As a fan of history and dry humor, I kind of knew I was going to like Astrologaster from the moment I picked it up. What I didn’t know was how well crafted an experience I was about to embark on.
Astrologaster combines witty writing, superb audio and visual design and a fascinating historical premise to create a fun and engaging experience that had me both laughing at and learning from one of the most interesting and larger-than-life figures from Elizabethan England I’ve ever heard of.
Astrologaster is a story-driven astrological comedy game set in Shakespeare’s London. Take on the role of the notorious Doctor Simon Forman and use Astrology to treat his patients. Will you win their favour or ruin their lives?
The real star of Astrologaster is “Doctor” Simon Forman, the above mentioned larger-than-life figure. Simon Forman was, and yes this is all a true story, a self-made “doctor” who consulted the stars to find the cures needed by his patients. He rose to prominence during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in London where his perscription of Strong Water was a cure for many. But, he had no medical license and his methods and medicines were…questionable at times.
Thus, we stumble upon the main goal and drama of Astrologaster: You, playing as Simon Forman, must offer treatment and advice to the many querents that come to your office in the hopes of securing eight letters of recommendation. With these, you can acquire an official medical license, and be proven, once and for all, that your are no mere quack!
Simon Forman is fantastic fun to play as, written with a mix unbridled optimism and medical fervor, and with superb voice acting provided by David Jones. As bizarre a character as he is, he doesn’t end up feeling like a caricature, and there’s real humanity behind how he has been written: fears and hopes, misguided lusts and fierce ambitions. It’s all very dramatic, and Simon Forman was certainly a character, but I couldn’t help empathizing with him, even as he prescribed people a treatment of dog kicking and piss-cake eating
The basic gameplay loop of Astrologaster is actually very simple and straightforward. A character, seeking treatment for some ill, ailment or problem is introduced with hilarious, fully choral song sung in the style of Elizabethan England. These songs, performed by the fantastic ensemble of Emily Dickens, Ruth Kiang, Bendict Hymas, Robin Bailey, Jimmy Holliday and Cristopher Webb are an absolute highlight of the game for me, and I looked forward to every single one (Particularly Signor Ferraro’s! TIS FERRARO!). They range in tone and style, and have equal amounts of crass humor, pointed literary references and perfectly place puns. It’s been said elsewhere, but they feel pulled straight out of the British comedy tradition of Blackadder, and that’s one of the highest complements I think I, or anyone else, could give to a game.
Once the querent has been introduced musically, you cut to a conversation between Simon Forman and the patient where they describes their problem or the question they want advice about. The writing is witty, fast paced and full of biting commentary on both history and the modern day.
This conversation inevitably ends with Simon Forman saying something to the effect of “Let us consult the stars“, which transitions nicely to the astrology mechanic of the game. You’re presented with a few options, usually three, to chose your treatment and assessment from. In some cases, these may simply be individual astrological signs, which when clicked will provide you an explanation of what the position of this sign means in this particular situation. Other times, the reading is more complex, offering you a collection of constellations relating to different elements of the problem or the querent’s life from which you need to divine a path forward for them.
The brilliant part of this mechanic is that there’s no right answer. Astrologaster is not a game about picking the correct solution to this problem. It’s about choosing the answer that accomplishes what you want. There are a few cases where it is very clear that the querent is suffering from a simple flu, a pregnancy, or is simply worked themselves up into a hypochondriatic furor. One of the astrological readings might say exactly that, but is that what the patient wants to hear? You’ve got to weigh the short term gain of telling someone exactly what they want to hear against what might be the most beneficial solution to them in the long term, and that’s a very compelling choice to have to make.
After you relate you diagnosis to the patient, they respond, sometimes with confusion, sometimes with anger, and sometimes with appreciation. You’re then presented with a post consultation summary, and a breakdown of how much favor your curried with that person, which directly relates to how close you are to gaining a letter of recommendation.
The cast of characters you interact with is rich and diverse, and as you get to know the different people visiting your practice you’ll learn who responds well to what kinds of “treatment”. I found that while I was initially rebuked, giving Emilia Lanier honest and reasonable advice, and cautioning her about her interactions with the nefarious Mr. S, payed off in the long run, but buttering up Robert Devereux and appealing to his position quickly secured me his favor.
There’s such a huge number of different responses that I’m confident in saying there are many different paths to be taken through out the story, and there is certainly more than one play through’s worth of content of this game.
I’ve talked a lot about the writing in Astrologaster up to this point, but the art direction also deserves recognition. The entirety of Astrologaster plays a bit like a pop-up book, with you turning the pages and the scene shifting to a new set, which rises and comes together in beautiful animation each time. The entire game is back dropped in golds and blues, giving it a regal feel, and is then punctuated by the individual distinctive colors worn by each of character. It all feels quite theatrical to me, and I doubt that’s a coincidence.
The game is definitely meant for an iPad, and the mechanic of turning the pages no doubt feels leagues better on the touch screen of that device as opposed to a PC. That’s not to say that it felt bad playing Astrologaster on the PC, just that it felt like it wasn’t originally designed for the inputs of a mouse and keyboard.
Again I’ve already mentioned the voice acting and music above, but I have to again say that it’s utterly fantastic and a real highlight of the game for me. The music is witty and whimsical, and does a fantastic job of not only grabbing and keeping your attention, but also characterizing each of the players in this story. The voice acting is fantastic across the board, but if I had to pick one stand out it would have to be Pete Gold, who voices both the anxious Nicholas Mugg and the flamboyant Ricardo Ferraro (When I learned that this was the same voice actor, I was quite surprised. Definitely shows Pete’s range as a voice actor!).
It’s always hard to talk about why something is funny, but I can safely say that Astrologaster is hilarious, and everyone will find something to laugh at. Fueled by the stranger-than-fiction story of Simon Forman, the team at Nyamyam Games have created a storybook full of historical and literary references, larger-than-life characters and potty humor that will have you chuckling and wondering if there is any way this really is all true.
The answer is yes by the way. Stay tuned for our Interview with Jennifer Schneidereit and Katharine Neil of Nyamyam Games to learn a bit more about how this story became a game, and how Simon Forman made Nyamyam’s job easy.