ASTLIBRA Revision Review (Switch eShop)

Capturing ASTLIBRA on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Sometimes good things come to those who wait, and few things embody this concept better than ASTLIBRA Revision, the final release of a game that’s been developed by one man for over 15 years. KEIZO, a humble Japanese salaryman, started work on Astlibra because he felt there weren’t enough 2D action RPG games that filled the niche he most enjoyed. Over time, he released the game in parts as an ongoing freeware project, and in the last couple of years, a team came together to help him finally get it across the finish line. Astlibra Revision isn’t without flaws, but this is overall an enjoyable and unique action RPG that we’d recommend you check out.

The Tale of Astlibra

Astlibra’s story primarily follows a nameless blond boy who loses a young girl close to him in a sudden monster attack on his village. When he comes to, he’s been struck with amnesia (ugh) and has no idea who or where he is, though he finds himself accompanied by a mysterious but friendly talking crow named Karon. The two set out to find their way back to the protagonist’s hometown, but they spend over eight years roaming the wilds with no success, and without seeing a single other human for the entire duration.

Over the 40-ish hours it will take to clear the main story, things naturally get a lot more interesting, looping in ghosts, witches, time travel, dimension-hopping, and god-killing. It can be pretty hard to follow at times, perhaps partially because of the extended, stop-and-go nature of the development cycle, but Astlibra ultimately tells a memorable and emotional tale. In many ways, we were reminded of some of the early Xeno games with the ‘weightiness’ of its tone, yet this narrative still feels approachable enough.

Gameplay and Combat

Gameplay in Astlibra could be most accurately described as an action-focused JRPG, with elements of an ’80s text-based adventure and a Metroidvania thrown in for good measure. It is broken up into isolated chapters, each of which has its own storylines, characters, and locales, after which you return to a hub city. In many ways, you can very clearly tell that this project was made in stops and starts over the course of 15 years, as it can seem rather disjointed and stitched together, but the final product is ultimately worth sticking with.

Combat is the star of the show in Astlibra, presenting as a mixture of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the Ys series. You engage foes in basic hack ‘n’ slash battles, evading attacks with a quick backstep or a well-timed block with your shield. Meanwhile, every hit you land with your weapon builds up ST, which can be burned by a D-pad input that briefly summons a magic attack or creature, such as a rock spire erupting from the ground or a small dragon dealing AoE damage with its breath. Land enough attacks on a foe, and you’ll knock them into the ‘Break’ state where they’re frozen and take extra damage.

This combat system features the perfect balance of simplicity and complexity, but the most alluring feature is the moment-to-moment feedback. There’s a satisfying crunch with every swing of a club or a slash of a sword, as the screen briefly pauses or shakes to sell the weight of the impact. Sometimes it can almost seem like these animation effects cause battles to get too chaotic when you’re being swarmed with enemies, but even so, there’s a tremendous sense of texture to encounters that never gets old—Astlibra does a great job of making combat feel suitably weighty.

Character Progression and Exploration

Character progression is handled via a multipronged approach that gives you a few different avenues to power up your character. Leveling up via defeating enemies grants you a few skill points you can manually distribute to different stats, while enemies will also drop colored orbs that can be invested into a mazelike skill tree that unlocks an assortment of additional one-off stat bumps and abilities. On top of this, equipment items you wear can be leveled up and ‘mastered’ individually, with each one usually granting you a new passive ability for Karon that can be activated by using crystals you find while exploring.

And grinding will be required occasionally while you progress, as the difficulty scaling can be all over the place. Luckily, there’s an almost Diablo-like sense of mindlessness to the combat that really satisfies the lizard brain—battles against trash mobs kind of require your attention, but you can easily have your attention on a podcast or Netflix show while you slowly work to make the numbers go higher. Those constant stat rewards really add some good feedback to encounters, and you don’t need to spend all that long toiling in an area before you’re ready to take on the next boss or dungeon.

Obtuse Puzzle Design and Signposting

Though we loved the way that combat and character progression is handled in Astlibra, one area in which it notably stumbles is in its obtuse puzzle design and signposting. This is the sort of game that expects you to talk to every NPC, and even doing this will sometimes only yield a vague hint about where you’re supposed to go next. Other times, you’re not really told what to do and just have to stumble around in the dark until you figure it out. For example, we noted one egregious event early on where progress was gated behind a conversation with a shopkeeper, but the only way to trigger that specific conversation was to talk to another completely unrelated NPC elsewhere in the village.

The point is, Astlibra can sometimes feel antiquated in the worst way; it goes well over the line into territory that feels spiteful and tedious just for the sake of it. This is the kind of game that we wouldn’t recommend playing without a guide ready to go on a second device, as you’ll otherwise find yourself intermittently running into practically invisible progression walls and trying to figure out what the developer wants you to do.

Visuals and Soundtrack

Visuals in Astlibra are another disappointment, although they aren’t necessarily bad. Your character roams across various 2D planes placed in front of photorealistic backdrops, and it has the effect of feeling like an unfinished build of a game with temporary art assets. Character designs are also basic, while the animations are generally stiff and rather awkward. Sure, there are certainly improvements in visual fidelity when comparing this to the original freeware release, but there’s an underlying incongruity to the art direction here that simply can’t be overlooked.

Luckily, the soundtrack almost makes up for visual shortcomings, imbuing the adventure with loads of atmosphere that reminded us of ’90s JRPGs in the best of ways. Whether it be the quiet piano medley when you enter a swamp or the high-energy battle…