Ascendant: A Capable But Flawed Roguelike-Like
Ascendant is a 2D platformer with randomly-generated procedurally-generated levels and loot. The action is unforgiving and the plot is negligible—two things I find refreshing in a video game. Ascendant owes a lot to Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac (two other challenging Roguelike-likes). I’ve seen many procedurally-generated platformers in recent times, and it’s a trend I definitely appreciate.
Levels in Ascendant consist of a series of platforms, usually covered in spikes and always covered in enemies. Treasures are randomized and there’s never enough hearts. You’re going to die a lot while you figure out what to do, and still die a lot after that. If that doesn’t sound like an entertaining experience, avoid this game. Others should take note: Here’s a truly hard game that requires a deep understanding of every aspect of its contents. If you don’t learn the best character, items, and strategies to suit your particular preferences, you won’t even get past the Spring levels. This game is damnably hard and doesn’t care about showing you the ropes. You’re likely to get killed on the first screen that has enemies on it. After you get your bearings, enemies in later levels will probably slaughter you right away. Better reload and try again from the beginning, doing slightly better the next time. Such is the nature of the Roguelike genre and its derivatives.
Combat is deceptively complex. You can attack, jump, cast spells, and parry. Action is fast paced and enemies for the most part move quickly. You automatically teleport to nearby enemies in order to attack them (note that this does not make them easier to hit unless they’re slightly above your jump range). It’s a lot harder than it sounds. You have only a couple skills; learn to use them or die.
Enemies are individually easy, but they will dogpile on you without warning. Well, the minimap counts as a warning, but I mean that they will swarm your character and attack from all angles. Right from the start, Ascendant makes a big deal of enemies that strike from ground and air simultaneously; even the loading screen hints warn you about it. Manage these hordes or you will die right away. Learn all of their attack patterns, when to strike, when to parry, and when to run.
There’s another important aspect to combat. Press the Y button (you’re using an Xbox 360 controller, right?) to knock enemies around. This does little damage, but is hugely useful and absolutely essential at times. When you’ve staggered your enemies, you can launch them long distances to smash them into each other, bosses, spikes, etc. The game’s stifling difficulty becomes bearable once you’ve realized that knocking the enemies around is the best move in most cases.
Enemies in the roster include dumb grunts, suicide bombers, huge stone brutes, underground worms, triangular flies, and more. I appreciate the variety of foes, though some of them are utterly obnoxious. There are fire enemies in some stages that are invincible and keep attacking you even after you’ve cleared a room. What is this, Bubble Bobble punishing me for going too slowly? C’mon, let me explore.
Regular foes are hard enough, but bosses are vicious and painful. All of them except Grunty are downright antagonistic; expect to die quite a few more times while you figure out their weaknesses (often but not always knocking minions into them). Each one of them has multiple nearly-impossible-to-avoid attacks, heavy damage, and gargantuan health bars. I’ve had an easier time avoiding hits from falling rain.
There are many items to help you (and you will definitely need them unless you’re a master of parrying and know every boss pattern), but none of them are instant win buttons. While gathering material for this review, I found an item that would fire a huge laser randomly when I attacked. Sounds like a ticket to victory, right? I died on the first boss I met (The Maw) because I was careless and didn’t dodge/parry enough. I can’t overstate how unforgiving this game is.
The RNG will screw you over. If you don’t get a new weapon from one of the chests in the first two levels, you can expect to do a half or a third as much damage as you think you should be dealing. This will turn the already uber-hard bosses into near-impossible monstrosities. Unlike many Roguelike-likes that give you more cool stuff the more you play the game, all Ascendant does is give a couple of extra items available. You never obtain more stuff at the start of a game like Isaac’s d6 in The Binding of Isaac. You can get new characters (which are, to be fair, really nicely crafted), and that’s it. This game will break you.
Characters in Ascendant have great variety, with powerful benefits and drawbacks that actually hurt (Memnon’s description says he has no drawback, but I think his relative lack of blessing slots qualifies). There isn’t one that’s obviously superior to the others; each is suited to a different play style and all are useful in different situations. The big difference between characters in both gameplay and visuals is my favorite thing about this game, bar none.
Ascendant has a rad art style. Not content to rely on generic fantasy tropes, Ascendant more closely resembles a cel-shaded (and more angular) Fantasy Zone than anything I can think of offhand. It draws upon ancient Greek, Mesopotamian, Hindu, and Aztec mythology rather than the typical medieval England junk. The music is… awrite. I mostly just listened to podcasts about the Mongol Empire (speaking of things that are unbelievably hard and murderous) while playing this game. Not that Ascendant itself is a bore, but the music is unmemorable.
Matt Hobbs would hate this game. It is stern, cruel, and hair-pullingly unfair. I adore death-defying challenges but Ascendant‘s difficulty level is too much, even for me. There are several areas where it could use refinement; lower the enemy damage a tad, or reduce the need for a good sword early on, or give the player more opportunities to practice parry windows, or unlock all the characters from the start, and while it’ll still be very hard, it’d make for a much tighter experience.
I did enjoy Ascendant, but it certainly lacks polish. Still, it’s a capable first attempt. It’s not as good as The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky or even Rogue Legacy, but it’s worth it if you can tolerate the game’s SaGa-like antagonism towards the player. This game is so close to being good. Maybe a sequel or at least a future patch can plug some of the holes in its hull.
One of the game’s minor grunt enemies shows up on the corporate logo, indicating that it’s supposed to be a mascot. Let’s hope Hapa Games keeps making games and keeps getting better. Ascendant needs some improvement, but it’s a good start.