For all the reckless abandon it demands, speedrunning is a surprisingly delicate craft. The best speedruns are founded in immensely intimate knowledge of a game’s mechanics, level design, and the exploits to be found between them. It sometimes feels like there’s a unique sense of flow that only speedrunners know. A heavenly state that is difficult to achieve yet so easy to get lost in.
Developer LAB132’s Astral Tracks manages neither. In the spirit of the genre, I’ll keep this quick.
Astral Tracks places you in an (occasionally) customizable spacesuit and tasks you with running through its gauntlet of levels as fast as you can. Some are shorter, some are more adventurous, all are procedurally generated. That’s the entire premise, and there are issues with literally every aspect of the game I just mentioned.
Astral Tracks starts off strong with its tutorial. Everything here just looks cool. There’s a playground feel to how obstacles and platforms look, which pairs well with the zany outfit options. The aesthetic is immediately easy on the eyes, with bright lights and reflective surfaces set against the abyssal backdrop of deep space. With this backdrop, the first fatal flaw makes itself apparent.
Even with colorful platforms and flashing lights, there’s still the problem of procedural generation. This type of level design isn’t inherently bad, but Astral Tracks doesn’t implement it well. There are a lot of repeated assets, to the point of repeated routes in some tracks. In the vast emptiness of space, the last thing you want to see is assets blending together because you’ve seen their exact combination twice before in the same course. This not only feels dull, it makes finding shortcuts less intuitive and a bit too exploratory. The flow of the speedrun is immediately killed by… trying to go faster. Some tracks even feel like they don’t have any viable shortcuts in the first place.
This is to say nothing of actually traversing across said shortcuts and repeated loops. Initially, Astral Tracks doesn’t feel terrible. There’s a clunkier feel to it, though it’s not so bad as to feel unresponsive. The base mechanics of running, dashing, grappling, and EMPs to switch platform opacity are all fun in a vacuum. Put together, they almost sing. But that’s the problem—they’re rarely together. Each individual mechanic is used plentifully, but they are never rapidly strung together in any satisfying ways. There’s no major animation cancelling to help you do so in the rare instance where they are. As a result, the movement never quite shakes its floaty feel. 3D platformers, especially those with a focus on speedrunning, necessitate a slightly tighter, more nuanced degree of control than Astral Tracks has to offer.
Outside of these core issues, there are a bunch of smaller nitpicks that come together to form the last thing any speedrunner wants: friction. Little hitches in the process here and there make navigating Astral Tracks a hassle, weakening an already ailing flow. The controller UI is abysmally unresponsive. Leaderboards make chasing high scores fun, but restarting a course requires a button hold instead of press, adding that much more wait time. The golden duck currency is fun and quirky, but ultimately useless since even after multiple restarts, nothing I bought from the in-game would actually equip. If I’m going to go on samey speedruns, at least let me look good!
Add all of these drags to already imprecise core mechanics, and you’re left with an uncompelling time. There are good ideas here, but they struggle with poor execution. If this were a short selection of handcrafted levels, keeping the same mechanics and aesthetic, I’d probably love it. As it is, the latter two elements simply aren’t tightly tuned enough to justify the procedurally generated approach. For all its fun potential, Astral Tracks unfortunately slips shortly after the starting line.
Sarim played Astral Tracks on PC with a code provided by the publisher.