiate. That’s when I realized the gameplay loop is: Rush through the first section, getting as many power-ups as you can, defeat the boss and only then, if you’ve got enough time left, try and find some secrets.
Astral Flux became a time-management game. My seventh run was where I managed to beat the level and, consequently, the demo, after becoming comfortable enough to dash my way through the whole map in record time. Once, I made it to the boss and then just ran out of air next to him before we even fought.
Monsters, Powers, Loot, Systems & Mechanics
There’s no shortage of cool ideas to find in Astral Flux, and this is comes from playing just one level. There’s lots to unpack, especially in terms of monster variety, and while I can’t speak for the rest of the game, I get the vibe there’s still a lot of design space left to incorporate even more unique monsters as the game ramps up in difficulty, without having to rely on just buffing existing ones and changing their color to something more threatening, like purple.
Small blue jellyfish, long yellow jellyfish, orange worm, spiky turtle thing, frustrating flower and even some you can only find in a special arena, like a swarm of mini-wasps and a drone thing. I was very pleased with the variety of encounters which push you to approach each one differently.
What works against these encounters is the oxygen time limit. As these monsters drop no loot, your best strategy for each encounter is to dodge it rather than engage and waste precious time. It is, in fact, the reason I haven’t figured out how to defeat the aforementioned spiky turtles, although I’ve got a feeling it has something to do with all these explosive barrels.
One situation where the procedurally generated map works against monster design if when encountering the ‘frustrating flower’. The flower’s attack is to release a circular ‘nova’ of petals around itself, slowly getting bigger as they decay into nothingness. The gun can make quick work of the flower if you’re able to find a platform with the right angle to shoot from and it’s far enough away.
However, I did stumble upon a couple flowers that were spawned in a very cramped space, meaning I’d have to get real close to deal damage. With how tight the window to strike in near-melee range is (before the flower disperses another set of petals), I started avoiding the flowers each run and trying to find pathways around them, dodging yet another encounter.
As far as I could find, there’s two instances in the demo level where you can get a power upgrade. One is inside an arena (which we’ll get to later) and another right before the boss fight. The powers come in your usual flavors: increase melee damage, increase gun damage, increase gun rate of fire. The real fun stuff are the powers that augment your dash ability. Considering the mechanics of the boss fight, as well as the game pushing you to speed through the level, of course I always picked the powers that made my dash deal damage, as well as make me invulnerable during dashing.
It should be noted you don’t always get the same selection of powers. You always get to pick one of two, but they seem to be sorted into random pools. I always received one option to empower the dash, and one to empower some aspect of my weapons. Without having access to more levels, I am also unsure if the powers you choose stick with you throughout the entire game.
There’s three ‘common’ things you can pick up (hearts, oxygen bubbles and coins) as well as a few unique drops, like a map that reveals the entire level and a heart that increases your maximum number of hearts by one.
The hearts and oxygen bubbles are found in jugs scattered throughout the environment and are common enough that you should always bump into one in every ‘chunk’ of the level. It should be noted that oxygen bubbles are noticeably rarer than hearts.
The coins tend to just hover about, but you can also find them in chests. Chests also contain the +1 max hearts and the map reveal loot, and they are rarer but still findable if you take a bit of time to explore (what are you, an oxygen baron?).
Systems & Mechanics
We’ve already gone through movement mechanics (which feel good) and monsters (which are varied but but the game makes you want to just skip them). Now, let’s talk about the arena.
There’s a green rhombus you can find somewhere in the level that teleports you to an arena, where you fight “wave 1 of 1”. Defeating the wave, which in this case spawns two random monsters, awards you with a choice of two power-ups. We can only assume there’s going to be a… green rhombus arena in every level of the game, with an increasing number of waves. Regardless of the oxygen time limit, you should always look for the rhombus!
I mentioned there’s coins to collect, but I didn’t say what they do. This one took me several runs to figure out. Across the map, you may bump into several water tank-looking things that have a random number on them. Pressing E next to them consumes that number of coins from your inventory and gives you that many seconds of oxygen. If you don’t have enough coins, however, you just wasted a few seconds trying to get that button to turn green for nothing!
