Sometimes life can be a cruel mistress; despite what many fairy-tales may have you believe, things often don’t go according to plan the first time you attempt them – you reap the rewards through hard work – trial and error, some might say, is the key to climbing many of life’s plateaus. This is a life lesson that, if you’re unfamiliar with prior to playing Ascendant, will certainly feel like second nature by the end of it.
Designed by one Hapa Games in their garage in Orlando, Florida (no really), Ascendant is a brawler/hack n’ slash created with certain roguelike elements in mind – permadeath and procedurally generated environments are brought into the mix to bring players a unique and exciting experience. You choose between one of several “demigods” who then invade a plane of existence controlled by your rivals, who are hellbent on ensuring you never leave.
Ascendant is one of those games that feels like its tailored for a certain type of person; if you’ve ever spent long summer nights gritting your teeth as you get felled by yet another malevolent beastie in the world of Dark Souls, or found yourself cursing as you get shred into a fine paste by some buzzsaws courtesy of Super Meat Boy, then chances are you’re going to enjoy Ascendant a lot. Aside from a very basic tutorial that outlines the bare necessities you need to get started, you’re left to your own devices to discover how your character interacts with the world and, more importantly, how the world interacts with you (shock spoiler of the review: most things want to kill you.)
As far as brawlers go, Ascendant’s unlikely gang of protagonists are relatively easy to control – for anybody who’s played the likes of Rogue Legacy or Risk of Rain, you will know that roguelikes have a tendency of turning very bullethell-esque very quickly. When there’s 50 different enemies on screen all trying to throw themselves/various projectiles/each other at you, being able to control your character smoothly and effortlessly makes a big difference and that’s something you’ll be thankful for if you play Ascendant for any substantial length of time. I personally played with a Xbox 360 controller and found the game exceptionally easy to control, although I have heard minor complains about the strafe keys being awkward to use in a pinch when playing using a keyboard. Again, its something minor that with enough practice will rarely affect your overall enjoyment of the game.
Unlike many recent “roguelites” which feature permadeath with a “carry-over” twist (think Rogue Legacy, where you can spend your gold you accumulated last run to improve your next character) Ascendant mostly stays true to its roguelike roots. Each time you play through the game, the locations you visit are randomised, and with a few hours of play under my belt I’ve yet to have the same locale designed the same way twice, which says a lot for the randomisation system Ascendant uses to keep things fresh. As you play, you collect influence by killing enemies, destroying environmental objects, or opening chests. This influence is the currency of Ascendant and can be used in shops dotted around the game to buy certain power-ups that last for that playthrough only. This system is designed incredibly well, as the information you garnered about a particular object from previous runs carries over – purchased a certain weapon for nearly all of your influence, only to find out its complete pants two minutes later? Next time around you won’t make that mistake again and you can spend your influence more wisely thanks to learning this beforehand.
Its an interesting mechanic that means you never feel as though your runs are being made easier, you’re just adapting better and learning more. One part of the game where this shines through particularly well is with two items known as “breaths” and “blessings”. Breaths are your one-time use items of Ascendant, that bestow powerful effects upon your arena for a specific amount of time. Understanding when a certain breath might come in useful is a big part of reaching the later levels of the game when enemies become much more strategic and more difficult to defeat with basic combos and techniques. Blessings, on the other hand, come in many different varieties that are all related to the “gods” of the game – you always receive a randomised blessing from a boss when you defeat them at the end of an area, although if you’re lucky you may find a blessing in one of the game’s shops or assorted minigames – although be prepared to pay through the nose for them; either with your influence or with your life – as they don’t come cheap. These blessings can then be attached to your character in different parts of the body, with each different location bestowing a different effect.
When you’re first playing the game, for example, you might find placing a Blessing of Itzli on your body rewards you with the rather mediocre upgrade of being immune to spikes, something you might already be quite apt at avoiding yourself. That information carries over to your next playthrough however, and next time you get a Blessing of Itzli you may discover that socketing it in your blade slot offers a chance to petrify foes, or socketing it in your spell slot allows your spells to pierce foes. By experimenting with the various blessings you obtain throughout your playthroughs, you can build up a library of understanding about which ones do what, and this in turn allows you to combine your blessings in the best way to create a warrior capable of tackling even the most difficult of levels. For example, the spell Barrage may seem average at best, but combined with a Blessing of Itzli in the spell slot, it allows for each barrage to pierce multiple enemies, potentially doing vast amounts of damage in a very short space of time.
Accompanying the myriad of different items and enemies in Ascendant is some of the most beautiful scenery and artwork I’ve ever seen in a video game. Not only the environments, but the enemies you battle within them look masterfully crafted to really give you a fantastic understanding of how they work and how powerful they are. Some of the early enemies, for example, toddle around simplistically or hover harmlessly in the air until you start to bother them enough for them to strike back; by comparison, some of the first bosses you encounter will make you feel as though you really have a reason to fear for your life. The Maw, in particular, sticks out to me as a boss I had a great deal of trouble with early on, and who struck a childish fear into me every time I faced him. Everything from the level design to the menu screens looks as though its been created with loving care and to be able to enjoy a roguelike title that’s so great on the eyes really is a pleasure – too often these days, roguelike titles take their colour palette too far and it shows through in the level design: things begin to look grey and dull, and there’s often a significant lack of colour (I’m looking at you, Risk of Rain) but fortunately Ascendant stands out amongst its peers in that particular regard.
I rate Ascendant 4/5. My only real complaint I had during my time playing is a severe lack of any story or background – or at least a story that doesn’t show itself immediately or obviously. Many other recent roguelike titles such as Spelunky and Rogue Legacy at least manage to cram some semblance of a story into their platforming permadeath experiences but there seems to be a void where Ascendant’s should be. Still, there’s a lot to be enjoyed here and fans of hack n’ slash, roguelikes, or just beautiful games in general will be pleased with what Ascendant has to offer. Despite its humble beginnings in a little garage in Florida, Ascendant is beautiful, intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable. If you enjoy roguelike titles, you absolutely owe it to yourself to play this game.
Ascendant is a brawler/hack n’ slash roguelike by Hapa Games. You can head over to their Twitter and Facebook to show your support! You can buy Ascendant right now on Steam for 50% off as part of the Steam Summer Sale!