When it comes to game settings the casebooks of Simon Forman, a notorious occultist and herbalist active during the time of Shakespeare may not be high on your list of options. A far cry from the action-packed worlds of shooters and platformers, the academic origins of the game are easily apparent. In terms of full disclosure, as an academic with a PhD in Renaissance theatre and culture, I am so perfectly placed as an ideal demographic for the game that this review requires me to consciously try to step outside my own experience in the name of some degree of objectivity. Suffice it to say that you don’t need to have an intimate knowledge of the culture and history of the period in question, but if you do then this is an essential purchase.
Simon Forman is a hugely important historical figure not so much for his own achievements and discoveries as for the details we can learn about the wider culture from his casebooks. As renowned for his horniness as for his remedies, he displays an intimate knowledge of the culture and individuals surrounding the theatrical circles of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The playfulness and often bizarre nature of his writings are perfectly placed to serve as the inspiration for Nyamnyam’s witty take on his life and works. The game began as a response to the work of the University of Cambridge’s Casebooks project and was ably supported by the dedicated team of researchers involved.
First things first, Astrologaster is a game that relies almost entirely on the quality of its writing. While the pop-up book style visuals are nicely designed and have a charm of their own they are mostly functional and much of the rest of the game relies on menus and star charts. This being said, the simplicity of the visual presentation is a virtue in itself as it prevents the game from being bogged down in lengthy stretches of text. This is a mark of how well designed the overall experience is. The individual characters all look distinctive with a keen eye for period costume and details.
Where the game really stands out, though, is in the audio design. While there is little in the way of sound effects or immersive audio, the voice acting is mostly great. With the exception of one or two misplaced lines, the characters sound and feel individual and their peculiar characteristics come through without resorting to simplistic caricatures (except for one character that is deliberately played as a stereotype). This is important as the dialogue is perhaps the chief aspect of the game. The humour ranges from complex running jokes about Renaissance beliefs and ideas to a positively Shakespearean level of crude double entendres and knob gags.
Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the game’s presentation is the choral interludes that introduce each character’s appointments. These are wonderfully authentic-sounding Renaissance pieces with overlapping vocals making great use of polyphonic effects. I have been listening to them outside of the game itself and they still work – both as serious pieces of music and as silly parodies – one song entreats God to slap someone and another character’s intro songs always threaten to end with profanity before resorting to a knowing falalala. Of course, as with much of the content here, this humour won’t be for everyone but I was impressed by how in keeping with the overall period and feel of the piece this aspect was.
Gameplay itself is essentially a visual novel, with a series of different patients seeking advice from Forman on a range of maladies both serious and trivial. Throughout the game, you’ll offer tips on everything from evil digestion brought about by uncooked potatoes to the location of Spanish ships bearing gold. This is all presented through a user-friendly interface that lets you select different astrological approaches to best guide your patients. Sometimes the correct response is obvious, whilst at other times you’ll have to balance what the patient wants to hear with what the stars suggest. Your overall goal is to receive eight letters of recommendation from your influential clients that you can present to the University of Cambridge in exchange for an official medical licence. Despite this goal, the game does allow you to offer some outlandish advice that won’t earn you any favour but will make you smile.