Ever since the stars aligned and humans discovered the fun of matching coloured objects, we've been trying to invent new ways to make puzzle games based on this simple premise. Puzzle Fighter and Bust-a-Move are just some of the diversions we've come up with. Astral Breakers joins the fray and brings with it a little bit of old, a little bit of new and mixes it all up in outer space.
At its core, there's the familiar puzzle game where matching colourful spheres and clearing portions is your ultimate goal. The game - which can be viewed both on the TV and on the GamePad screen - doesn't drastically reinvent the wheel but it does add some excitement to an already solid genre.
Aesthetically, Astral Breakers has a little Bust-a-Move DNA through its use of those spheres, but it also has a touch of Capcom's Puzzle Fighter in it too. After every few turns, a glowing sphere will appear that can be manipulated. You can transform this special sphere into an "Astral Breaker", which transfers its destructive energy to others and is the key to obliterating like-coloured spheres.
As you can control whether to transform a glowing sphere into a breaker or not, unused ones will turn to regulars once placed. The next that appears will have that astral breaker potential, as will the next, until you decide when to unleash its power. By doing so, you can set up combos to place these astral breakers on top of opposing colours, waiting for that moment to maximize its effectiveness when spheres shift and fall into places that will cause the chain reaction, which is surprisingly difficult to execute. Regardless, clearing portions of your board throws astral spheres onto your opponent's board.
What? There's an opponent? There's cosmic fighting going on?! Yes, there is a war with Celestial Zodiac Constellations taking place in deep space. You, your Wii U GamePad and Kira - a cute little star named that has Pac-Man shaped eyes and a sassy disposition - must stop it.
The only plot that matters is that an explosion sends cosmic energy - or astral spheres, if you will - flying into space, which threatens to destroy the universe. This outpouring of cosmic energy causes the 12 Zodiac signs to go crazy. And so, to avoid the cosmos being utterly destroyed by egotistical constellations, Kira demands your help in choosing a zodiac side to fight on against the others. Each zodiac uses certain sphere drop patterns - their unique identifiers of astral spheres that are placed on their opponent's board in once a section is cleared - as well as a rate of intensity as to how many they'll drop. That's 12 different ways to rain terror on each other, making the gameplay frenzied, fast-paced and - at times - a clever, unpredictable mess.
This story is important for a couple of reasons. Astral Breakers recognizes the strength of a multiplayer mode for co-op or competitive gameplay. It allows for a relatively challenging game, and by throwing in the human element, it takes gameplay to new heights - along with all the fun and smack-talk that will inevitably follow when playing with a friend.
When considering the impact of each zodiac's drop patterns and skill levels of your opponents, it also makes strategic play for chaining combos not as easy as it sounds. There's a welcome frustration when trying to create a devastating attack to your enemy only to be bested by faster fingers or AI. Piling on all that cosmic energy to your board can quickly turn the game's tide, messing up potential moves and blocking players from clearing a path.
The opposite is true in co-op mode which is a bit like a survival mode for you and a friend. Every so often, a supernova unleashes astral spheres which pile on to your boards. The cool thing is that your own attack patterns are used against you, but it's not as fun as versus either. It's more exciting destroying your enemies as co-op mode doesn't really feel like you're actually cooperating to reach an attainable goal.
The other way in which Astral Breaker sets itself apart is through utilizing the Wii U's GamePad and stylus, where you can create your own constellation for use in battle. This means you can design some great art (or stick figures if you're not as artistically inclined). There are limitations though, and the drawing tool involves plotting stars in the sky for straight-lined constellations. You can customize your drop patterns and rate of intensity from about 60-plus choices, with more complicated drawings giving way to more powerful constellations which has the potential to increase the game's difficulty and create a challenge for more skilled players or better AI. Creations can be given hilarious two-name designations from an in-game list, and can light up the night sky with a Chivalrous Penguin or a Cantankerous Gamer, if you so wish.
Presentation wise, Astral Breakers bursts with colour in its spheres and background fireworks display add cosmic flair to its visuals while managing to not distract from the game too greatly. The music tracks aren't stellar due to their repetitive nature, and they grate on the nerves quickly. It's unfortunate as the fighting between the constellations is characterized by fanciful, acoustic guitars and violins leaning towards a classical composition that has real potential. A frantic harpsichord comes in if you're teetering on the edge of a loss. The music is primarily designated to the television and when playing on the GamePad alone, it's mostly silent - but there's a terrible sound when you lose. In space, no one can hear you scream but you can be assured that you will certainly hear the sound of defeat.
If there's one thing to be cautious of, it's that the game is buggy. The Wii U froze a few times during gameplay, and menu selections did not always respond. The developer will presumably patch these issues out of existance with a future update, but it's worth keeping in mind before you contmplate a purchase.
Astral Breakers is a new way to play an old formula. Customization of your playstyle through the Zodiac avatar is a nice touch, while the core mechanics have a simple, rigid rule set. Challenging gameplay is all dependent on your adversary and it's a game that relies heavily on chance and risk with some measure of skill and quickness, as puzzle games of its kind are wont to be. It's also marred by a few bugs, which is unfortunate. While this game won't exactly revitalize the genre, couch co-op or competitive play for any real length of time, there's something satisfying about playing with a friend. Astral Breakers takes that knowledge and gives you its colourful little universe to fight in.