Something I haven’t touched on is the door to the boss fight. To open the door, you need to find and activate three switches. Thankfully, due to the randomized level generation, there’s more than three switches you can find. Activating the first three you find will open the door and the rest of the switches will disappear, ensuring you don’t spend too much time looking for badly-spawned switches and you don’t stop and wonder “why are there more switches?” after the door is already open.
I also talked about looking for secrets! In one of my middle-of-the-pack runs, I remembered that the explosive barrels you can find scattered throughout the environment are able to damage any ground tiles, including those you can’t smash with your sword. As time-consuming as it was, I eventually managed to both drag these barrels to the bottom of the map, and blow them up in the right spot to tear a hole through the ground. Well, what do you know, there’s a whole secret zone underneath the map, with a lot of platforms chilling above some lava, and a whole three chests to crack open!
Naturally, as I made my way back to the opening I’d just carved a minute ago after looting all the chests, I was wondering how I was going to get back up – an upward dash may have not been enough – when I fell into the lava. Nonetheless, I enjoyed figuring out how to access this secret area and got a good dose of Atomic Bomberman nostalgia doing it.
Just from looking at the pictures in this article, you the reader can probably agree Astral Flux is a beautiful game. There’s good ways and there’s bad ways to do pixel art, but I reckon this game’s done the former. Aside from the environment looking pretty, it also does well to convey that this planet has life; I’ve seen my fair share of pixel art that, while good-looking, misses the mark on blending together with other elements of the overall design.
I’d also like to give a special shout-out to whoever had the idea to let me chop up the bits of dead boss into heart loot. So satifying.
The music is appropriate as well and managed to stay ‘fresh’ in my mind as I tried and tried to pass this level several times. It is of key importance for music in games to complement the gameplay experience rather than take center stage. Were this a heavier, more oppressive tune, it would get old faster and become a distraction.
Speaking of distractions, there was one element of sound design I’m a bit torn on: the sound effect for sliding off a wall. I absolutely love the crisp textures that were woven together to create the effect, but I do wonder if it’s just slightly too loud and might end up being too noticeable after playing for a few hours.
- Encountered a bug, twice, where I wouldn’t be able to use the melee attack upon beginning the level after dying. I think it may be related to “windows key-ing” out of the game to take notes before a level restart.
- The keys for melee (Left CTRL, Z) and shooting (Left ALT) felt weird to my permanently WASD-curled hand. I know this is a demo and there’s no real need to include key binding options, but I hope they can be changed when the full version comes out.
- If the first boss fight is any indication of what’s to come, I’m feeling very positive about the next bosses. The fight itself introduces its mechanics in a staggered, well-telegraphed way and after at most a couple of tries you should understand the ‘rhythm’ of the battle well enough to be victorious.
- I do feel there should be a throwaway line somewhere about how your time in the level is limited by the oxygen you have, as well as some quick explanation regarding how to use the water tanks which are actually oxygen tanks.
While the demo was short, it did manage to convey enough for me to form an idea about the full game. Honestly, I think it’ll be good. My main gripe is with the time limit and scarcity of oxygen – I’m used to spending ridiculous amounts of time in platformers looking for secrets – as well as the consequences of this system (pushing you to skip fighting altogether where possible), but I do think the game can still work even with the time limit.
A suggestion on this front would be to at least give more oxygen on the first level. Many players may not even think to look for the secret lava zone when pressured to keep going. It’s important that the first level of a game gives you time to interact, explore and learn all the mechanics and systems that were left out of the tutorial. Someone may not even consider looking for secret areas if they don’t find one in the first level!
Overall, I think the developers nailed the general vibe they were going for with Astral Flux. Monsters are well-designed, the loot you find is relevant, the boss fight is fair and (arguably one of, if not the, most important aspect of a platformer) the movement mechanics are tuned to perfection. I can’t wait to see the rest of the game.
Astral Flux is being developed by Cosmocat and Studio VDS (van der Stoep) and is set to release on October 28th on Steam. It is made in Unity.
Have you played the demo for Astral Flux? What’s your opinion on the game? Let us know in the comments below!
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