Review: Asterigos: Curse of the Stars is an almost stellar action-RPG

With Asterigos: Curse of the Stars, first-time Taiwanese developer Acme Gamestudio offers up a kinder, gentler take on the Soulslike action-RPG. Their grasp of the FromSoft formula is solid, and their effort to make it more accessible is welcome. This is a satisfying experience, even though the storytelling rarely does justice to the rich setting steeped in Greek and Roman mythology.

It has been clear for some time that a full-blown Soulslike boom is in effect. So frequent are these releases now that Asterigos isn’t even the first effort from Taiwan this autumn – that was Thymesia. To a large extent, Acme has adhered closely to the established formula. Playing as plucky young warrior Hilda, players can expect methodical combat against hard-hitting enemies, mediated by a stamina gauge. Magical conduits act as safe locations, the use of health potions and dodges must be carefully timed, and no less than 22 challenging bosses stalk the streets of the cursed city of Aphes.

Asterigos is significantly more forgiving than this setup implies, however — certainly on the standard “adventure” difficulty. Healing items are quite plentiful, and the penalties for defeat are modest. Some encounters can be bypassed, and powerful charged bombs can make tougher fights more manageable. Dark Souls veterans will likely want to tackle the game on its hardest setting, but even on “adventure” the bosses are a firm challenge. A duel with mythic songbird Eulalia, who fires barrages of razor-like feathers, is a memorable and thrilling hurdle in the early going.

This more accessible approach is mirrored in the setting that Acme has chosen for Asterigos. Aphes may be a cursed city, its residents condemned to an unwanted eternal life – but it is also the hub of a once glorious culture. Despite the curse, Aphes is mostly bright and often beautiful. The game has just a handful of distinct areas, but each has its own unique architecture and logic of exploration. A crowded wooden slum, for example, plays very differently to the paved commercial streets of Arges Bazaar, where Eulalia claims dominion. The game is built on Unreal Engine 4, and while the visuals aren’t quite cutting-edge, Asterigos has a warm and attractive look.

The choice of weapons and skills makes a huge difference to combat encounters.

Any action-RPG lives or dies by its combat, and here Asterigos makes a strong case. Almost from the outset of the game, Hilda possesses a set of six magic weapons: sword and shield, daggers, spear, hammer, staff, and bracelets. Two of these are equipped at any one time, with one standard attack and one special attack button for each. The weapon system is the game’s single most interesting aspect because the six options play quite differently. The spear, for example, is the only weapon with the ability to parry, which if successful can be followed up with a powerful counter-attack. Conversely, Hilda can only block when equipped with the sword and shield. The hammer is a more aggressive option, which can break the defensive stances of enemies while the bracelets can be used to deploy magic traps.

Hilda has a surprisingly extensive skill tree, oriented mainly around these six weapon options. When players level up, the buff to their standard stats feels a bit mundane. Spending skill points, though, can unlock some thrilling abilities. These are nominally tied to specific weapons, but don’t require said weapon to be equipped. If Hilda is toting a hammer and her bracelets, she can still equip and use a spear skill which yanks distant enemies into melee range.

These various options produce all kinds of interesting and fun combinations. It can be satisfying to devise a new mix of weapons and skills which helps to defeat a tough mob or boss which previously felt insurmountable. It helps a lot, too, that these flashy moves and combinations are never difficult to pull off, thanks to the game’s solid control scheme. The fact that each zone of Aphes has its own largely unique foes keeps things fresh – even when deaths cause enemies to return to life. By collecting and spending crafting materials, weapons can be given straight buffs to damage and there are also “enchantites” found throughout the game which add elemental damage. Interestingly, these sometimes even change the way that skills operate.

Acme have crafted some impressive and varied vistas in Unreal Engine 4.

Shepherding Hilda through Aphes and facing off against cultists, werewolves, bandits, and living statues is consistently compelling. Asterigos has a significant flaw, though, and that’s the delivery of its story. Hilda explores Aphes in order to follow up on a lost expedition led by her father. Soon, she begins working for immortal aristocrat Minerva in exchange for more information. This setup is just fine, but the narrative methods used by Acme constantly fall flat. Much of the tale is delivered through “echoes”, ghostly recordings of past conversations which aren’t animated at all. When Hilda speaks with Minerva or the other residents of an underground safe zone, these conversations are just as drab and static. The various journal entries and scraps of paper littered around are rarely worth reading.

It’s a real shame that Acme devoted so few resources to storytelling here. Aphes is a novel and intriguing setting, and Hilda’s journey is punctuated by exciting combat and challenging boss encounters. Asterigos: Curse of the Stars is an engaging and finely crafted action-RPG in which gameplay is its own reward — but a stronger narrative could have pushed it over the line to become something really special.

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