Maybe 'pastel' would be a better name than 'Astal' for this new cutesome platformer from Sega Japan. It's perfectly tailored to the emerging Saturn market over there - visuals that outdo Laura Ashley on Acid incredibly unchallenging gameplay (with infinite continues in case you were born with a sixth finger and no thumb) and little girls with squeaky voices and triangular eyes. Well, at least there's no dolphin eating.
But there is an ogre. One of those who like to capture little girls and chain red-headed gnomes to planets before sending them into a distance part of the universe devoid of life, karaoke and raw fish. You, playing the red-head, rebel against the offence, and set off to head-butt the entire cosmiverse en route to the ogre showdown.
Astal makes prominent and ingenious use of the Saturn's custom scaling effects. These are most conspicuous during the boss sequences, where the third dimension of screen depth is utilised, as well as monsters growing and shrinking. In the final confrontation you have to hurl trees into the background. Scaled perspectives are also used during the levels. In one sequence, the panorama widens to show a volcano erupting in the background, with rocks hurled into the foreground.
As well as crude man-handling skills, Astal sure has a pair of lungs on him (hey, smoking - Knuckles says "Who needs it kids!"). These are used to blow the enemy away, and in the fiery level Astal employs it to remove various kinds of flaming creatures.
Not long after you set off, you come across a fine-feathered friend, held captive by some callous crystals. After liberating the bird it becomes your companion. Using a whistle command, you can get it to perform three actions. The bird fulfils the task better according to how many crystals have been collected in your bar on the status panel.
Birdy disappears off screen and returns with a random health power-up.
Rarely useful, the bird sometimes attacks platforms or bosses on a whim.
Birdo goes mental, whizzing round the screen like an extra from the Hitchcock movie.
A classic no-brainer platform game, with fire, ice and desert levels to boot.
Rescue the flaxen-haired, pure-white besmocked virgin from the evil ogre.
Time to get tough on the Saturn stuff. By now we know what the machine can do: now let's see what the game designers can do with it. Almost matching Astal's meticulous beauty, is its complete lack of original gameplay. Some of the sections are presented in an original fashion, with boat rides and erupting volcanoes, but the skills demanded of you as you progress through the game are the most basic imaginable.
Astal is utterly linear, with no deviations, interludes or choices presented to the player. Yet another weakness is the boss characters, which initially amaze only to prove incredibly easy to defeat with their basic unintelligent behaviour. Sadly, we must wait for Shinobi X for a platform game worthy (hopefully) of the machine.
Sega still need to get their act together as far as platform games on the Saturn. The amount they've churned out on the Megadrive over six years confirms their expertise, so the failure of Astal, along with Clockwork Knight is puzzling. Although substantially bigger and miles prettier than the Clockwork disappointment, Astal is tailored to the sad games skills of the Japanese market.
Too many lives, too short levels, infinite continues... Stunningly pretty as the game is, you'll clock it in a couple of days, and hardly at a push. The bosses represent most of the high points of the game, showcasing the amazing transparency, scaling and lighting effects the Saturn is hiding under its casing - the horned boss is a show-stopper. But Astal fundamentally fails to provide the standard of gameplay found in 16-bit classics like Pitfall, Earthworm Jim and Dynamite Headdy.
The best-looking game on the Saturn to date. The game dabbles in exciting special FX to create some memorable scenery.
The main character animation is good, but that of the enemies, if anything, is even better!
P. The sound textures are impressive, with some lavish arrangements.
N. The tunes sound like background music from the 'Holiday' programme.
P. Excellent rumblings and whistlings.
N. The FX don't add much excitement to the game.
P. There is an interest level sustained by the graphics alone.
N. The levels are too short and the gameplay too basic.
N. Far too easy, even for novice players.
A beautiful but empty vessel that offers poor value for money despite the awesome graphics.