With how many indie games are coming out every single day, it’s only natural that some of them end up getting left behind during media campaigns and flavor-of-the-month discussions. It’s a shame, then, that Astrolancer hasn’t gotten more attention since its quiet debut a few months ago.

A top-down action game heavily inspired by the cult-classic NES title The Guardian Legend, Astrolancer was developed and self-published by Studio Hexeye in late April 2024. Thankfully, Astrolancer does more than just ape its inspiration’s presentation. At a minuscule 33 megabytes, Astrolancer follows the journey of Lancer Two, a superweapon belonging to the Galactic Council. The sudden arrival of the Formatroids — a group of shapeshifting machines with the ability to self-replicate — has put the Galactic Council on edge, with their presence at the edge of the galaxy threatening the sanctity of life as we know it. Cue Lancer Two, who’s sent down to put a stop to them. Should they somehow fail their mission, Lancer Two is equipped with an internal Black Hole Bomb as a contingency plan, prompting Lancer Two to preserve their life by any means necessary.

It’s a morbid premise for sure, but what Astrolancer has underneath this dire scenario is arguably one of the best indie retro throwbacks of 2024 and easily one of the games I’ve enjoyed the most in recent memory. But what makes it so good? Let’s talk about that.

A Modernized Take on The Guardian Legend

The first boss battle in Astrolancer.
Studio Hexeye

Astrolancer has a lot going on at a glance, but it can be easily broken down into its major parts. Across a little more than half a dozen stages, you’ll guide Lancer Two across beautiful beaches, underground mines, derelict ocean rigs, and more as you battle the Formatroids, collect secrets, and eventually hunt down a monstrous Formatroid boss. It’s a typical action game at its core. But it’s what Astrolancer does with this core, along with its incredible production values, that really makes it shine.

Astrolancer is two games in one: a top-down action game emphasizing exploration and the use of numerous weapons, as well a vertical shoot-em-up (or “shmup”) with short stages that preface gargantuan bosses. The balance between the two isn’t exactly 50/50. It heavily weighs the game’s on-foot sections greater than its shmup sections, but you won’t find any complaints about that here.

Across these two modes, Lancer Two has access to several key abilities and equipment. Starting with the bare basics, you have a rapid-fire blaster with unlimited ammunition, which you can then pair with a weapon of your choice. These include flamethrowers, homing missiles, shotguns, and other useful munitions that have their own inherent advantages and disadvantages. Lancer Two also has a “thrust” ability. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Being a robotic superweapon, Lancer Two can effectively boost forward and ram through enemies, inflicting a massive amount of damage while also gaining temporary invulnerability. The boost can last as long as the accompanying meter will allow for, the tradeoff is that you’ll have to wait longer for it to recharge the longer you use it.

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Where things get more interesting is Lancer Two’s “ARMS” system. Throughout the game — if you’re hunting for secrets, that is — you’ll come across a plethora of additional weapons to equip in a separate slot. These go into your ARMS section, which can be freely swapped out at any time. Your ARMS can suit a variety of utilitarian purposes, even beyond what your regular weaponry can accomplish: land mines, rotating blades, grenades, fireballs, laser beams, there’s plenty to utilize in a plethora of situations. Whether it’s a last-ditch effort to dispatch a foe or a tactical utilization of a unique weapon, the ARMS system opens the door for whatever kind of playstyle you’d like to create for yourself. This is amplified through the passive upgrade system, in which you can collect Energy Cells for passive bonuses.

Though it shares some similarities with The Guardian Legend, Astrolancer deviates away from its inspiration in terms of difficulty. While its on-foot sections do work as a modernized version of something like The Guardian Legend or Blaster Master, its shump sections are more in line with what you’d find in the “bullet hell” subgenre. As intimidating as the name might seem, you’re able to adjust the difficulty to your preference to minimize the amount of chaos happening on-screen.

Likewise, you’re also able to pick between one of two unique control schemes at the beginning of the game. Well, “unique” in a relative sense, as I’ve never seen something quite like it before. You can either choose to emulate the original control schemes found in retro games of old, where your aim is tied to the direction you’re facing, or you can enable the ability to strafe while firing at the cost of losing about 20% of your total damage output. It’s an interesting decision to make, and there’s really no right or wrong choice.

Astrolancer Is a Terrific Retro Shooter

A boss fight set on a beach in Astrolancer.
Studio Hexeye

With these mechanics in mind, Astrolancer managed to create an experience that was not only challenging, but outlandishly fun as well.

It’s a game that’s not so much punishing as it is rewarding. The graphics and soundtrack are outstanding, blessing you with a seemingly exponential increase in both detail and quality as you progress. Stage 4, for instance, has some incredible detail in the waves lapping against the shore, the pink and white color palette, and the inclusion of aquatic-themed enemies during its vertical shoot-em-up section. Stage 3, meanwhile, incorporates vibrant purples and verdant greenery into its level design. For how short it is, Astrolancer manages to cram in some inspired aesthetics into every stage, making each one stick out beyond what they have to offer in terms of gameplay. While I can’t name any specific tracks, the music was sublime as well, perfectly accompanying the action on-screen.

The game’s performance was a complete non-issue. As mentioned in the game’s minimum system requirements, if you can run Windows 7, you can run Astrolancer. Its performance was absolutely perfect throughout, with nary a bug or stutter to be found.

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If there are any minor gripes to be made, it’s that you should be wary of what they’re really getting into here. Astrolancer is by no means an unfairly difficult game, but the level of challenge here — especially in its shmup sections — is nothing to scoff at. The relative linearity of Astrolancer compared to something like The Guardian Legend is also worth addressing, presenting its levels more as a straight line than an interconnected series of areas.

But overall, Astrolancer is simply fantastic. There’s really nothing else that can be said about it. It’s an incredible game, not only for its plentiful difficulty options and inspired design decisions but for its visuals, its music, and its incredibly low price point. Should you find yourself in need of a brief, action-packed game, Astrolancer is more than a worthy contender.

Astrolancer is currently available on Steam.

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REVIEW OVERVIEW
Astrolancer
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Sean is a devout data hoarder, CD collector, and purveyor of weird things. When he's not scouring the depths for the odd and macabre, he's usually playing video games, trying to learn Blender, and subsisting on coffee and protein bars. He also knows how to "get things."
astrolancer-game-review Astrolancer is an incredible game, not only for its plentiful difficulty options and inspired design decisions but for its visuals, its music, and its incredibly low price point. Should you find yourself in need of a brief, action-packed game, Astrolancer is more than a worthy contender.

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