In recent years Rogue-likes have seen a resurgence brought about by indie developers. Tackling niche genres allows smaller teams to grow and prosper without having to worry about competition stemming from AAA counterparts. This paradigm shift has allowed for a wealth of growth and innovation the genre hasn’t seen in over twenty years.
Ascendant is one such example, mixing the aforementioned Rogue-like genre with a hack-and-slash side-scroller while still adding a dash or two of Metroidvania. The end result is a frustratingly addictive experience that manages to provide a very surreal and almost dreamlike experience.
With little to no story or exposition provided, players are immediately asked to choose a character from a roster of seven, though five of these will be locked at first. These remain unelectable until certain conditions or challenges have been met.
Upon choosing a character, players are introduced to the game’s world. Each level is represented as either an early or late season, creating a visually pleasing theme that changes as we progress. While Spring is easy enough for beginners, the evolution to Summer, Autumn and Winter will escalate hardships while presenting a silent storyline of our character’s journey. This coupled with the wonderfully unique and angular art style presents an almost dreamlike experience; at times it feels as if every character and object were made out of paper. Visually, Ascendant proves a unique vision can trump technical achievements any day of the week.
Each stage is laid out like a mini-Metroidvania world, the number of rooms per season remains the same, but their location, layout, enemy type and rewards vary wildly between gameplay sessions. Each room locks players inside until they are cleared of enemies, upon completing this task you’re rewarded with a chest which may contain money, healing items, keys, new weapons or permanent upgrades such as bonus melee damage or a permanent health increase.
There are also special rooms which may contain stores, chests, boons from the Gods or specific challenges, all of which feature random rewards or items. All of these will greatly aid players in their quest, with the exception of the challenges. While they hold great prizes to those who finish them, I discovered more often than not, I’d lose my character trying to reach the end of my course. At the end of each season you’re greeted to a boss fight, I was surprised to learn that even these battles vary between playthroughs. Each boss will become more difficult as the seasons progress, so it’s generally a good idea to fight the harder ones in Spring rather than Summer or Autumn.
Combat is smooth and fast paced, for the most part your main form of offense will consist of melee strikes. Alternatively, players may cast magic spells, these deplete mana though thankfully it recovers fairly quickly. Unlike most hack-and-slashes, Ascendant doesn’t rely on combos. Instead your character has to learn how to dodge, defend, counter-attack and use environmental hazards to his/her advantage. It makes for a truly unique combat system, one that doesn’t rely on attacking so much as it is based on defense and counterstrikes.
Defeating bosses and completing challenges grants you blessings, which add permanent abilities to your character depending on which God blesses you and the equipment slot it’s placed in.
Like any Rogue-like worth its salt, death means the end of your character and progress, forcing you to restart from the very beginning. Being an action game, player skill holds a great deal of importance in progressing to later levels, but the rewards, weapons and permanent boosts found will likely have the largest impact. Unfortunately, the fact these are all randomized means it’s easy to end up with an unbalanced or even underpowered character. More often than not I found myself playing a relatively strong character only to be held back by the game’s apparent stinginess in providing players with healing items.
If there is one major criticism to be had in Ascendant it would be its repetitive nature. The fact all progress is lost forces gamers to replay sections over and over again until completion. Occasional difficulty spikes will also occur, especially when certain enemies are introduced in earlier seasons. Luckily these do little to detract from the experience and some would argue heightens the immersion and enjoyment throughout the game.
Ascendant is without a doubt one of the most engaging Rogue-likes I have played. It features a unique take on combat, an otherworldly art style and a beautifully executed concept. While most casual gamers will have a hard time getting past the first two levels, veteran players will find an unapologetically punishing experience that will have them coming back for more.
Developer: Hapa Games
Publisher: Hapa Games
Release date: May 13th, 2014
Price at release: $9.99 via Steam