Souls for all the family…
In the increasingly busy gaming landscape, it’s always tricky to keep on top of smaller titles that can frequently get buried underneath the torrent of AAA glitz and glam, those games that we’d have once upon a time referred to as AA but can frequently nowadays get shoehorned into the often derogatorily used category of “indie game”. To me, that’s a shame, because as Microsoft’s GamePass has show, there are some absolutely great games being developed by smaller studios getting released on almost a weekly basis. One game we can now add to that pile of potentially underappreciated titles is the quite lovely Asterigos: Curse of the Stars, the first release from Acme Gamestudios.
Look, I’m going to get this out of the way early – Asterigos is what team NGB would most likely refer to as an “Andy Game” or, to put it another way, a Soulslike… No, come back! I’m genuinely hoping that the success of Elden Ring has stopped folks running a mile whenever you mention that oft maligned subgenre of action RPG. Look, you know the drill by now; Soulslike games frequently have interconnected worlds, heavy RPG mechanics, flexible character builds and rock hard enemies. What you may be pleased to hear, though, is that Asterigos takes the concept of a Soulslike and distils it down into a package that will appeal to gamers of all skills. Yes, folks, you don’t need lightning quick reactions or the mind of Vaatividya to enjoy this game and its lore – this is the ideal gateway drug for those who are Dark Souls curious.
So let’s start with the basics. Asterigos is, at its core, a third person action RPG where you take on the role of young adventurer Hilda as she explores the mystical city of Aphes in search of her missing father. After a very solid tutorial section in which the game does a great job of teaching you the controls and mechanics, as well as letting you slap a massive crocodile about the face, you’re dropped into the city and the hideaway of a group of mythical, possibly godlike beings, who are trying to bring order into the cursed metropolis. This hideaway will serve as your base of operations for the game, the place where you will come to get new missions, tune up your weapons and buy new consumables for your adventures.
Stylistically Asterigos takes a lot of inspiration from Greek and Roman mythology. Aphes is a sprawling city full of bleached architecture, wide open plazas and collisseums, while enemies are clearly influenced by mythical beasts like minotaurs and harpies. The city and its layout is probably one of my favourite parts of the game and stood out immediately. Anyone who’s seen my video praising the world design of Dark Souls will know I love a game that has a world which fits neatly together, and Aphes does just that. A stroll through the Bazaar, for example, will take you to various different areas of the game, some you’ve already visited and some you’ll need to venture to later in the game for other quests. It’s easy to steer away from the critical path and find a new area that has something to explore, maybe discovering some new loot that could be useful on your journey.
Gameplay wise, Asterigos makes the interesting choice to give you all available weapons from the get go. You can arm Hilda with a Sword and Shield, Spear, Knives, Magic Staff, Hammer or Magic Bracelets, each having a unique attack and special ability. You can equip two of these at a time to create some unique combos, meaning you can experiment with your ideal loadout from the word go. Personally I plumped for the combo of the Spear, with its devastating parry and riposte, and the Staff with its ranged magic attacks and a fun AOE blast that could be combo’d in with my basic spear jabs. It’s quite refreshing to have all options open to you from the start in a very Monster Hunter like fashion, but there is a danger that getting all the toys early could lead to them becoming boring. Thankfully the game spices this up a little with its talent system.
As you play, you’ll accrue experience and, after you reach a certain level of experience, you’ll level up – as you do. This gives you ability points to spend on basic stats for Hilda, like more HP, stronger base attacks and more stamina. On top of this, each level will also award you with a number of talent points that you can spend on the game’s tech tree. This will allow you to invest in buffs for your existing abilities, passive skills which will give you bigger dodge windows and more health back from the healing potions you’ll be quaffing after a fight, but it also ties into talents. Talents represent each weapon that you have available to you and putting points into them will give you better attacks as well as special abilities you can equip and use by holding down the right bumper and tapping a face button. These abilities consume action points which will increase as you defeat enemies, and allow you to perform devastating attacks, or create area effects to help with healing and suchlike. The cool thing here is that you can use a weapons special ability without having that weapon equipped, meaning you can mix and match different abilities to tweak your loadout as you see fit. It’s a smart system and it quickly gets you experimenting with each weapon on offer.
Defeating enemies is also how you’ll upgrade your gear. Each downed foe will drop some Stardust, Asterigos’ Souls equivalent. You can use this to buy equipment from shops, as well as spend at the blacksmith to level up your favourite weapons and craft trinkets to give your defense a boost. As you progress the story you’ll also come into possession of elemental buffs that you can swap between at any time. These give your attacks powers such as fire and ice, can help you get through different puzzles in the world and are similarly upgradable.
Aside from the nifty gameplay elements, Asterigos has a surprisingly strong story. For the most part told with full voice acting and a visual style that is comic book esque, yet not childlike (think similar games like the criminally underloved Immortals: Fenyx Rising or Kena: Bridge of Spirits) the story in Asterigos explores a city that is in a similar kind of ruin to Bloodborne’s Yarnham, where the residents have formed themselves off into distinct social groups such as the mutated cultists, or the rather Borderlands esque population of the Black Streets. As she explores this city for her father, Hilda will have to try and help its residents and every choice the player makes in the story will affect the potential outcomes to future encounters, even the decision to fight or spare certain bosses. All of this is presented in a surprisingly accessible package, however, with varying difficulty levels to help players of all ages ease into the Soulslike style of game in a way that will hopefully pique interest in other, similar titles.
Sadly I did find one or two negatives during my playthrough on XBox Series X. While the games visuals are certainly lovely, it was disappointing to not see a HDR presentation in place which could leave those potentially vibrant graphics looking a little drab in places. The game also lacks options for performance or quality modes which we’ve come to expect from the next gen consoles – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it delivers a solid 60fps on the big boy Xbox, but it would be nice to have some options to tweak the visuals a little. There’s also a slight lack of polish at times, from stiff animations to dialogue that doesn’t quite gel together coherently. However, this is a full embracing of those AA game standards we don’t get to see enough of these days, and for a game from a relatively new team with the scope that Asterigos has, it feels like very small criticism for what is ultimately a fun, bright and ambitious Action RPG.