‘Astrologaster’ Review: Huzzah! Huzzah!

Astrologaster
By: Nyamyam

If someone asked what my astrological sign is and then tried to tell me what it means and how our two signs relate to each other, I might go along with it, but would be internally screaming and looking for a way to change the subject. So you might say I’m the target audience for the narrative choice-based game, Astrologaster, by Tengami developer Nyamyam. It pokes fun at the “science” of astrology while teaching you about it, so any discomfort while playing is likely just an imbalance of yellow bile in the body and no fault of the game. In it, you take on the role of Simon Forman, a real astrologist who lived in 16th century Shakespearean London. After curing himself and others of the plague, he declares himself a “Doctor of Astrology and Physick” and uses the stars to diagnose and treat illnesses. The doctors who actually studied medicine and earned licenses to practice are not too thrilled with him doing so and try to make him stop. But Forman is a stubborn man, so your job in this game is to study the stars and diagnose your patients — or even give them relationship and financial advice — to earn letters of recommendation and prove yourself worthy of a physician’s license.

Throughout the game, you’ll be visited by fourteen different patients who each return several times, whether they’re happy with your service or not. When a character arrives, he or she is introduced through a humorous song sung in chorus that describes his or her situation. I highly recommend plugging in some headphones and taking your time with this game, as you’re cheating yourself out of some solid entertainment if you rush through it and skip the songs or any of the dialogue. A ton of work went into the presentation and production values of Astrologaster, so give it the time and attention it deserves. The songs are perfection, and each character is brilliantly voice acted, to the effect that it’s like directing one of William Shakespeare’s plays. If you don’t believe me, just watch part of my video above.

When a patient shows up, Forman first needs to find out what the symptoms are in order to work out a diagnosis. He might remark on their appearance — perhaps their face is flushed — or cajole some information from them if they’re too shy and not quite forthcoming. For instance, Avis Allen is too embarrassed to talk about sex, so she coins my favorite phrase in the game, “strumpy humpy.” Someone else might have a backache or can’t stop peeing. Another common problem is frequent “chundering,” a very British word for “vomiting.” Others may simply need advice on whether to spend their fortune on a quest for more fortune, or whether to pursue a relationship with the person they fancy.

Once Forman feels he has enough information, he’ll read the stars. This is where you come in. You usually have a choice between two or three readings, and one will please the patient more than the other. For instance, a woman might not like to hear that her husband is sleeping around and will blame the messenger. The consultation before the reading gives clues as to what the diagnosis might be, so it’s important to pay attention if you want them to give you a letter of recommendation. However, there’s no way to really lose the game, so it’s up to you if you want to try and please them all or just have fun and create utter chaos. Each choice you make impacts that patient’s entire storyline, but could also impact others. The different characters cross paths and affect each other, so one person’s success could lead to another’s misery. That said, some chaos is unavoidable, as the main plot points in Forman’s story are based on actual history.

As ridiculous as it sounds, the story does have a strong basis in reality. Simon Forman kept very detailed notes in his casebooks, and through them we know that he hit on nearly all his female patients. This is featured heavily in the game, but in a much more endearing manner than his notes suggest. Additionally, some of the characters you meet, such as Alice Blague, Thomas Blague, John Whitgift and Emilia Lanier, were his real clients. Emilia Lanier was a poet, is thought to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and some say she even wrote some of his plays. I loved her portrayal in the game, and how we see her anger at having her reputation sullied by Shakespeare and then being ghosted by him and losing credit for her work. Despite taking place in the 16th century, the script has a very modern and progressive spin to it. I especially liked the jabs it took at men, such as reference to a “man cold,” which is worse than a regular cold because it affects the male sex. I’m sure everyone knows a man who acts like the world is ending when he suffers from the common cold.

There’s also a woman named Mary Payne, who is all the worst traits of humanity rolled into one cranky old crone. She hates and fears foreigners and anyone of a different religion, and she’s just all-around a very unpleasant person. The game mocks her, but also gets very reflective at times, pointing out that it’s easy to laugh at her and her abhorrent behavior, until she becomes so vocal that here views are accepted as the norm. Sound familiar? There’s also an archbishop whose introductory song brilliantly conveys his god complex. I could go on and on about the social, political, and religious commentary, but I want to leave something for you to discover.

My absolute favorite character is Emma Sharpe, the black widow. I loved deciding how each of her husbands would die off. One option is Dropping Down of the Piss, an apparently very real illness. There’s just so many ridiculous and fun lines in this game, that I didn’t get tired of it in the nearly six hours it took to play through. But since Astrologaster is similar to watching a play or movie with all its dialogue and voice acting, I found it best to play in twenty-to-thirty-minute sessions over the course of a few days. This worked out well, except that I sometimes forgot what I told a patient, and even mixed up some of the patients, since there are so many. Simon Forman does often recap things when clients return, but I would have appreciated a way to view his notes to refresh my memory on advice I gave other patients. It can be hard to keep track of everything in my head.

I love just about everything about Astrologaster and have very little to complain about. It’s visually appealing, all taking place inside a pop-up book, similar to the developer’s first game, Tengami. You swipe to turn a page, and then simply tap on the constellations to read them, so it feels perfect for touchscreens. The characters are paper cutouts and there’s nice little little details, like how they fall flat when they storm out of the room in a huff. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more animation from them, but their few facial expressions — especially Forman’s shocked look — do a sufficient job alongside the voiceovers.

I was also impressed to learn that the astrological details, illnesses and treatments were provided by historical consultants to ensure accuracy. It may seem like everything is just a joke, but you’re actually learning while playing. The script itself is both thoughtful at times and hilarious at others. There are so many hidden jokes that I probably didn’t even notice all of them, especially since it’s mostly British humor. I liked how they used Latin to sneak in some things like “ay caramba” for intestinal discomfort due to consumption of hot peppers. On top of that, the voice acting is superb, with the singing as the biggest highlight. I’m just amazed at the amount of work that must have gone into making this a completely engrossing experience when they could have probably gotten away without the voice acting, and certainly without the singing. Everyone who worked on this game just went above and beyond.

There’s also a ton of replay value, as the choices you make affect the dialogue and the characters’ stories. I want so badly to jump right back in for a second playthrough. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time to spare at the moment, with so many other games releasing this week and month, but I’m going to try and squeeze it in in my free time. iCloud sync would have made that a bit easier, since I prefer to play on my bigger iPad screen but have my iPhone on me all the time. You can also see my entire first playthrough here, though I was mostly quiet, holding in my laughter so as not to interrupt the dialogue.

I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying Astrologaster unless they have an excessively choleric temperament. But if you appreciate a good comedic narrative game with replay value and a ton of great lines, you won’t be disappointed. You’ll especially enjoy it if you like British humor and don’t mind hearing about purging and orifices and poxed privates. So if you’re feeling bored, my diagnosis is that you have a mild imbalance of black bile in the body, which is causing melancholia, and you should play Astrologaster forthright as treatment! Huzzah!

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